A History of Culinary Research at RRC Polytech

A retrospective by Founding Director Mavis McRae

The idea for a culinary research program at RRC Polytech started with a 45-page plan commissioned by Ray Hoemsen, Executive Director, Research Partnerships & Innovation (RPI) in 2012 and researched and written by Susan St. George. The document contained a thorough overview of food research programs across Canada and a specific review of the needs in Manitoba. Programs existed in Eastern Canada at Holland College, Niagara College and George Brown College. These were all NSERC-funded Technology Access Centres (TACs) housed within culinary schools for the purpose of working with industry on product development. The model existed – just not in Western Canada. The recipe provided by our research plan listed all the ingredients we needed to cook up a uniquely made-in-Manitoba solution for culinary research and innovation.

When we began to implement the plan, we had a blank canvas. Although we had no assigned chefs or staff, no programs, and only one project, what we did have was access to RRC Polytech’s new School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts at the recently renovated Paterson GlobalFoods Institute in downtown Winnipeg, along with the talented and creative instructor pool. We also had a long and successful history of research at the College with two existing Technology Access Centres, and active research programming led by a small but mighty Research Partnerships & Innovation team. And there was me, a consultant with a background in food science and entrepreneurship with twenty-odd years of food industry contacts to lean on, and excited to build something new for the food entrepreneurship and manufacturing community. Together, we set into the unknown the way any true researcher would: by formulating a hypothesis for what might work, devising a research plan, experimenting, and building on the results.

Eight years and over eight million dollars in investments later, Prairie Research Kitchen has proven that a successful culinary-based food research program in Manitoba is possible. More than that, it’s proven to be a colossal hit with our community.

This book outlines the recipe for success that went into building this research program, from all the federal and provincial funding that fueled our programing, infrastructure, and collaborations, to all the hard work, expertise and resources from RRC Polytech, our research partners, and our staff.

Reviewing our history allows us to highlight our innovations, celebrate our successes, and look ahead to the future of food research. But the best part of culinary research is, of course, all the great food we helped create. Food is meant to be shared, and this book is an opportunity to showcase food products and ingredients we are proud to have played a part in developing or demonstrating their benefits over the past eight years.

Moving RRC Polytech’s Hospitality and Culinary Programs Downtown (2011-2014)

Paterson GlobalFoods Institute lives in what is historically known as the Union Bank/Royal Bank Building, western Canada’s oldest skyscraper. An example of the Chicago architecture school, the building was constructed in 1903-1904 using steel framing, which was new technology at the time.

When RRC Polytechnic undertook its reconstruction in 2009, the building had been abandoned for almost 20 years. The two-story attic which begins on the 11th floor and now houses PRK is adorned with a decorative terra cotta frieze and porthole windows beneath an overhanging cornice designed by original architects Darling and Pearson. During construction of the research kitchen, the building’s steel I-beams were left exposed as part of a new skylight opening, flooding the space with natural light and transforming the venerable building’s bones into a design feature that celebrates its past and present.

The building reopened in 2013. The total construction cost of $27 million was supported by the Government of Canada, Province of Manitoba, City of Winnipeg/Centreventure, and Paterson GlobalFoods/The Paterson Foundation.

This part of our history starts with Ray Hoemsen. It was his vision to bring a concept developed in Eastern Canada to the Prairies.

“The idea for a culinary-related applied research program first emerged over a decade ago. Applied Research at the College was off to a good start and laid the foundation for a new initiative to further support economic development in the community. The restoration of the Royal Bank/Union Bank Tower as the Paterson GlobalFoods Institute, coupled with the College’s culinary-related academic programs, were the key ingredients to developing an applied research program bringing together the culinary arts with food science and technology.

“When we came up with the plan to bring culinary research to Manitoba, there were around 13,000 Manitobans working in food manufacturing, and the industry was contributing over $4 billion in sales. Since then, those numbers have only grown, and agri-processing now accounts for $6.3 billion in sales – a clear indication of this industry’s importance to our province’s economic growth. What drove our success was our commitment to making new food products that aren’t just healthy or innovative – they taste great to consumers, too.”

The initial investment that kicked off our program came from a $2 million grant from Western Economic Diversification (now PrairiesCan) “toward the acquisition of modern food service equipment and installations to enable the development of an applied research program in food technology related to the culinary arts.”

Our applied research program began with five priorities:

  1. New product and process development
  2. Technology transfer to industry and organizations
  3. Commercialization of new and re-branded products
  4. Raising awareness of Manitoba’s food and beverage industry
  5. Enriching the experience and capabilities of tomorrow’s culinary research graduates

Paterson GlobalFoods Institute (PGI) officially opened February 2013. The facility provided a new space and state-of-the-art facilities for students enrolled in programs in RRC Polytech’s School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts. It also featured a Culinary Exchange café and Jane’s Restaurant, where students could put their skills to work serving the public.

The WED grant tasked PGI with delivering 30 technology demonstrations, identifying 30 products and/or processes for research and development, and forming at least 40 partnerships with industry associations/organizations and companies by March 31, 2014.

Those deliverables formed the basis of my initial goals. My first task was to secure a chef instructor to work with, since my own kitchen training amounted to a couple summer front-of-house gigs plus an illustrious high school cooking career at McDonald’s.

Chef instructors Don Pattie, Gordon Bailey, Brad Gray and Sean Audet all pitched in to help achieve (and exceed) our goals, and set the program on a path towards the next step in the process: securing a longer-term grant that would allow us to hire full-time staff and students.

Fun Fact: If you walk up PRK’s back stairs towards the roof, you’ll find graffiti from 1905 (among more recent samples) on a wall that was preserved as a part of the building’s heritage status.

Building Capacity – NSERC-IE (2016-2022)

Following our whirlwind kickoff, it was time to expand the program. The $2.3 million NSERC Innovation Enhancement grant (NSERC-IE) was an excellent option for growing the College’s innovation capacity across Western Canada.

According to NSERC:
“The objective of the IE grants is to increase innovation at the community and/or regional level by enabling Canadian colleges to increase their capacity to work with local companies, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The grants support the growth of applied research capacity, leading to increased business collaborations that facilitate commercialization, as well as technology transfer, adaptation and adoption of new technologies.”

The program would support everything from hiring research staff, buying equipment and supporting operations to instructor engagement and student employment. With $500,000 for the first three years and $400,000 annually in years four and five, NSERC-IE would provide ample funds to achieve our objectives.

The nice part about being a part of a vibrant and successful research team at the College is the access to a wealth of past knowledge and experience, including previous examples of large funding proposals I could draw inspiration from. Past proposals and the infrastructure built to support the application processes laid out a path I could follow with confidence. This is the value of having a dedicated research office with experienced managers.

Armed with a structure for federal applications plus years of business and strategic plan development experience, I got to work on our 2015 submission for this highly sought-after program. We were immediately successful and received our NSERC-IE funding for capacity building in 2016. We hired our first full-time research manager, Joel Lamoureux, followed closely by our first research technician, Kyle Andreasen. Thanks to this funding, we achieved some early successes, including the Miso Project (page 34), a large industry project with Richardson International, and many projects for small to medium enterprises, which led us to be awarded an RRC Polytech BRAVO Award for Research Excellence in 2018.


The RRC Polytech BRAVO Award for Research Excellence recognizes individuals and/or teams who have:

  • Made an outstanding contribution in support of applied research; and/or
  • Contributed to establishing an environment which welcomes research and/or supported others in their research endeavors; and/or
  • Made an outstanding contribution to a course, project, program and/or community partner.

This award celebrates the behaviours, actions and attitudes demonstrated by employees over the past calendar year.

Moving into a New Home

Due to the pace and number of projects coming our way, it soon became apparent that the growth of a robust culinary research program was incompatible with sharing space with academic programming. Our team had now grown with the addition of Heather Hill, Research Manager and Anna Borys, Research Assistant.

It was time to build a home for ourselves. A few options were considered, including the former culinary kitchens at RRC Polytech’s Notre Dame campus, and space in Manitou a bi Bii daziigae, but we wanted to stay close to the culinary, baking and hospitality students. Fortunately, when the new School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts was built at 504 Main Street along with the student residence, the 11th floor was left open and undeveloped – almost as if they were waiting for just the right occupants to come along.

Renovations in a historic building can be challenging, but thanks to a one million dollar grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, a one million dollar grant from Research Manitoba, and $745,000 from RRC Polytech, a new home for our culinary research team began to take shape.

This would be the largest kitchen renovation of my lifetime. Like all renovations, it involved countless decisions and detours. For example, one special feature of this historic building was the quartet of stunning skylights that formerly illuminated the 4,600 square foot penthouse space. They had long ago been broken and boarded up, but RRC Polytech senior management made the decision to preserve one above our demonstration kitchen. This turned out to be a useful decision in other ways: most of the large equipment had to come in through this skylight because there was no service elevator to the 11th floor.

To allow for new water and drainage lines, a false floor had to be created above the original hardwood floors creating the need for a ramp at the entrance. Then the ceilings were dropped about two feet to accommodate new ventilation. Although we lost the spacious warehouse feeling, we gained stunning views of the downtown Winnipeg skyline to the north and east via the penthouse’s original porthole windows. Each window maintains it original casing from 1905. We even managed to retain a few pieces of marble for the sit-up counter from material left over from the other ten floors.

After one year, our new home was completed on time and on budget. We moved into our new space in August 2019. The official launch of Prairie Research Kitchen took place November 2019.

The new home finally allowed us to expand our team and work in a shared space where we could brainstorm, cook, experiment, and collaborate with clients.

Early day conception of the new lab drawn in my best pencil crayons. The final layout was not far off this concept.

Becoming RRC Polytech’s Third Technology Access Centre (2019-2024)

A renovation on its own is a daunting task. However, we had another challenge to tackle, as well: securing funding to become RRC Polytech’s third Technology Access Centre (TAC).

Writing a TAC grant application is like writing a business plan. You must demonstrate market need for your research capabilities, prove that you are backed by an experienced and committed senior leadership and management team, and highlight your commitment and ability to hiring students. You must outline how and why you require the investment from NSERC, how your will leverage that investment to bring in additional revenue, and, most importantly, how you will provide a return on that investment to benefit Canada – for instance, through increased innovation and economic advancement for industry, and contributing to future generations through student training.

TAC proposals require support from industry in the form of letters and past engagement. The College also hosted a day-long event for the grant’s evaluation committee that featured the participation of our industry partners. An event of this magnitude and importance took months to plan, and involved organizing the evaluation team, industry and academic partners, government stakeholders, and, of course, senior leadership. Our expert communications and events team at RRC Polytech created a day to remember, moving people seamlessly from the welcome breakfast at Jane’s Restaurant to presentations and tours of our chaotic construction site, leaving the technical team to present our plan and talk with clients. The event culminated in a final two-hour question and answer session with the evaluation committee. At the end of this very long day, I was exhausted but excited that everyone in the community had come together to support our bid.

When one evaluator asked how we would possibly achieve the results in our plan with the marketing budget presented, I said I had no doubts that RRC Polytech’s top-notch reputation and brand, coupled with the power of our prairie network, would propel us to success. The next day, as if to prove that point, a company from Alberta called us, thanks to a referral from a partner in Saskatchewan, asking for help scaling up a product using a Manitoba ingredient.

We were awarded the TAC grant in 2019, which now supports our base operations and places us in the TAC family – a family of 60 members across Canada. The TACs are connected by Tech-Access Canada, which facilitates the sharing of best practices, connects its members to financial and technical resources for our clients, and supports our efforts to help Canadian companies meet their innovation challenges.

Every five years, RRC Polytech must reapply for funding for each of their Technology Access Centres. Our next application will take place in 2024. Backed by 200 projects and the client success stories featured in this book, we are ready to share our story.

Doubling Our Funding – and Our Output

If you’re keeping track of timelines in this story, you’ll notice that our successful bid for the TAC grant meant we were running two large grants concurrently. We had already established a pretty good system for conducting research in the first three years of the NSERC-IE grant, so it was now time to hand the research portion of our mission to the TAC team while we focused next on areas where we still wanted to improve and grow. The last two years of the NSERC-IE grant have allowed us to focus on outreach and events with Indigenous partners and communities, and increase student participation from several departments, Culinary, International Business, Life Sciences and Applied Computer Education. Chapter 4 outlines many of the activities we have undertaken to engage with Indigenous students and communities.

Taking a COVID-19 Detour

In 2019 we had a new plan and a new home high above Winnipeg’s beautiful Exchange District. Our staff was expanding, and so was our inventory of specialized equipment. Nothing could stop us – not even a global pandemic.

Being a part of NSERC funding and conducting research with the food industry kept us going throughout the disruption caused by COVID-19, and even allowed us to achieve things we that would have been impossible otherwise.

NSERC supported our efforts through a COVID supplement and an extension of the program end date. Because we were working in the research and food space, we were allowed to continue operations so long as we kept up with the ever-evolving safety regulations.

Thanks to our team’s resilience and creativity, we were able to accomplish some unique achievements.

Across Canada, countless restaurants were forced to shut their doors, leaving many of our culinary students without the co-operative education opportunities they needed to complete their diplomas. At the same time, post-secondary institutions were sending students and instructors home, which left our team with a nearly empty building at our disposal.

As fate would have it, I had already been in conversation with Harvest Manitoba, Manitoba’s Food Bank network, about creating a high-protein, vegetable-loaded dry soup mix from excess vegetables they received. The disruption to the food industry meant that vegetable excesses were growing. Knowing that, we formed a plan to hire as many students as we could to develop a method for drying the vegetables using the equipment available at Harvest Manitoba. The students would create new recipes using these dried vegetables and scale up operations to produce as many packages as possible. RRC Polytech’s School of Culinary Arts provided instructors and space, a private donor provided resources to support the four-month program, and Harvest Manitoba provided ingredients and packaging. In the end, a team of five students produced 3,000 highly nutritious packages of soup or stew that could each feed a family of four.

Little did we know that things would get worse with COVID before they got better. As the months stretched on, the team continued to work – sometimes at home, sometimes in small cohorts that allowed for social distancing. Working within the confines of constantly changing public health directives, we brought in students whenever we could and kept the project moving.

In that time, Roxanne Kent developed her blueberry sauce (featured on page 96), Jamie Chahine created our online Indigenous Food Business Content (page 94), our CAP tofu project wrapped up, and our collaboration with Big Mountain began. We held every Advisory Board meeting and most of our weekly team meetings online for the next two years.

Those were tough years for everyone. We are grateful for the support of our funding partners and RRC Polytech for helping us continue to operate and respond to a food manufacturing industry that remained very active throughout the pandemic.

Developing a Food Manufacturing Lab

As our prototyping capabilities expanded and staff began to tackle increasingly large and technically complex projects, it became apparent that our next big challenge was to find ways to scale up our ideas.

Manufacturing food engages food safety, engineering, and food quality – aspects that culinary specialists don’t typically have to deal with. However, it’s just as important that food manufacturers maintain the taste and texture of food products while producing larger volumes.

Prairie Research Kitchen and RRC Polytech’s Life Science department teamed up to bring these two sides together by developing a condiment processing line. The production line consists of a large kettle with agitation capacity, two powerful pumps (screw and sheer), and a piston filler. The screw pump allows for the processing and filling of chunkier sauces while the sheer pump acts as a large inline blender to make smoother sauces. In combination, they allow food manufacturing students to gain experience using the large equipment they will operate on the job, and they help the PRK team assist clients transitioning to co-packers or starting up their own production.

In the end, this project allowed us to fulfill one of the NSERC-IE grant’s original objectives – redeveloping the former culinary kitchens at RRC Polytech’s Notre Dame campus. In the future, we plan to create a process that will allow food manufacturing students to scale up student-led recipes developed in culinary classes into safe, shelf-stable products for the Manitoba market. This opens the door for student entrepreneurs to produce their first products for sale at the annual RRC Polytech markets or the Campus Book Store.

Looking Ahead – The Future of Culinary Research

The NSERC-IE grant is now wrapping up. The food manufacturing line has produced its first run. Our team continues to change and grow as people take on new roles or challenges. Every day, we engage with new partners and ideas.

While the book in your hands doesn’t feature every individual client we’ve worked with over the past eight years, it does reflect the impact each of our partners has had on the results we produce.

The world of research is ever-changing – and for that reason, Prairie Research Kitchen will adapt and grow in the years ahead to new processes, concepts, and realities. A lot of great ideas have started here. We look forward to seeing the products of our creativity and collaborations hit grocery store shelves and reach dinner tables in the years ahead. We can’t wait to share the results with you in our next research review in 2025.