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.