Chef Eric Lee stands in front of the Naples-style wood-fired oven, the centrepiece inside Academy Road's Pizzeria Gusto
Chef Eric Lee doesn't buy the whole chef-as-artist movement.
“It's not an art, it's a trade,” says Lee, Pizzeria Gusto's chef. “You can put art into it but it's a craft. It's working with your hands and it's a lot of repetitive work.”
That said, there must be something very special about the 34-year-old's repetitive work because Pizzeria Gusto was named one of Canada's top 50 restaurants in 2012 by Maclean's magazine.
The list, which also included Segovia in Winnipeg, has shone a spotlight on the normally low-key Lee.
“I like to keep a pretty low profile,” says Lee.
That's true. There are about a dozen Winnipeg chefs who are social media and public relations wizards, regularly appear on local television shows, helm fundraisers and write food columns for print and online publications.
Lee takes a more relaxed approach to the Winnipeg food scene.
The new father works about 50 hours a week. He isn't a big Tweeter and doesn't court attention.
“I have a very reasonable life but it took me a long time to get there.”
He started in the business as an 18-year-old dishwasher at Earls on Pembina Highway. The born-and-raised Winnipegger worked his way up the food chain within Earls and graduated from cooking school at Red River College.
He later worked at restaurants and hotel kitchens in Toronto, Halifax, Australia and the Bahamas before returning to Winnipeg.
“I love cooking and I love working hard. I love the fact that you can keep learning. There is always more to learn,” he says.
Lee figures he has worked at about 12 different restaurants in his 16-year career. He is done with the grueling hours and partying that is often part of the restaurant scene. Today, running a 60-seat restaurant (plus 60-seat summer patio) from within a less than 400-square-foot kitchen is enough action for Lee.
And Pizzeria Gusto offers its share of action. The restaurant pumps out about 1,200 Naples-style pizzas from its 720˚F wood-fired oven every week. The dough is made in house and has just four ingredients: water, flour, yeast and salt.
And just recently, the kitchen team has perfected gluten-free pizza dough.
Gusto also serves daily specials and the kitchen team is encouraged to come up with their own ideas and dishes every day.