As part of the Canada 150 celebrations happening this year, we’ll be exploring Canadian food from coast to coast all year long. In our Canada’s Chefs series, Tiffany Mayer will be profiling Canadian Chefs from every province embracing Canadian cuisine. This month she interviews Chef Garrett "Rusty" Thienes who combines big city flavour with small town hospitality at Harvest Eatery & Fresh Market in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan.

Chef Garrett Thienes of Harvest Eatery and Fresh Market
All images courtesy of Tourism Saskatchewan

It’s Wednesday morning and chef Garrett “Rusty” Thienes is Swift Current-bound to run errands.

On his to-do list: buy beer at Black Ridge Brewery and stop at Walmart to pick up a few toiletries. Then it’s time to think about dinner. Thienes, 38, likely has another busy night ahead of him at Harvest Eatery & Fresh Market, the restaurant he and his wife Kristy own and operate in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Shaunavon, Saskatchewan.

One thing he won’t bring back with him from any big box store, however, is ingredients for the evening’s menu he’ll prepare at Harvest. Instead, he relies on the ranchers, fresh water fishers, gardeners and farmers in his corner of southwest Saskatchewan to stock his kitchen and inspire his dishes.

Thienes’s reasons for supporting and serving local in his 40-seat, open-concept dining room are more than smart marketing. Like so many from the Land of Living Skies, Thienes is proud of where he’s from. Unlike so many from his corner of Canada, however, he’s loud about it. It’s his attempt to reboot the overly modest ways of a province that gets an unfair rap as boring and best avoided.

“As a chef, to look at it, there is this bounty here that is untouched,” Thienes says. “There’s a lot of nice things we have here, and maybe we need to put humility aside and say ‘Hey, this is a great province and we have great things here.’ ”

Thienes is happy to be the ambassador to do that with plates of veal sweetbread beignets or cured Lake Diefenbaker trout on bacon beurre blanc with roasted jalapeno and cucumber foam, pickled watermelon radish and red fife banock crumble. He’s intent on “pressing the boundaries of Saskatchewan food and ingredients, and Canadian food in general.”

Harvest’s tagline is big city flavour, small town hospitality. It’s catchy but it’s true.

Thienes cut his teeth in kitchens in Calgary — “Every young guy in Saskatchewan bailed in the 1990s and went to Calgary.” He worked at Metropolitan Grill on 17th Avenue as an expediter, the last line of defence between diner and kitchen.

It was on him to make sure every plate was perfect before it was served and he took his role seriously.

“I didn’t care what it was. If it was a plate of wings, I wanted it to be perfect.”

He then moved to front of house and hated it, trading serving for selling shoes.

Ryan Clark, Thienes’s roommate at the time and sous-chef at Saltlik Steakhouse, beckoned him back to restaurant work, this time to the kitchen, with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“They said, ‘Yeah, if you can do dishes, you can come in and work,’ ” Thienes recalls. “They weren’t giving me an in because I was their friend. I still had to earn it.”

He was 20 at the time and an eager understudy. Thienes learned what he could from the others in the kitchen and what they didn’t teach him, he taught himself with cookbooks. Within nine months after washing his first dish Thienes worked his way to assistant night sous-chef before taking over the full sous role when Clark left to raise his family in Kamloops.

Thienes was enamoured with kitchen life. The energy and passion of his coworkers were infectious. He adored the good days as much as the bad — especially the bad. That’s when learned the most, he recalls.

“I worked with chefs who gave a damn about what they were doing. When they dropped the hammer, it was out of concern for the guests,” Thienes says. “It’s tough not to respect that and want to mimic it.”

Thienes carved out a solid career, cooking in Calgary for 15 years. But he was determined to really forge a living in Shaunavon so he could show his gratitude to the village that raised him by feeding its residents.

“These are the people who watched me grow up. I wanted to give back to the community that shaped me,” he explains. “When we moved to Shaunavon, we thought maybe we could show young people some opportunities…. You can be a chef or a rancher or an artist. You can be proud of your surroundings and where you’re from.”

Garrett Thienes of Harvest Eatery and Fresh Market | Food Bloggers of Canada
All images courtesy of Tourism Saskatchewan

More recently, Thienes showed how much of a calling card Harvest was for getting off the Trans Canada and venturing deep into the Saskatchewan’s rural municipalities — RM’s to the locals — when he stepped to the top of the podium at Gold Medal Plates in Regina.

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Thienes edged out the competition last fall with a wild boar tenderloin, done over cold applewood smoke with a sage and morel crust. It was made quintessentially Saskatchewan with the addition of Saskatoon berry foam, and a long list of supporting accompaniments that brought punchiness to fall’s rich flavours.

Being from a landlocked province did put Thienes at a disadvantage when he went on to represent Saskatchewan at the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna a few months later. A piece of salt cod in his black box during the mystery ingredient challenge would be his downfall, winding up a “salt brick on judges’ plates.”

“I’ve had nightmares since January,” he says with a laugh. “I wake up and say, ‘Salt cod!’ We rolled the dice and took some risks. We picked up a lot of little tricks. That’s one of the beauties of the industry. You’re constantly learning.”

Thienes devours every bit of culinary knowledge he can, reading and trying his hand at everything from age-old fermentation to modern molecular gastronomy, to trying to understand the mysteries of dried, cured ocean fish.

He’s made a name for his hometown in the process. Harvest is as much a landmark in Shaunavon as the old Wheat Pool grain elevators. People come from Regina more than three hours away, Saskatoon, Medicine Hat, Montana, Germany and Italy to eat Thienes’s food.

He isn’t just filling bellies, though. He’s helping to build up Shaunavon with every bowl of red cabbage gazpacho served with grainy dijon mustard ice cream and pancetta chips.

“They used to say with restaurants, ‘Location, location, location.’ With restaurants, if you’re making a great product, people will travel to eat there,” Thienes says. “People are re-routing to come through Shaunavon and it’s helping other businesses in town. There’s a spin-off effect. We’re not taking credit for it, we’re just happy to make a living in my hometown.”

Still, cooking regionally and seasonally in small-town Saskatchewan has its drawbacks. The labour pool is smaller but this is Saskatchewan, so people skills run deep no matter how small the centre.

“When someone comes in, we find out where they’re from and what’s their story. It’s sincere. We joke people in Saskatchewan have no filter but they’re sincere,” Thienes says. “It’s one of the best things about this province.”

Shipping is also expensive, so no one will ever see filet mignon on the menu day after day. Thienes’s connections to local growers and his creativity make up for it. He’ll buy whole animals from local ranchers and turn all parts into a must-have meal.

Garrett Thienes of Harvest Eatery and Fresh Market | Food Bloggers of Canada
All images courtesy of Tourism Saskatchewan

Rent is cheaper in Shaunavon than Regina or Saskatoon, too, which meant it wasn’t too much of a gamble when he and Kristy opened Harvest three years ago. They figured feeding 30 people a night in a town of 1,700 was doable and certainly enough to make it.

Their wager worked out, and then some. Thienes and his staff cook for 150 people some nights — a number that would make Harvest the envy of eateries in the country’s biggest metropolises.

And one that shows you don’t need to be in a big city to have big impact.

“We want to do this for the next 20 years,” Thienes says. “If it makes us happy and we’re making others happy, that’s what we want to do.”

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Canada’s Chefs is written by Tiffany Mayer, a freelance journalist and author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty (History Press, 2014). She blogs about food and farming at eatingniagara.com. You can also listen to her newly launched food podcast, Grub.

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