May, 2015 / Author:

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Alia Syrie | Photos by Duncan McNairnay

This last half century has seen the climb of chefs to revered celebrities. Everywhere we turn, television shows are exploiting culinary creativity, charities are utilizing chefs as incentives for the public to shell out brown and red bills, food critics are stating their names as more important details than the address of the restaurant; these all serve to elevate the noble chef.

Who these chefs truly are often remains a mystery, as they are more comfortable in the kitchen where skills are learned through repetition and an adventurous spirit. Successful chefs are dedicated to their craft, their art and they are part of a business sector that knows more failures than success, feeding our appetite to discover those who do succeed.

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Talia Syrie, owner and chef at The Tallest Poppy, is stable in her status among Winnipeg’s top chefs—an odd placement as brunch specialists are rarely found on the same list as top bistro or tapas chefs. Nonetheless, there she is.

The sheer aesthetic of the restaurant is obvious insight into the person who sits at its centre. First, one must know that The Tallest Poppy sits in the Sherbrook Inn, at the heart of a neighbourhood that has seen many new worthy ventures of late. The renovated space pays tribute to the 1950s, the era when it probably was built, but allows a contemporary claim to the space.

The furniture is eclectic and mostly consists of reclaimed orphans of table sets and light fixtures no longer wanted in homes. They are welcomed here in their original form and valued because they stand alone as unique pieces—given a chance to be appreciated by those who sit down for a meal. This is equally true of the guests of the The Tallest Poppy.

The decor gives a first offering of how Syrie’s philosophy influences the space. When talking about food she is quick to recount that as kids, people were often told to not complain about what was found on their plate, that people should be thankful for what is offered to them and for the efforts of those who presented it. These phrases put the emphasis on the hard work that goes into preparing food and not the decor of the room in which the food is eaten. Nonetheless, attached to this notion is that, as kids, there is no room for accommodations.

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Where most clients coming into a restaurant seem to have limitless lists of desired menu accommodations, at The Tallest Poppy the menu is more likely to change because the chef must adapt according to what elements are currently at hand. This cultivates a culture of trust. We, as clients, place trust in the chef that they will offer the best of what they know and have. This culture might also stem from the unlikely genius of Syrie’s path to becoming a chef.

The decor gives a first offering of how Syrie’s philosophy influences the space.

In her early 20s, she took to the woods as a tree planter in search herself. She was not motivated to out-plant her newfound friends, as the allure of 10 cents, 10 cents, 10 cents, was not the rhythmic calling that kept her here. Rather it was the people, the conversation and the spirit of the place. This combination is both filled with opportunities and traps. A misplaced and broken beer bottle rendered her unable to plant and she thought she would need to pack up and go back home. Not ready to leave, she found another way to be part of the camp; she was offered an opportunity as a baker for the camp. Self-admittedly not the best baker, the experience was positive enough for her to return for a second season, this time as cook. Far from the food critics, tree planters eat what they get because, as one of Syrie’s old tree-planting era shirts says, “If you don’t like the food, try the restaurant down the street.” Cheeky humour, but defiant among a group prone to not conform. If one pokes the beast, one best be able to deliver.

Syrie took her appetite for temporary societies and seeking new experiences to Burning Man, a festival in the middle of a desert in Nevada. This might be the ultimate challenge of gourmet field kitchen. There is a finite amount of everything: ingredients, water, electricity, etc. What chefs can make is based on what they can schlep into the desert—an experience she now recreates by offering brunches in the midst of winter on a frozen river as part of the regularly invited chefs of RAW Almond. The philosophy spread to her more conventional setting and venue in her restaurant on Sherbrook Street in Winnipeg’s Wolseley district.

Even though countless hours are spent feeding guests, she is not alone. She invites the creative members of the community to claim the space. For example, The Tallest Poppy not only lets artists from Synonym Art Consultation hang their work, but the restaurant also houses an artist-in-residence program. It’s a space to create, but also a space where artists are fed and provided libation to fuel creativity.

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Once a month it’s also home to the Queer People of Colour (QPOC), who host a ladies’ night the first Saturday of every month. These events might be so that Syrie doesn’t feel distanced from what’s happening in her community, but it’s also so that the community can have a small venue where they are free to create their desired reality, as was the case in the Canadian wilderness, as was the case in a Nevada desert.

As the restaurant is buzzing, Syrie is at the centre of patrons wanting to say “hi.” Staff approach her with endless questions that need immediate answers. As the demands of this brunch service are balanced with the demands of tomorrow’s, Syrie glides through it all with habit.

A chef learns their skills through repetition, but the great ones learn through sustained adaptability. There is no
doubt these are both qualities attributable to Syrie. But it’s also apparent that she gets excited to cook a meal, a real meal—one that is meant to be shared among friends.

One can’t help but feel the imprint of that philosophy when entering The Tallest Poppy, which explains why guests seek a few moments of Syrie’s time, not because she is a celebrity, but because we know she is offering the best of what she has so that we may enjoy a quality meal.


–Eric Plamondon is a Winnipeg- based freelance writer.

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