They’re not just temporary, in many cases they’re illegal. They operate without business licenses. And if you ask to see their papers, they will hand you the menu.

That’s the world of secret dining rooms, speakeasies, illicit eateries and back-alley eats—a phenomenon popping up across North America and now the focus of The Illegal Eater, a new food and travel TV series created in Winnipeg.

“We’re having food experiences you never have. We’re having adventures that you never have,” says John Barnard, who directed several episodes of the Farpoint Films production. 

“It’s a show about having a personal adventure through food. The food is the plane you get on, it’s not the airport you land in.” 

Mandel Hitzer

Mandel Hitzer of Deer + Almond (Mike Green)

The 13-episode series—which features a secret dinner with Deer + Almond chef Mandel Hitzer and back-alley Korean eats by chef Ben Kramer of University of Winnipeg’s Diversity Foods—started airing in later October on Travel + Escape Canada.
In Winnipeg, pop-up restaurants—one night only, multi-course dinners served in secret locations—are popping up with increasing frequency. Since September, four pop ups have been planned. The latest one, called November Rain, is scheduled for November 23 at an undisclosed location. 

Winnipeg, which isn’t widely known as one of North America’s, or even Canada’s top food cities, is typically behind food trends by a few years. 

The Winnipeg-produced series The Illegal Eater taps into that larger trend. 

During each episode host and food lover Steven Page (singer-songwriter formerly of the Barenaked Ladies) leads viewers to underbelly eateries run by professional chefs and restauranteurs in the continent’s top food cities.

“It’s an adventure. Steven follows along the breadcrumb trails to find the underground, illegal restaurants and establishments,” says Farpoint Films’ Scott Leary, a producer and co-creator of the series with fellow Winnipegger Chris Charney.

The chefs, meanwhile, stretch the limits, taking “so much care with the food they’re preparing because they have pride in it,” Leary says. “They have extreme pride in what they’re doing and they want to push it.” 

Page’s ‘eatventures’ include passing through an old red phone booth to find one spot, secreting behind a bookcase to find another and supping inside an abandoned warehouse. 

He ate four kinds of duck from a flower pot, gelatinized vodka with compressed cucumber extract, deep-fried yak heart, $3 tacos from an illegal market in L.A., something involving a “fertilized egg,” and marijuana-smoked octopus, among many other off-the-menu eats.   

Production started in New Orleans March 25 and wrapped in Winnipeg August 30 with visits to Boston, New York City, Chicago, Toronto and Halifax, among other stops. 

The Illegal Eater is one of two food shows to film in Winnipeg. The Prairie Diner, produced by Winnipeg and Regina production company Zoot Pictures, also hit Corrientes, food truck Pimp My Rice and Unburger, among other spots. That series begins airing in Saskatchewan in February 2014.