Östen Rice (Culinary Arts, 2001)

Profile by Matthew TenBruggencate, second-year Creative Communications.

There are three slices of butterfish lying across each other on the plate, their edges stained purple by beet juice. A small golden hill of julienned apple and beet rises nearby. The dish is framed by asparagus stalks, cucumber, a taro crisp anchored in brilliant orange roe and a pool of wasabi mayonnaise.

It looks like a modern sculpture. With its combination of Scandinavian fish curing and Japanese sensibilities, it’s a meeting of two cultures.

And it’s the dish that just won RRC alum Chef Östen Rice (Culinary Arts, 2001) the Winnipeg Gold Medal Plate, earning him a spot at the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna next year.

“That dish was very personal for me, it goes back to my heritage,” Rice says, on a break from meal rushes at Wasabi Sabi. “My mom is from Sweden. She cooked the way her mother taught her, the way her grandmother taught her and so on. I came across some old recipe books and they inspired me for this dish.”

“I realized a while ago that Japanese and Scandinavian food can work well together. The cultures have the same clean aesthetic and presentation style to them – and lots of emotion swirling around them.”

Rice’s distinctive style – his Scandinasian flair – and his recent award are both accomplishments with years of experience behind them. The 31-year-old Winnipegger, born and raised in Fort Rouge, knew from an early age that he wanted to be a chef.

“As far back as I can I remember, I was always interested in food. My mom cooked food from scratch and I was always hanging around. I think there are pictures of me as a toddler trying to help.”

At 14, Rice decided to be a chef, years before cooking networks and reality shows popularized the calling. Several entry-level positions gave him a taste of the industry, the work hours and the sacrifices. At the end of high school, under the advice of industry friends, he signed up for the Culinary Arts program at Red River College.

“I was told to sign up early because of the waiting list – as soon as I could. And I thought it was great; it built a solid foundation and really gave me all the tools necessary to grow from there.”

Rice’s career path after school has taken him to a variety of kitchens across the country, brought him under the wings of world famous chefs and given him unforgettable projects to stretch his artistic skills on – from overseeing meals for Bill Clinton and Prince Edward to consulting on Winnipeg’s very first Unburger restaurant.  Through it all, even the low times when burn out threatened to drive him away from the industry, Rice has been motivated by the total experience food provides.

“For me, I’ve always found food to be incredibly artistic. When you design dishes, you’re creating art that stimulates so many senses: sight, smell, touch and taste. You can design that entire experience for a customer from start to finish and I just kept pursuing that.”

The career does have its sacrifices; long days filled with intense meal rushes; evenings, weekends and holidays usually written off as chances to get away. Rice says that while he’s become accustomed to the job and the price chefs pay, others aren’t always as understanding.

Chef Rice’s Gold Medal Plate-winning dish.

“They don’t always see the rewards that I see and the passion that I feel. Some friends over the years have been upset that I couldn’t attend something or that I wasn’t available enough, but I had to put my foot down and say, ‘This is what drives me.’”

A lot of people have been coming to see Rice now, offering congratulations for his prestigious win. The night is still on his mind; affirmation for a hard self-critic that he’s producing exceptional work.

“It was pretty exciting, a bit euphoric. I obviously gave it my all. And man, it was nerve-wracking; an hour after the event, they were still doing silent auctions and I was waiting to hear the verdict.”

“Then they called the bronze, then the silver and the tension was building. I didn’t actually hear my name called, I heard the name of the wine the meal was paired with and then there was a bunch of screaming,” Rice smiles.

Now the culinary guru is preparing for nationals while also looking at ways to achieve his ultimate goal: opening his own restaurant. He also has advice for the current crop of culinary students – stick with it.

“If it’s something you really want to do, then know that it’s a very long road. There’s a few times where I was pretty burnt out and ready to give up, so it’s about perseverance.”

Click here to see Rice’s personal website, and here for more information on the Culinary Arts program at Red River College.