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Winnipeg chef delivers Manitoba cuisine to Houston diners

Houston –

A city known for its history, ties to outer space and southern barbecue, is also home to a Winnipeg chef dishing out dozens of perogies.

“They’re really good sellers, I don’t have a lot of competition in town,” said Ryan Lachaine, owner and executive chef of Riel.

If you pass through Houston’s Montrose neighbourhood, there’s a good chance you will come across the restaurant Lachaine has operated since January 2017.

After playing for the Winnipeg South Blues in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League in the 1990s, Lachaine never dreamed of owning a restaurant, let alone serving the Ukrainian food he grew up making with his grandmother.

“If you had told me even 15 years ago, when I started cooking or was cooking as a young kid, that I’d have a restaurant and there would be perogies on the menu I would have told you you’re full of crap,” Lachaine said.

“I’m sure most of the guys that I played hockey and grew up with would tell you the same thing that this wasn’t on the bingo card for me.”

Houston currently has a population of more than 2.3 million people. The culinary arts graduate from The Art Institute of Houston, moved to the most populous Texas community in 2001 as his ex-wife was from the city.

Cooking was not his original plan to make a living when he made the long distance move down south.

“When I moved down I was going to school so I was taking business courses at the University of Houston, I didn’t really like it, I wasn’t happy so I made the decision to go to culinary school,” Lachaine said.

Before he opened Riel, Lachaine said he had the opportunity to stage in a number of restaurants across the United States. Staging refers to the chance for a chef to work for free in a restaurant with a goal to learn new techniques.

“I started at a place called Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, for a couple of months under a guy named Sean Brock, very famous chef in the South,” Lachaine said.

“I staged in New Orleans at a place called Cochon and I was in San Francisco a little bit and in Los Angeles. I didn’t know anything about Southern food, so I wanted to focus on learning about southern food and why it was happening.”

After years of experience, Lachaine felt it was time to turn his attention to opening a place of his own.

“I worked for everyone that I felt I had to work for in Houston,” Lachaine said.

“I have 12-year-old twin boys, so I wasn’t going to move to New York, move to some other city and cook. I was staying here. I think the next step for me was to go out on my own.”

In this sprawling metropolis of more than seven million people in the region, Lachaine serves a mix of Manitoba favourites like his take on bannock with a seasonal jam and two kinds of perogies; regular and truffle caviar.

Dishes like these are joined by Gulf Coast-inspired cuisine such as honey walnut crawfish and weekly oyster specials.

“It’s nice kind of introducing your own touch on things,” Lachaine said.

“After a while you kind of get enough space to do whatever you want to do.”

‘The artistry he has, that he’s infused in Houston and Canadian is absolutely magic’

Customers love the fusion of the two cuisines.

“The artistry he has, that he’s infused in Houston and Canadian is absolutely magic,” said Wesley, who has been a regular at Riel for more than two years.

“I’ve been a fan ever since. Ryan is turning to not only a person I come to patronize his establishment, but a friend. Every time I come here, I want to try something new on the menu.”

Lachaine described what the Houston restaurant landscape is like with the influence of being so close to the Gulf Coast and how it impacts him as a restaurant owner looking for new menu ideas.

“There’s a huge Vietnamese population in the Gulf Coast, we do a lot of Asian stuff this way,” Lachaine said.

“Houston’s a huge city, it’s very big and very spread out. There’s lots of room for everybody to go to do well.”

Lachaine said things have come full circle for him as a chef, from the time he was learning how to cook traditional Ukrainian dishes with his mother and grandmother to where he is now.

He gets a chance to return to Winnipeg to visit his family every few years, and was most recently here in December.

‘Every culture has a dumpling, right, it doesn’t matter if it’s Asian or Hispanic, every culture has dough with something inside’

Lachaine laughed as he said there was some education he needed to teach to his house staff as to how to make the perfect perogy and how they are similar to food from other cultures.

“Every culture has a dumpling, right, it doesn’t matter if it’s Asian or Hispanic, every culture has dough with something inside,” Lachaine said.

“It’s just our version of a dumpling, that’s how we explained it to the dining room, an Eastern European dumpling. It became kind of a staple here on the menu and you know, an important part of Riel.”

While Houston may not experience a Winnipeg winter, when the temperature drops, Lachaine has a few more favourites from home that he is ready to serve.

“When it gets cold in here, we do borscht, we do cabbage rolls, a couple of other things too,” Lachaine said.

When he’s not cooking at Riel, Lachaine takes part in serving up dishes at different festivals across Texas. Every so often, Lachaine said players from the Houston Astros will pop in for a bite to eat, and some of Houston’s hip-hop music scene are regulars.

“Willie D from the Geto Boys comes in all the time, we have a drink named after him (My Mind’s Playin Tricks On Me),” Lachaine said.

“It’s a great neighbourhood establishment that he’s a part of,” Wesley said.

“It definitely creates a homey atmosphere being in a neighbourhood that it’s in and so that’s why I keep coming back.”

Riel can be found at 1927 Fairview Street in Houston.

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