Every time I take the short one-hour drive to Niagara, I'm transported into another world. The air feels fresher; the sounds of the streetcar are but a distant memory. Even the weather seems to behave itself on weekends when I visit the region. When it's time to (begrudgingly) leave Niagara, I feel refreshed, invigorated and armed with tons of new wineries and restaurants to recommend to friends.
For so many of Canada’s top chefs, though, Niagara is about way more than a weekend getaway. Plenty of Toronto and the province's culinary talent have made Niagara their home, feeling inspired to cook and grow in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. So, beyond the obvious appeal of access to delicious food and drink, what drove them to relocate?
"My wife and I just made the jump — a bit of a leap of faith," says John Vetere, executive chef at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery, who moved to the region in the winter of 2014. "We were purchasing a condo in Toronto, and we had a 10-day grace period on our down payment. On day nine, we looked at each other and said, "Are we doing the right thing here? This doesn't make sense."
After pulling the plug, Vetere and his wife, Tania Ganassini (now the co-founder of supper club The Norton Underground and Staff Meal Niagara, a plant-based catering company), decided to look into property in the Niagara region. Though their friends thought they were delirious, it made sense for the chef pair, who were so familiar with the bounty of the region. "Farm products that we used in the restaurants of Toronto were often coming right from Niagara. So from a chef's perspective, it was a no-brainer."
However, Vetere's experience in other kitchens wasn't completely transferable. At Ravine Vineyards Estate Winery, collaboration is the name of the game. "In a typical restaurant, you would just write some dishes and pair wines, but, we want to showcase the portfolio of wines. So, Lydia Tomek [the head winemaker] and I nerd out because we're both geeks when it comes to food and wine. We create dishes together. So it's fun in that way."
Mayra Batista, the head chef at Kitchen 76, the onsite restaurant at Two Sisters Vineyards, agrees that the process must be synchronized. "Our menu has been planned and executed with the wine carrying as much focus and importance as the food. We are always challenging ourselves to create dishes that complement our wines and deliver the best experience possible to our customers."
Batista didn't just swap postal codes when she relocated to Niagara. The Brazilian chef and her husband had to learn a new language when they moved to Canada a little over two years ago. Despite the upheaval, Batista credits the abundance of fresh produce and the ability to work closely with suppliers to bring fresh flavours to her dishes with her success in Niagara. "The desire to use what we can from our own backyards really brings the culinary community together."
Christine Flynn, a partner at The Good Earth Farm and cookbook author, was at a crossroads six years ago. "I was a single mom, living with two infants (the girls were four months old) and two dogs in downtown Toronto," recalls Flynn. Suddenly, her landlord asked her to leave. "It was what you'd call a 'legal eviction.'"
Tasked with finding a new place to live, Flynn became drawn to the idea of moving to a tourism hub, confident that she would find work somewhere. "I hung out at The Good Earth long enough that they gave me a job," she laughs. Then, after helping with some marketing efforts, the business changed hands, and a dream role fell right into her lap. "I went from kind of posting two images a week on their social media to running it — with a very solid team."
Flynn fell in love with the ecosystem of The Good Earth, which functions as a winery, restaurant and cooking school. She admits to feeling inspired by her proximity to local gems like The Bruce Trail. "There is so much access to nature here that I definitely didn't have when I lived in downtown Toronto. I'm a big mushroom geek now, and I definitely wasn't before."
Vetere is also inspired by the easy access to produce in Niagara. "This property that Ravine is on is a 150-year-old family farm. Farming is very much in the bloodline of this entire property. Before it was grapes, it was an orchard. On the farm itself, we have a half-acre organic garden and a full-time gardener. People talk about farm-to-table, but we're a table on a farm."
As picturesque as Niagara may be, it simply doesn't get the same foot traffic as the restaurants of Toronto, particularly in the dead of winter. Luckily, there is programming at Ravine Vineyards which allows Vetere to flex his creativity in the off-season. "We've done a number of pizza-making classes, plus American BBQ classes that touch on my previous skills," says Vetere, in reference to his time at Brushfire Smoke BBQ in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The Good Earth also offers demonstration-style cooking classes at their cooking school, which keeps Flynn busy in quieter periods. And, while the restaurant doesn't experience quite the same lulls as other businesses in Niagara, she does recognize that it's a marathon, not a sprint. "Things feel like they're slowing down already, but it's a great time of year for Niagara in the gardens," says Flynn. "You are keyed into the changing of the season and the rhythms in a really meaningful way."
Seasons may change, but living in Niagara isn't just a flash in the pan for its culinary imports. These chefs have planted deep roots and connected to a passionate and welcoming community. As rent in big cities continues to soar, the peace and (relative) quiet of this gem of a region may appeal to younger chefs looking to flex their creativity in a more pastoral setting. After all — who couldn't use a little bit more Niagara in their life?