Interview by Kyla Pennie with Executive Chef, Justin Downes of Vineland Estates Winery Restaurant.
1) Can you describe your journey to how you ended up as the Executive Chef at Vineland Estates?
I started at Vineland Estates in the summer of 1999. I had just graduated from high school, and admittedly, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. My mother is a pastry chef, so I had been exposed to good food, as well as the restaurant business early in life. My father had been working at Vineland Estates Winery for a few years, and helped me gain my position as ‘steward,’ which is a nice way of saying, I was hired as a ‘dishwasher’! I started working with the Executive Chef, Mark Picone, and immediately fell in love with the atmosphere, the people, and the thrill of working in a fast-paced, demanding kitchen. Slowly, I worked my way through the ranks of the kitchen at Vineland. I [also] was given the opportunity to train at a Michelin-rated restaurant in Arnolfo, Italy, which gave me a whole new perspective on ‘fine-dining’. When I returned, I was given more responsibility in creating my own dishes, dealing more with the local suppliers, and managing the younger staff. In 2010, I was promoted to the position of Executive Chef, and was very excited to do so.
2) What is your favourite dish to make at Vineland?
My favourite dish to make at Vineland is anything pasta! I spent 6 months in Italy, so I love pasta! In all the cooking competitions and cooking classes I have done, I have always made fresh pasta. I would have to say that my favourite pasta dishes include: anything stuffed with short rib, ricotta or duck confit; or slow braised ragout; topped off with local Toscano cheese!
3) Any advice for young students wanting to build a career in Niagara?
I have two pieces of advice: the first is that you can’t be ‘above’ doing anything. As executive chef of a fine-dining restaurant, I still do dishes. I peel potatoes, I clean fish, and I vacuum my office (every once in a while…!) I like to manage by providing an example for my young chefs – I can’t expect them to work hard if I don’t do so myself.
Secondly, I cannot stress enough that training to become an executive chef in your own kitchen starts by building on essential life skills: punctuality, cleanliness, organization, creativity, respect for others.
4) What’s the hardest part of your day?
The hardest part of my day is critiquing my chefs. I know how difficult it is to hear that you need to change something in a dish that you worked so hard on, so I have a hard time being judgemental. But, it’s part of my job, and something I need to do – constructive criticism by my head chefs is what allowed me to get where I am today.
5) What’s the best part of your day?
The best part of my day in the kitchen is when I get to celebrate with my staff. I love sharing a 6-pack of a local beer with my kitchen staff after we’ve had a busy service. Being social with the people I work with every day is what makes our restaurant different from most – both back and front of house have created lifelong friendships because of those times when we got together after service, shared a laugh, and enjoyed a pint, reminiscing the times we spend together.
6) What part of the food movement in Niagara most excites you?
I would definitely say that the movement that most excites me is a trend towards more ‘casual-fine-dining’. I love the idea of having a burger, or a BLT on our menu, in a restaurant which is known to most as a 4-diamond status establishment. There is such a thing as a ‘fine-dining burger’!
7) Is there room for new food/drink businesses in Niagara?
I believe there is definitely room for a new style of food/drink business in Niagara….but if I told you what I was thinking, that may ruin the surprise!
8) Do you have a favourite eating/drinking hang-out in Niagara?
I can’t say that I have a favourite – though, I definitely have a preference towards establishments that offer local wine, local brews and local fare, no matter the style.
9) What’s cooking in your home-kitchen?
Admittedly, I don’t cook the fancy dishes at home that I do at the winery. When I get home, I crave the rustic, home-cooked meals. My wife and I are always preparing whole-roasted chicken, chill, chicken pot pie, homemade burgers, along with fresh-baked bread, roasted vegetables out of my in-laws garden, and fruit desserts made with the offerings of restaurant suppliers that just so happen to know where I live… We pretty much cook everything from scratch, and love to teach our two children how fun it is to prepare meals in our kitchen.
10) Any local products jammed in your fridge?
You name it, it’s in there! I purchase all of my meat from Lakeland Meats – all products are locally raised, hormone and antibiotic free. Throughout the year, I frequent the local farmers’ markets for fresh fruit and veggies. I only purchase Canadian dairy, and there are definitely a few bottles of Niagara white wine in there…and Ontario craft beers!
11) Describe a favourite day in Niagara? What do you do, where do you go?
A perfect day in Niagara could consist of two different options: the first would be starting the day by visiting a local hiking trail, whether that be Short Hills or Ball’s Falls, with my wife and two kids. We would work up an appetite, then visit a local bakery, such as de la terre, as well as our favourite cheese shop, Upper Canada Cheese Company. We would pick up a fresh loaf of sourdough, and a couple of our favourite cheeses. Then, we would come home and have a picnic in our backyard, along with one of those cold drinks from the fridge!
The second would be just me and my wife – spending the day tasting at a few of our favourite local wineries, and then trying out a new restaurant, or visiting one we haven’t been to in a while. Either way, it always involves good food and good company!
12) What does being a Niagara Local mean for you?
It means that I support and respect the people that work the land to provide us with a bounty of culinary offerings. I definitely love Niagara for the food and wine!