Canadian Chefs Profiled: Justin Downes, Vineland Estates Winery, Niagara ON

by Krlmagi

Using high-quality local ingredients to create innovative, flavorful and seasonal cuisine fuels Chef Justin Downes' passion at Vineland Estates Winery restaurant.

Justin Downes’ interest in the culinary world was sparked at an early age. His mother was a pastry chef who worked in several popular local restaurants and was connected to the chef community. As Downes says, “Initially, my mother was a big influence for me. It was amazing to see how much she loved being a chef, and I ate it up, literally!”

Downes still didn’t consider becoming a chef as a career until he started working in a kitchen for the summer. The moment that he stepped foot in the kitchen he knew that it was what he wanted to do with his life.

Chef Justin Downes
Chef Justin Downes

Aside from his mother, Downes cites Chef Mark Picone as a major influence on him as a chef.  When Downes first got his job at Vineland Estates Winery, he was introduced to Picone, who encouraged him to continue in a culinary career. Picone also taught him all of the skills that he needed to work in the kitchen and be an effective chef.

Now Downes is influenced by the young chefs with whom he works. He says, “My two sous chefs and my dedicated line cooks provide me with a new energy, both physically and creatively. I would not be able to do what I do without these key members of my team.”

The approach that Downes takes when it comes to food and cooking has been consistent for him. He focuses on using the best ingredients possible and allowing those ingredients to speak for themselves. He keeps his dishes simple but adds that he innovates by including a twist on a classic dish or a unique flavour combination to keep his guests intrigued.

Downes describes menu writing and dish development as an intricate process. He starts by considering the produce that’s in season in the Niagara region as well as the proteins that would be most appropriate for the time of year. For example, he’d choose game meats in the fall or seafood in the summer. He and his team also consider elements including flavour combinations, culinary trends, cooking techniques, food costs, ease of execution and visual appeal.

The input of his team members is also important. Downes explains, “Their input is very important, because the combination of all of our ideas result in a unique and flavourful dish.”

Quality is the first consideration for Downes when it comes to sourcing ingredients. If he doesn’t see quality, he isn’t interested. He says, "I feel that local products are of the highest quality, so I always find a local farmer to provide me with product."

His commitment to using as many local products as possible comes from the fact that they’re often the most flavourful ingredients on the menu due to their freshness and the dedication of the farmers to growing the best products that they can.

Rare-Seared Tuna with 'Niagara' Nicoise
Rare-Seared Tuna with 'Niagara' Nicoise

Taking the time to learn about the farmers is another important part of Downes’ respect for their products. This time and effort has led to Downes getting farmers to grow certain products for him or even grow something for him exclusively. The chef has established close ties after visiting farmers to learn more about their operations. He adds, “I have often stopped by their farms with my family so they tend to know me on a personal level as well.”

Creativity, confidence and organization are all traits that Downes hopes to embody as a chef. Confidence is important for Downes in this era of online restaurant reviews when negative comments are so easily proliferated. Keeping his creativity intact along with his confidence helps him continue to move forward.

In terms of organization Downes says, “I am always working on maintaining organization. A functioning kitchen is an organized kitchen – there has to be a place for everything and a routine for everything.”

Cumbrae Farms Beef Tenderloin with Foie Gras Torchon
Cumbrae Farms Beef Tenderloin with Foie Gras Torchon

Downes expects the same creativity, organization and confidence from his kitchen team that he seeks in himself. He’s also looking for young cooks who are willing to work hard. Many young cooks are unaware of the strict demands of a restaurant kitchen and Downes says that without putting in the effort, they won’t meet success as a chef.

A positive attitude is also a key trait that Downes looks for out of his kitchen team. He points out, “When I’m tired from working many hours in a hot kitchen and the guests’ orders are starting to pile up, I need to have a kitchen team that can keep it together and keep going.”

 

Motivation and inspiration can be hard to find in the demanding, fast-paced world of restaurants. Downes finds motivation when he hears from guests who’ve come back for a second visit to the restaurant and remember a particular dish that they enjoyed before.

The loyalty of his kitchen team is also a source of inspiration for Downes. Most of the team have been with him since he started in his current role four years ago and some have even followed him from kitchens prior to that. He adds, “When you have a great team to work with, it is easy to be motivated and inspired to do what I do every day.”

The most motivating and inspiring element of Downes’ career is the energy and creativity of the Niagara region’s culinary scene. He is inspired by the talented chefs in the region who share his approach of using high quality, locally sourced ingredients to create innovative cuisine with great flavour. He concludes, “I have been lucky to consider them friends and I am grateful that I have been able to count on them when I am short on product, need to borrow an appliance or simply need a great place to eat. It is a pleasure for me to repay these favours. I strive to pass on this passion for the great region we work in to my team of chefs.”

White Chocolate Ganache Tart with Niagara Berries and Pistachio Gelato.
White Chocolate Ganache Tart with Niagara Berries and Pistachio Gelato.
Updated: 07/22/2015, Krlmagi
 
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happynutritionist on 07/23/2015

Thank you for introducing me to this chef, and the pictures are making my mouth water, it is dinner time.

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