December 4, 2017 3:14 pm
Updated: December 6, 2017 3:11 pm

‘Nailed it’: how a young chef made The Happy Nun unforgettable

WATCH ABOVE: Focus Saskatchewan host Blake Lough shares the story of Katie Vinge-Riddell – a young chef who owned and operated The Happy Nun restaurant in the tiny community of Forget, SK. The ambitious business owner built the Nun’s sterling reputation far and wide, until a tragic accident put everything on hold.

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There’s an easy joke to be made when entering the tiny village of Forget, Sask.

It’s easy to forget about Forget.

The community, 157 km southeast of Regina, is home to 42 people who – like in many small towns – haul their own water and sewage. But despite its size, Forget, pronounced For-jay, is a hotbed of creative energy. A significant portion of their small population are musicians or visual artists.

For years, displays of that creative energy could be found in a restaurant, café and concert venue called The Happy Nun.

The Happy Nun in Forget, Sask.

Derek Putz / Global News

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The Happy Nun was originally opened in 2007 by Don and Shannon Shakotko, who bought and renovated the old town hall. Their dream was to create a concert venue where road-weary musicians could escape the grind of tour life and enjoy a calm, intimate setting along with a tasty meal.

The Shakotkos built the Nun’s reputation in the province and attracted musicians from across the country, up until they decided to sell the venue in 2015.

‘This is the place for her’

As luck would have it, a young chef from northern Alberta was in the market for her own restaurant.

Katie Vinge-Riddell had graduated from culinary arts at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) and had honed her skills at The Willow on Wascana in Regina.

Her family had deep roots in Saskatchewan — she would regularly return to the family cabin on White Bear Lake. That’s where she met her husband, Wawota native Riley Riddell.

Riley Riddell and Katie Vinge-Riddell at The Happy Nun.

Vinge Family

“We figured the best place for Katie was The Happy Nun, and it just fit her personality to a tee,” Riddell said.

Her family in Edmonton had reservations about Katie owning a restaurant in a village so far off the beaten path. But for Katie’s father, Tim Vinge, those reservations disappeared when he saw the venue for the first time.

“We came out here when she bought the restaurant and we went, ‘this is the place for her’,” he said.

“This is just a building right now, but when you fill it full of the people, when you fill it full of the food and you fill it full of the music… then it becomes something special.”

Katie’s sister, Jillian Vinge, had experience in the restaurant industry and worked every day beside her sister in the kitchen. There were long hours and some setbacks, but Katie managed to gain the respect of The Happy Nun’s regulars and added her own flair to an ever-changing menu.

“For me, it was the best job I ever had,” Jillian said.

Jillian Vinge worked long hours alongside her sister Katie in The Happy Nun’s kitchen.

Derek Putz / Global News

As the restaurant’s reputation grew, people from all over Saskatchewan and beyond made the trip to Forget. The Happy Nun received the Saskatchewan Tourism Award of Excellence and a five star rating from TripAdvisor for Top Canadian Cuisine.

“You won’t believe this place is real,” reads one of many satisfied comments on the TripAdvisor website.

“We were kind of just like… how do people know about this place? It’s kind of funny, we’re in the middle of nowhere in a town called Forget… so it was just really rewarding to get that recognition,” Jillian said.

“What 20-something would buy a restaurant in a town of 40? Except that she got it. When she came out here and she walked through the doors, she knew that this was where she belonged,” friend and co-worker Gayla Gilbertson said.

Giving back

Katie Vinge-Riddell was also active in the community. In early 2017, she announced her intentions to launch a “small town dinner series.”

The goal was to cater a big meal at a small town’s community hall, then donate a portion of the ticket sales back to the town.

Katie had hosted pop-up dinners before; Focus Saskatchewan featured one such dinner back in 2015 when Vinge-Riddell worked at the Willow on Wascana in Regina.

Katie Vinge-Riddell hosting a Supper Society pop-up in Regina in January 2015

Derek Putz / Global News

“She wanted to give back to the community that did so much for her,” Jillian said.

The accident

Katie’s father, Tim, is an avid writer. He had picked up poetry and in March was working on a piece called ‘The Happy Nun’ – hoping to capture the “essence” of the restaurant, as he called it.

The morning of March 28, Tim called his daughter to go over the poem, seeking her stamp of approval.

Tim Vinge read a poem to his daughter Katie the morning she was killed.

Derek Putz / Global News

“I said to her, ‘Katie I made some changes to that poem and I sent it to you last night.’ And she said ‘Dad, I looked at it late last night and it’s just perfect’,” he recalled.

Later that morning, Katie climbed in her car with her rescue dog, Max, on her way to The Happy Nun. A snowstorm had come through the night before, leaving behind slushy conditions on the roads near Kenosee.

“She started going up the hill and probably slid… over into the other lane and was head on with a truck,” Tim said.

Katie died immediately. She was 29.

“The odds of the accident happening were so remote. We said ‘why?’ How did this happen?”

The next day, it was announced that The Happy Nun would be closed indefinitely.

“In terms of this place, it’s still pretty tough to come back here,” Riddell said, from inside the shuttered restaurant.

“I look around here and I feel like [Katie] should be walking through the door,” Jillian said, fighting back tears.

“We just want to make her proud.”

‘Nailed it’

In the months since her passing, Katie’s family has carried on her legacy.

At NAIT, where she trained as a chef, the college now offers the Katie Vinge-Riddell “Nailed It” Memorial Scholarship to students in their second year of the culinary arts program.

The name is a nod to the young chef’s go-to phrase after perfecting a dish in The Happy Nun’s small kitchen.

“As a young, female chef, having your own restaurant at 27 years old — not a lot of people accomplish that. So we want to give other chefs the opportunity to do that.” Jillian said.

The Happy Nun

Eight months later, the restaurant remains closed. Katie’s family is considering way to keep the venue open, though no concrete plans are in the works.

One thing is for certain: it won’t be just anyone who buys The Happy Nun.

“I honestly can’t imagine Forget without the Nun,” Gilbertson said.

“It has to be somebody that has the same heart and passion that belong in this building. Somebody that gets it. That it’s not just a restaurant, that it’s not just a music venue, that it is more.”

Even as the doors remain closed, those who were touched by chef Katie Vinge-Riddell are carrying on her legacy using the lessons she taught through her passion for music, art and food.

For her father, that means returning to school to get his master’s degree and further exploring poetry – things he’s passionate about.

“She taught people who to live their best life. By living your best life, you honour her.”

The Happy Nun / Facebook

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