Polar Bear Blog

The Next Generation of Arctic Chefs

Karli Friesen (Reimer) and Zach Friesen. Karli spent 5 years as Head Chef at Churchill Wild.
Karli Friesen (Reimer) and Zach Friesen. Karli spent five years as Head Chef at Churchill Wild.

by Vanessa Desorcy, Marketing Manager

Continued from Part 1: The Unlikely Evolution of Arctic Cuisine

Like her mother Helen Webber, Jeanne Reimer took up the role of lodge chef out of necessity when she and husband Mike purchased Seal River Heritage Lodge and started hosting guests. Thanks to Helen and Marie’s earlier work in the kitchen, the Churchill Wild culinary experience was teed up for success from Day One.

Growing up, Jeanne gained a lot of exposure to cooking and baking. From an early age, she helped in the kitchens at North Knife Lake Lodge and Dymond Lake Ecolodge, baking buns and cookies and serving guests.

Back when Bill Erickson originally promoted Jeanne from office administrator to cook at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, he did so because their guests that summer consisted mainly of university students who, as Jeanne said, “didn’t have the most discerning palates.” Little did he know that Jeanne would grow up to lead, train and oversee culinary staff at three remote ecolodges.

“We did what needed to be done, because it needed to be done,” Jeanne said matter-of-factly, “not necessarily because we were great at it.”

Anyone who has had the pleasure of tasting one of Jeanne’s preparations over the past 25 years would never pass up a chance to dine at her table now. The days of “not being great at it” are long gone.

In 1994, when Mike and Jeanne opened Seal River Heritage Lodge to guests, Jeanne knew she had amassed enough experience to cook well for their visitors. She did not, however, have the experience to know when she needed help. This resulted in a somewhat urgent call to Helen (aka good ol’ mom) at North Knife Lake Lodge one summer with a request to lend some of her kitchen staff to Seal River.

Jeanne spent 15 years as Seal River Heritage Lodge head chef, but in 2009 guest numbers at Churchill Wild started rising and it became difficult to stay in this role. New ecolodges were being opened and she had to take a step back from the frontlines to focus on managing the growing number of staff coming and going from each lodge throughout the season. Jeanne still enjoys jumping in to help in the kitchen, but these days her role consists primarily of procuring groceries, guiding menu-planning and overseeing kitchen and housekeeping staff. It’s 24/7.

Does she miss being in the kitchen? Sometimes. “You start in the morning and work hard all day. But after taking out meat for the next day, you think to yourself, ‘I’m done for today!’” said Jeanne with a smile. “There’s a real satisfaction in that.”

In the same way that Helen helped created a roadmap for Jeanne, Jeanne paved the way for her second eldest daughter, Karli (Friesen), to become a third-generation chef specializing in Arctic cuisine.

Early days at Churchill Wild. Jeanne Reimer and daughters in the kitchen.
Early days at Churchill Wild. Jeanne Reimer and her daughters in the kitchen.

Like her mother, Karli got an early start in the kitchen. By the age of 10, she (and all the Webber grandchildren) were put to work baking cookies and shaping buns. In 2008, at the age of 16, she was working at Seal River Heritage Lodge as the head server/cleaner. She quickly realized this wasn’t the path for her and approached the head chef that year, Dave Schellenberg, to ask if she could get a taste of life in the kitchen.

Dave started Karli with plating desserts and making salads, and the next year she returned to the lodge as an assistant chef. When Dave moved on to other opportunities, Karli jokingly said to Jeanne, “Well I guess I’ll move up to head chef then!” Jeanne took her up on her offer and at 18, Karli became responsible for overseeing the bustling kitchen at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Under Jeanne’s guidance, Karli spent five years in the role of head chef, learning about menu planning, ordering groceries and producing delicious meals for guests.

Jeanne imparted her discerning standards to Karli and strives to do the same for all the new staff who pass through our kitchens. It can be difficult, however, to manage the staff and inventory for three kitchens, all of which are a plane ride away from each other. Add to that the challenge of hosting an increasing number of guests with dietary restrictions and food allergies, and you’ve got a puzzle not many would want to tackle. Today, Jeanne and Karli are developing a comprehensive set of standards for our ever-expanding culinary team.

“New chefs come in with their own talents and experience,” said Jeanne. “I want to take advantage of that, while maintaining the signature culinary experience we’ve become known for and respecting the individual preferences of our guests. We want visitors to feel like they’re being welcomed into our home when they sit down to a meal.”

Jalapeño Goose Breasts Suprême. Ian McCausland photo. Click image for recipe.
Jalapeño Goose Breasts Suprême. Ian McCausland photo. Click image for recipe.

These standards help new chefs navigate the foreign waters of cooking in extremely remote locations.

“In typical restaurants, chefs are trained to work quickly,” explained Jeanne. “Which means there is a lot of waste in their kitchens.” In a remote ecolodge, where the nearest grocery store is hundreds of kilometres away and the nearest garden or greenhouse is more than 1,000 kilometres away, you “use what you’ve got, and use it all.”

Often, suppliers need a reminder of how tenuous the grocery situation is in northern Manitoba. Karli recalls an order to a new supplier that included bananas, but by the time they arrived at the lodge, they were so beaten up they were barely good enough for banana bread. She sent a note to the supplier, gently asking them to be more cautious in the future. The next time bananas showed up “they were wrapped in enough layers of brown paper to cradle a newborn baby.”

Wilderness lodge cuisine is inherently challenging. Crazy things can happen — like when the train car carrying your groceries catches fire and you have to go without fresh produce for a few days, or a box of cheese and butter doesn’t get loaded on the plane before it leaves Churchill, bound for the lodge. As a result, there’s always a “Plan B” when it comes to dishes involving fresh ingredients such as produce and dairy. Jeanne cautions that the best way to avoid having to haul out your backup plan is to “shop first and plan your meals second, after you’ve got your groceries in hand.”

It’s hard to believe we’re at the point where our operation requires a manual for new chefs, but this latest project will help us maintain the high standard of “Arctic gourmet cuisine” we’ve become renowned for.

The essence of our culinary experience has always consisted of a few key ingredients: a mix of “tundra to table” and traditional entrees paired with select Canadian wines; desserts bursting with berries harvested from the bountiful landscape of the Hudson Bay coast; and as many fresh and local ingredients as can be sourced.

All meals are made on-site, from scratch and infused with a genuine desire to take the Churchill Wild experience from amazing to over-the-top. There’s a reason guests leave complaining that their pants are too tight: our recipes have been tweaked to delicious perfection throughout the last half a century.

Plus, you just can’t say no to Wild Arctic Cranberry Cake with Warm Butter Sauce.

Wild Arctic Cranberry Cake with Warm Butter Sauce. Ian McCausland photo. Click image for recipe.
Wild Arctic Cranberry Cake with Warm Butter Sauce. Ian McCausland photo. Click image for recipe.

This story originally appeared in our Churchill Wild 25th Anniversary Book, Churchill Wild — 25 Years of Adventure on the Hudson Bay Coast, which is now available online at McNally Robinson Booksellers and at our head office. There are also a limited number of copies available at our lodges from July through November, during our polar bear walking safaris. For more information please call 1.866.UGO.WILD (846.9453) or email info@churchillwild.com.

Churchill Wild 25th Anniversary Book. Now available online at McNally Robinson Booksellers.
Churchill Wild 25th Anniversary Book. Now available online at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

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