Some assembly required.
That’s what real estate agent Steve Hunt-Lesage had in mind in late 2017 when he began investigating dinner options that would save him a few minutes in the kitchen. Hunt-Lesage, also a Red Seal chef, knew precisely what he was looking for: pre-packaged ingredients such as dried pasta or brown rice that arrived with a few, requisite spices, to which he could add a protein of his choosing along with a can of tomato sauce or coconut milk; a gourmet-style entrée that would take 25 minutes to whip up, tops.
"You know, like Hamburger Helper, only good Hamburger Helper," the 55-year-old married father of three says with a chuckle.
Four-and-a-half-years later, Hunt-Lesage, who last toiled in a restaurant in 2005, is putting his real estate career on hold for the foreseeable future to devote his full attention to Fat Iguana Chef’s Kitchen, the meal-starter biz he founded in August 2018.
"It all started with me going to the grocery store and spotting nothing but Kraft Dinner or those yucky noodle packs," he says, pursing his lips. "My first thought was, ‘Man, is this ever stupid.’ My second thought was, ‘Hey, wait a sec, I know how to cook. Why don’t I just do it myself?’"
Born Steven Hunt in Ipswich, England, Hunt-Lesage, who added his wife Sylvie’s surname to his own after they were married in 1997, moved to Winnipeg with his parents and sister at the age of five. He developed an interest in cooking during home economics class at John Taylor Collegiate, eventually parlaying that into a part-time job at Assiniboia Downs where he prepared race-day meals for jockeys and trainers. Stints at various, casual restaurants followed — Country Kitchen is one that immediately springs to mind – before he packed his bags and headed west at the age of 20 to take a job as a sous chef at the Lake Louise Inn in Alberta.
He spent the next five years bouncing back and forth between Winnipeg, Lake Louise and later, Banff, before successfully applying for a position as a line cook at the Mondetta Café, an offshoot of the sportswear company that opened at The Forks to tremendous fanfare in March 1995. To say his first day on the job was memorable is putting it mildly.
"The place was pure pandemonium, the busiest restaurant I’d ever worked at to that point," he says of Mondetta, situated in the Johnson Terminal in a space currently occupied by the Old Spaghetti Factory. "I’m a pretty organized guy, that’s always been one of my strong suits, but after six hours of non-stop chaos, I approached the boss, Dale Wallis, who back then was also responsible for the Grapes chain. Sorry, I told him, the job wasn’t for me."
The two ended up chatting for the next 90 minutes. During their back-and-forth Hunt-Lesage offered a few suggestions that, in his estimation, would make things operate more smoothly. At the end of their conversation Wallis made Hunt-Lesage a proposition: instead of line cook, how would he like to manage the joint?
"There I was, on my way out the door, and the next thing I knew I was in charge," he says, running his hand over his bald pate.
Hunt-Lesage and Wallis enjoyed additional success at their next joint endeavour, the Spotlight, which replaced the iconic Beefeater Restaurant in Osborne Village. Following that he helped open the Coyote Café in the East Exchange District, but when he sold his share of that venture in 1999, he was convinced his restaurant days were behind him. Two years married, he and Sylvie had mutually agreed to move to Kelowna, B.C., where they intended to establish a small home-reno company, woodworking being another of his passions.
A funny thing happened on the way to their new, Love-It-or-List-It existence, however; while in-line skating along that city’s Lakeshore Boulevard, Hunt-Lesage spotted a For Sale sign in the window of a mothballed coffee shop. Telling himself, hmm, it’s only a block from the beach, maybe he could do something there, he called the listed number. Boom, just like that, he was the new owner of what he dubbed the Fixx Café & Pasta Bar, when it opened for business four months later.
"It was a cool little place, just 35 seats with all these great, Pacific-fusion dishes coming out of the kitchen, very similar to what I’d done at Mondetta, plus a few Granville (Island) beers on tap. Right from Day 1 we were slammed, it was that busy," he says.
Everything was going along swimmingly, but after the birth of their first child, Sylvie, one of 20 siblings, announced she was homesick and didn’t want their kids growing up so far away from their grandparents and cousins.
Quite often when he was cooking or serving, Hunt-Lesage would notice real estate agents in the dining area, sealing deals over a 12-ounce sirloin and bottle of wine. That looked a lot more relaxing than what he was doing, he’d think, so as soon as they returned to Winnipeg, he began studying for his real estate licence. Which brings us back to August 2018, when, as a successful agent, Hunt-Lesage rolled out Fat Iguana Chef’s Kitchen for the first time, at a night market held near Assiniboia Downs.
"My poor family, they probably ate pasta every night for eight months straight, while I was fine-tuning my recipes," he says, mentioning California Coast pasta, a curry-based offering that calls for chicken and shrimp, and Jamaican Jerk Rasta Pasta, a spicy number requiring chicken, peppers and eggplant, as two of his first offerings, both of which go back to his days at Mondetta and the Fixx.
"What we do isn’t so much cooking as production-line work," he continues, explaining his modus operandi. "We rent space in a commercial kitchen in La Salle, where we’re able to bang out close to 100 meal kits an hour."
After bagging the pasta or rice, if that’s what’s called for, he and his team — OK... him, his son and youngest daughter — go from bag to bag with ramekins filled with spices, adding however many grams to each, over and over. If something like his One Night in Bangkok Thai soup calls for a dozen different blends, well, that’s 12 trips around the work area before they move onto the next batch, he notes.
Fat Iguana Chef’s Kitchen — a tag inspired by trips to Mexico, where Hunt-Lesage would spot the plump reptiles contentedly munching away on fruit — presently markets more than 30 products, including salad dressings, barbecue sauces, meat rubs and hot sauces.
Everything can be ordered through his website, while certain products are also available at various retail outlets, including all four Miller’s Meats locations. (He laughs, describing how, back when his personal cell number was printed on the packaging, he often fielded calls from consumers standing in a grocery-store aisle, asking for reminders of what additional ingredients they needed to pick up for this kit or that.)
He figures he sold close to 15,000 meal kits, priced from $6.99 to $10.49, in 2020, his most successful year yet. He chalks up his good fortune to people wanting to prepare restaurant-quality meals in the comfort of their own homes, given the fact they were unable to dine out the way they normally would have because of pandemic-related restrictions. He expects to match or surpass that total this year, the reason he’s stepping away from the real estate game for 12 months, at least.
"Just the other day I ‘warned’ my wife I needed to spend the next two weeks fishing because the way things are shaping up, I’m not going to have any time to cast a line the rest of the summer," he says, adding he’s pretty confident markets and pop-up events he’s attended in the past will be up and running once the majority of Manitobans are vaccinated.
As for his signature dishes, do customers ever take full credit for what’s on an evening’s menu, imparting a line: "Oh, puh-leeze, just a little something I threw together at the last moment," when guests or family members inquire, "Wow, where is this from?" while they’re diving into a plate of spicy bacon Amatriciana or Louisiana jambalaya?
"Ha, for sure they do, except I encourage them to do precisely that. No worries, I tell ‘em. Their secret is safe with me."
For more information, go to www.fatiguanakitchen.com
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.