Culinary grad relishes a challenge

Thomas Stuart, Thermëa by Nordic SpaNo shirt, no pants — no problem, at Thermëa by Nordic Spa’s restaurant.

Guests can dress for lunch or dinner, but if they’d rather unwind in a fluffy bathrobe and spa slippers, that’s OK with Chef Thomas Stuart.

The 2005 graduate of Red River College’s Culinary Arts program is all about making patrons feel relaxed and comfortable, and he’s happy to massage his Scandinavian-inspired menu to satisfy eclectic appetites at the upscale eatery, whether guests are in the mood for gourmet S’mores, a vegan salad or beer-braised lamb shanks.

“Being a food service for a spa has been kind of an eye opener for me because we have people with every different expectations coming to the spa and coming to the restaurant,” he says.

“I’ll have people who just want a burger and French fries and then I’ll have another group that’s sitting at the table beside them that want a four-course table d’hôte fine dining experience, so that’s been my main challenge.”

But it’s been a fun challenge for the adventurous chef.

Stuart, 34, has been rattling pots and pans since Thermëa opened three years ago. In fact, he was hired a year before the spa’s delayed debut, so he traded his chef’s toque for a hard hat and steel-toed boots and pitched in, moving lumber, painting fences and doing other odd jobs. While the kitchen had already been designed, he got to outfit it with small appliances, whisks, spoons and other wares, and he created the menu from scratch.

He picked a good time to join the Scandinavian food movement. Restaurant Magazine has named Copenhagen’s Noma the world’s top restaurant in four of the last seven years, sparking a new global culinary wave.

“Now you can go to a bookstore and find a whole section of Scandinavian cookbooks, which is something that 10 years ago you wouldn’t have been able to do,” Stuart says. “So it’s kind of a fun time to be able to do that and get inspired by a growing trend and contribute to it.”

Many of the same natural ingredients are available locally — in the wild, chanterelle mushrooms and blueberries are native to both Manitoba and Scandinavia — and Stuart incorporates “seafood of the Prairies” like pickerel and trout, along with Saskatoon berries, bison and other local fare.

“Rather than shipping in some crazy ingredients, I’m using local ingredients and spinning them in a Scandinavian way,” he says.

Thomas Stuart, Thermëa by Nordic Spa restaurant“But I can only take it so far. I’m trying to push the guests in that direction but you have people who would be out of their comfort zone and I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable because our whole business is making them feel relaxed. It’s a fine balance.

“When we introduced our Manitoba bison carpaccio dish it was a bit of a harder sell at the beginning, but once people tried it it’s really been selling pretty well.”

Stuart says he’s always enjoyed “playing” with food, and he was inspired to up his game after he started working at Winnipeg’s now-defunct Bread & Circuses Bakery Café while still in high school.

“It was the first place I really saw them making everything from scratch. They would grind their own grain to make their bread and so it was just seeing things come from the very basic product to an amazing loaf of bread.”

Later, when he and a friend spent a couple of months backpacking in Europe, they earned their bed-and-board working at a hostel in the south of France, where they enjoyed a view of the Mediterranean Sea, along with a nightly feast of fresh seafood prepared by the hostel’s grizzled old chef.

“For him it was just a cheap meal. For us Prairie boys from Canada it was this magic culinary experience,” he says.

“And I came back and I tried traditional university, I tried a couple of courses and it just didn’t feel right to me … so Plan B was to try the Culinary program at Red River and I loved it, it was great.

“It felt more ‘me’ — it felt like what school should be for how I learn. It really clicked with me and I loved it.”

After he graduated from the program, Stuart went to work at Fude in Osborne Village. Within two years he was running the kitchen, so he already felt like a well-seasoned veteran by the time he joined Thermëa seven years later.

While there are a few fresh vegetable purees on the spa menu, Stuart expects to expand his repertoire on that front now that he and his wife Kate have welcomed their first child, son Oliver, who was born in July. And as always, he can lean on his culinary foundation to give his recipes a fresh twist.

“I rely on the lessons that I had at Red River on a daily basis. The chefs that I learned from there really encouraged taking great notes, and they had amazing handouts and I refer back to them still,” he says.

“I think it’s really important that those lessons they taught me continue to be lessons that I teach my cooks. My main goal here is to foster an atmosphere of learning for all my staff, so I really feel like I get to pass the torch on to some of the cooks and teach the same lessons that I was taught at school.”

— Profile by Pat St. Germain (Creative Communications, 1989)