Winnipeg’s cocktail queen is perched on some of the city’s best patios
At just 26, Elsa Taylor now presides over three of Winnipeg’s highest-rated culinary establishments
In 2015, when Ike Hedenstierna, Caiden Bircham, chef Sean Bernard and Elsa Taylor opened up The Roost on Corydon they had just entered their 20s (with the exception of Bernard, who was 28) and only had a few years of corporate restaurant experience.
Five years later The Roost is perhaps the hottest cocktails and small plates destination in Winnipeg, a place with national accolades and a steady line of patrons willing to wait two or three hours for one of its coveted second floor patio seats during the pandemic. (They don’t take resos, so when the 25 social distance patio seats fill they start taking names/numbers at the door).
In 2018, Hedenstierna, Bircham and Bernard also opened The Oxbow Natural Wine Bar & Restaurant with Lucien (Luke) Joyal (a sommelier who is currently also working at The Roost; The Oxbow is set to reopen in the fall with a new rooftop patio), which made Air Canada’s enRoute long list for Canada’s Best New Restaurants.
Taylor joined them as a co-owner during the pandemic, while this month it was announced this Roost/Oxbow team - which also includes chef Andrew Koropatnick, also now a co-owner – have taken over Forth Bar, which has been at top spot for drinks since it opened in 2016. (There’s also a silent partner/investor who is friends with the owner of Forth, which is how this crew has now stepped in to manage it, while another small partner at Oxbow is farmer Will Bergmann, who supplies the restaurants with much of their produce.)
Because of all this Taylor, who is the main mixologist of the bunch, now finds herself with a hand in three of Winnipeg’s most-acclaimed spots for drinks and small plates.
Below, she dishes on how they have made things work over the years, what she loves about the Winnipeg culinary scene (particularly the West End!), who she looks up to, and of course, those charming menus.
Did you anticipate The Roost being as successful as it is?
I had no clue how it was going to go, but we were young and stupid enough to be naïve enough to think we could do an okay job. And we were just very fortunate that there was something about our lack of experience, and something about what we were doing that somehow worked for people. We were able to learn and become more skilled as the years progressed. Honestly, I feel like we learned everything the hard way and made all the mistakes we can make.
Mistakes like which? What were the setbacks?
There’s been nothing grievous – nothing horrible has happened. I can only speak to my personal experience, but I had no experience being in a managerial position, no experience being in an ownership experience, no experience with many things being 21, and I think I defaulted to personalizing everything.
It was very personal who we got to come work with us, including our friends, or the way I made the menus, or the way I conducted myself with guests… and I think that’s part of the charm maybe, but it made for an emotionally fraught couple of years. I felt like if it weren’t to work then it would be a fundamental character flaw on my part or something. Because it feels very much like our living room and the menu feels like a diary to me – it’s very personal. So I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but I get caught up internalizing every guest interaction, every moment. Every high, every low. So that’s put me through the ringer a couple times.
But I think that’s why people love this place… all your whimsical and precious touches so to speak? [Note: Taylor draws all the menus at The Roost and they are charming works of art that patrons continually adore.]
Yes, I’m so happy that that works for enough people. I love making the menus; even when I was 13 I would draft up menus and draw layouts of restaurants and imagine special events that I would plan. I was always playing make-believe about things like that. And that’s just naturally how I began to conduct myself when I found myself here and partnered with the guys to be the, I guess I’d say “face” of the establishment.
What about the Forth Bar, will you be making changes there?
I’m super excited, but it just reopened so you have to ask me in a month. It’s always been one of my absolute favourite places to get a drink and what the staff has created there is really strong and I’m just really lucky to be able to be a part of it now. I don’t want to go in and change anything and I don’t have any plans on doing that. I really respect who they are and what they do.
The only changes I would want to make are broadening the food program for the bar. Because I love their cocktails and the staff is great; so it’s still Forth Bar, the place it has always been.
Basically my only concern is conducting myself in a way that honours what they have created.
[Note: Taylor’s jurisdiction at Forth will just be the bar, not the café side of the operation.]
What are some of your favourite spots in the city?
Obviously, Forth – that’s always been my favourite nightcap spot. Having lived in the Exchange District for a while that was always the spot. I really love the Palm Room [in the Fort Garry Hotel] for a drink – I love how they play live music. I love Times Change(d).
In terms of dining, I love Close Company – I think they are fantastic, everything they do there. Also Sous Sol, I know right now they are super busy too and when we have a big of a lineup [of people to call waiting to get a table] we always well send people there.
Of course, Clementine too.
I had a really great meal at Yujiro the other night – and it was the first time I’d been and it was so wonderful, I was so impressed.
I feel like [in Winnipeg] we are so lucky because we have some incredible spots. For Ethiopian food I love Gohe – but there are so many good ones. I love Pho No. 1., Lin Lan Grocery… my parents live in the West End so I go there often. Oh, and Sargent Taco! Oh my god it is so incredible!
And oh, I have to mention Harth. It’s truly a destination place but it’s so good.
Who do you look up to in the culinary world?
One of my industry idols is Jen Agg… I love her book and her restaurants… most of her restaurants are some of my favourite restaurants the world.
Some local people include Talia [Syrie] of The Tallest Poppy – I love that place, I love what she does and I love her passion for community, that place is such an institution. Carolina [Konrad] from Segovia and Clementine; she’s a powerhouse and I really look up to her.
Honestly there’s a lot of local people I really admire. I am very turned inward to Winnipeg and I don’t think about people in a lot of other places – I try not to be comparative.
What do you think will come for you and the crew in the next five years?
Right now, we are just all taking it day by day. We do want to have places that are safe, that people love, where staff are happy to work at and guests are happy to sit at.
Now I feel like I’ve been able to nurture The Roost like it’s my baby and I have this wonderful relationship with it and I want other people to have experiences like that too. I feel like I’m gradually moving to a mindset of thinking, “how can all these other people – who are just as keen as I was, who are so incredibly talented – how can I facilitate their thing, their passion project?"
I think we are collectively thinking about that too. We want to provide opportunities to people to keep the babies safe.
The Roost on Corydon is open daily 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. No reservations, but they will gladly take your name at the door and call you when your table is open. Forth Bar is open Tuesday to Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight; Friday to Saturday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. The Oxbow will reopen in the fall with a new rooftop patio.
This interview has been edited for formatting purposes and length.