Finding joy in food and art
Talia Syrie (photo from Talia Syrie)
In 1999, Israeli-born longtime Winnipegger Talia Syrie spent her summer working as a tree planter in British Columbia. Trained as a heavy diesel mechanic, she was tree planting to pay off her student loans. A month into the summer, Syrie stepped on some broken glass and injured herself. Not yet ready to leave, however, she found work in the kitchen, helping feed 90 planting staff.
“I kind of endeared myself to the kitchen staff and they let me stay on,” said Syrie. “I realized, doing that, that I really enjoyed it, really liked cooking. I came back to Winnipeg and did that for the next year or two.
“I really liked the bush-camp cooking experience, when you’re out in the middle of nowhere and you don’t have the resources available to you that a regular kitchen provides. I liked that challenge.”
With this newfound passion, Syrie started working in the catering world. Then, a friend suggested that she open her own catering business.
With that, Syrie began searching for a commercial kitchen from which to work, eventually finding a small one at a downtown hotel. The owner offered her the kitchen, as long as she also agreed to open a restaurant at the hotel.
“There wasn’t anything like that in the neighborhood, on Main and Logan,” said Syrie. “It’s now the Red Road Lodge, but it used to be the Occidental Hotel. I had grown up in the North End, where my grandfather on my father’s side had a business. Today, too, I live quite close to there (in North Point Douglas).
“It felt nice to be working in that neighborhood, I was happy to do it. I didn’t really think that anyone would come into the restaurant. I thought it was going to be mostly for show and then we’d run the catering company and have this ‘fake’ restaurant.”
When Syrie first opened the Tallest Poppy, they only had three or four tables. As it turned out, these tables were always occupied, so they had to add more. In no time, the restaurant was so busy that Syrie did not have much time for catering.
“It was very challenging at the beginning, the restaurant industry,” she said. “Having little to no restaurant experience, there was a pretty steep learning curve. It was exciting and there was a lot of fun and a lot of things were great, but, in a lot of ways, it was pretty messy.
“I always say that I’m really grateful that we started out where we did. The North End is pretty forgiving, pretty gentle with us, so we were able to make mistakes and learn things.”
After a few years, Syrie found enough time to start developing the catering part of her business, doing office lunches, barbeques and small parties. “We also cater a lot of funerals,” she said.
“I love making party sandwiches,” added Syrie. “If I could do anything, I’d probably just make party sandwiches. That would be my dream job. I like the practical nature of a lot of catering. You have a whole bunch of people and they have to eat, people working that have to be fed.”
Syrie said her primal drive to feed people has its roots in her Jewish upbringing, being taught at an early age that the only way to really show someone you care is by feeding them.
“That’s the only way that really counts,” she said. “You buy somebody a car, it doesn’t matter. If you make them soup when they’re sick, that’s how they know you actually love them.”
About three years ago, a new community marketplace, Neechi Commons, opened in the neighborhood. The owners asked Syrie for help setting up their restaurant. She agreed, as she was happy to help a worthwhile project in her neighborhood. She ran both places for awhile and, later, decided to close the Tallest Poppy.
Once the Neechi Commons restaurant Come ’n Eat was up and running, Syrie opted to move on. She returned to British Columbia to do some consulting work for a friend and then returned to Winnipeg to find a new location to reopen the Tallest Poppy.
“I was walking down Sherbrook Street with a friend one day,” said Syrie, “and, as we were passing by the Sherbrook Hotel, he said, ‘I think that’s a restaurant … I think you should check that place out.’ All the blinds were shut. My friend said it used to be a Chinese food restaurant, but that there is nothing in there now…. I called and made an appointment to come down and take a look. The rest is history, as they say.”
Syrie reopened the Tallest Poppy in its new location last September. Not knowing the neighborhood well, she did not know if her concept would be a good fit, but she has found the people to be very welcoming, generous and kind.
Wanting to give space to the arts community, Syrie has offered her restaurant walls to local artists.
“I don’t know if I support the artists or they support me,” she said. “It’s important to me to have art around me all the time. It makes me feel better. It’s kind of selfish. The Winnipeg arts scene is so exciting. I work a lot and I’m stuck in my restaurant a lot of the time. I can’t always get out to gallery openings or go to shows. It’s really convenient for me to have them come do it right at my place.”
Syrie has formed a connection with a local company that displays art in public places, called Synonym Art Consultation, and the company organizes and programs all the restaurant’s art-related happenings. This includes a residency project that brings in an artist once a month to the restaurant to create art in the restaurant, while also interacting with clientele. “They are these super people doing this wonderful work,” said Syrie. “We sort of ride on their coattails. I’m very privileged and honored that they’re willing to work with us.”
The artists are varied, and some are performers.
“They come for two to three days, generally on the weekends, and people are able to engage them, which is a lot of fun,” said Syrie. “So, regular people having breakfast can come and talk to the artist about the work they’re doing.
“The artist has an opportunity to engage a lot of people they may not normally have access to. Their work is shown in the restaurant for a month, whatever it was that they built or did.”
The Tallest Poppy also hosts an after party on the first Friday of every month for people who go from gallery opening to gallery opening, including food and an arts presentation with DJs.
“A lot of things about Winnipeg make it really hospitable for independent business,” she said. “Our economy is pretty stable and there’s a bunch of hardworking people who are generally pretty down with jumping on board if you have a good idea. If I was going to do something else, this is the only place that makes sense for me to do it.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.