Canadian Chef Profiles: Chris Stewart, Kelowna BC

by Krlmagi

Chris Stewart takes a hyperlocal, seasonal, scratch-made approach to the food at Terrace Restaurant at the Mission Hill Winery.

Chris Stewart had always been interested in cooking but he didn’t consider it a career path at first. He’d been accepted at McGill University to study architecture but a chance experience with a restaurant kitchen changed his path. Stewart picked up a friend who was working in a kitchen and saw the team atmosphere there. He says, "I played a lot of team sports and I really appreciated the sense of everyone coming together for a common goal.”

After a month’s consideration Stewart backed out of McGill and decided to go to culinary school. He says, “At that point, I thought that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life behind a desk. Having a competitive nature pushed me to put myself into an environment with the best of the best. I think I’ve continued to do that since then.”

Beef brisket, squash, mustard
Beef brisket, squash, mustard

Stewart had a major formative experience while working at Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood in Oregon. He cooked with a Swedish master chef named Leif Benson there. He says, “Moving to Oregon was a huge thing for me. I come from a very small town in eastern Canada and to move all the way across the continent to be around a group of mainly European chefs it really instilled the idea that on top of being able to cook I could travel as well.”


Working with Chef Stefan Mueller at the Windjammer restaurant in the Delta Beausejour hotel in Moncton, New Brunswick was another formative experience for Stewart. He says, “The Windjammer is a four-diamond restaurant. Working there gave me a sense of prestige and granted me confidence. Stefan put me into culinary competitions too. I did the Knorr Next Great Chef competition and I made a lot of great friends out of that.”


Stewart’s move to the Okanagan has shaped his approach to food and cooking. He says, “I’d always heard about the Okanagan's world-class stone fruits and their wine. I was in Toronto at the time and being in such a large metropolis I felt a disconnect from the food. We were nowhere near the farms, so I wanted to put myself back into an environment where I was really close to it and I have that here.”


Close relationships with his farmers are important for the chef. Stewart says, “We’ll sit down with them early in the year and pore over seed catalogues. They’ll basically dictate what we can use and when we can use it.”


Being a winery restaurant means that consultation with Mission Hill’s chief winemaker John Symes (and his team) is also important to Stewart. He says, “They walk us through the portfolio, telling us what they want us to showcase on the menu. We’ll start building dishes around those wines. Its a moving target but that's what keeps it interesting.”

He adds, “It has changed my approach to the development of a dish. I can honestly say that it has made me focus more. We’re looking at less ingredients and driving their affinities towards varietals. The dishes are less complex and I feel that flavours are less complex.”

Grilled octopus, smoked onion, almond milk, caramel glace.
Grilled octopus, smoked onion, almond milk, caramel glace.

Consulting with farmers is a big part of Stewart's menu development process. He says, “They’ll give us windows for when things will be ready. They were ahead of the game this year and anticipated us having a really great spring. We’re three and a half weeks ahead of the growing schedule, but fortunately they were proactive so we started building menus around that.”


Scratch-making everything is another key element for Stewart. He explains, “We have a sourdough starter named Jenny that we’ve had for about eight years. She’s the basis of all of our bread program. Our charcuterie is all done in-house. Last year we brought in twelve pigs and myself and my sous chefs broke them down and cured the meat. As the restaurant closes in the winter, we used the wine cellar to do all of the hanging and drying.”

Stewart works hard to build and maintain good relationships with his farmers. He says, “Our sous chefs are very diligent about helping the farmers out and going down to do all of our pick ups and everything. A lot of times people will make the farmers deliver to them and that’s often a big drive for them.”

 Another aspect of his relationship with farmers is the staff orientation at the beginning of every season. Stewart says, “When they all arrive in late April we allocate one full day to taking the whole team out to the farms. We put them to work for the day. The farmers are very appreciative of that.”

A financial credit is another part of Stewart's commitment to the farmers. Stewart says, “We’ll give them something like five thousand dollars so that they can get themselves up and running in the spring. In the summer our orders from them are discounted so it’s a really good influx of cash for them when they don’t have much income.”

Okanagan canteloupe, pickled strawberry, lemon thyme, wood sorrel
Okanagan canteloupe, pickled strawberry, lemon thyme, wood sorrel

Constant learning is one of the most important traits for a chef according to Stewart. He says, “If you get yourself into the mindset that you know everything and stay at a certain plateau people are just going to fly by you. This is an art and there’s so much stuff to learn!”


An even-handed approach is another important trait that Stewart mentions. He says, “I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like, ‘Kids these days!’ It is a different school of young people coming into the game and we need to adapt to their learning processes.”


A willingness to muck in is another important trait for Stewart. He says, “I’m inundated by loads of paperwork, accounting, H.R. and guidance counselling, but I’m still willing to do the jobs that some might consider below them. I’m willing to hop into the dish pit and crush out dishes beside the stewards. It creates buy in from your team.”


Stewart takes educating his kitchen team seriously. He says, “We’re really diligent with the educational side of things here for the cooks. I think a lot of people fail to teach young cooks how to work a station. Spatial awareness, efficiency, communication and making the station work for you are all key elements that young cooks need to learn. It’s something they can take to any kitchen in the world."

Updated: 06/26/2015, Krlmagi
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Mira on 10/01/2015

His first two dishes look like accomplished works of art. I also like the way he associates team playing with work in a kitchen :)

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