By: Megan Pasche
Photographed by: AJ Harlond

The Cannery Restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Pillar and Post has a homey, rustic feel to it, a mix of old country charm and a little bit of Tuscan countryside. Exposed wooden beams and rich red brick decorate the room, with a large hearth serving as the centerpiece.

The man in charge of it all? Executive Chef Mark Longster. Born into a culinary family (his dad was a sous chef on the Queen Mary, his mom a chef instructor in Peterborough, and he was born and raised above a restaurant), food is something that has always been a big part of his life. He spent his younger days working weekends at the restaurant, starting with the basics, peeling carrots, cutting French fries and the like. He notes that, “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been in the kitchen.”

Once he finished high school, he started an apprenticeship at Roland’s Steak House in Peterborough, and eventually moved back to Niagara to be a part of the growing culinary scene. He continued his apprenticeship at Queen’s Landing, and then moved over to the Moffat Inn where he started a kitchen. When he graduated from Niagara College at age 20, he became the youngest certified chef in the Niagara Region. From the Moffat Inn, he moved over to the Pillar and Post, and he has been there for the past 18 years. He was made Executive Chef in 2013.

I recently caught up with Chef Mark to chat about his career with Vintage Inns, his love of food, and the amazing dishes he creates on a regular basis.

NOTL: What made you decide you wanted to be a chef?
ML: “It was something that was very familiar to me, and I really enjoyed doing it. It’s great for the people who aren’t out there to make a lot of money and be famous, but they have a passion inside them and they want to express themselves. For me, culinary just seemed like the right place where I was comfortable and I could express that creativity.”

NOTL: Do you have a cooking philosophy?
ML: “A little bit…my style of food is about the journey, not the destination. My philosophy is to give guests something that they wouldn’t necessarily have at home, or something that they liked at home but done in a completely different way. So it’s usually very rich foods. I love the dull roar of a busy dining room and everyone enjoying themselves, it’s that feeling of being a host and having everybody happy; there is a feeling that you just can’t get anywhere else.”

NOTL: Is there someone in your career that stands out as a mentor?
ML: “Well, my father, and then I actually have two chefs that were predominant in my growth, the first one was Virginia Marr, she was the chef here at the Pillar and Post for eight years, followed by Randy Dupuis, who was the chef here for 10 years after that, and I almost look at it as, one taught me how to cook, and one taught me how to chef and run the business end of it. And the General Manager here, Paul MacIntyre, has always been a huge inspiration in terms of running a business, because none of it exists without it running as a business. If we don’t make money, we can’t express ourselves.”

NOTL: How do you stay educated on new food trends?

ML: “Well, myself and the other chefs in the company get together and we go for a weekend and hit all the best restaurants in Toronto, hit all the hotel lounges, and just stay in the loop with other chefs and find out what new things are coming out. It’s important to stay in contact with suppliers, and find out what new things they have available.”

NOTL: Is there a moment in your career that you are most proud of?
ML: “I would say getting my position here as Executive Chef is probably my proudest moment. I put it off for a long time, I have a 13-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son, and I didn’t want to take on the responsibility until they were old enough, because we felt it was important that we raise our kids and not utilize daycare as much. It is a little bit of a risk sometimes, you have to take the opportunity when it comes, and I did turn the position down a couple times. But when the time was right, it all came to me, and it was definitely my proudest moment.”

NOTL: Do you have a favourite ingredient?
ML: “I’m not sure if I have a favourite ingredient per say, or even a dish, I get asked that a lot, and it’s like asking an artist, what’s your favourite thing to paint? I really like to make almost anything, I like to challenge myself. I think one of my favourite things to make is soup; I find someone can put a lot of passion and creativity into soups and how they are presented and how they taste. My favourite ingredients are usually right out of my garden.”

NOTL: Do you have a favourite kitchen gadget you like to use?
ML: “I used to have so many tools in my toolbox, and over the years, I’ve gotten it down to about three different sized knives that I can do almost everything I want with. But in terms of cooking equipment if I had to pick one, it would probably be a BBQ. Summertime is not summertime if you aren’t grilling.”

NOTL: What kind of meals do you like to make at home?
ML: “My daughter and I like to cook together every Sunday. For the most part she goes and picks something that she wants to make, and then we make it. We cook a lot of soups at home, a lot of home-style stuff, like chicken pot pies and shepherds pies, and we do a lot of baking. Soups are something I like to teach her because it’s a simple way to eat, it’s freezable and so much can be done with a soup. It’s like doing a craft for the day. You have this vision of what you want it to be, and then you go and take the steps and do it. And by cooking soups you can learn almost every skill you need to cook, as far as caramelizing sugars and the right heat and how to manage a pan and chopping vegetables and so on.”

NOTL: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you would be doing?
ML: “I don’t know, probably working with my hands, maybe carpentry or even some kind of construction, but I’m not sure, I often think about that. When I was young I wanted to be a marine biologist and went to high school, and thought, no, I’m not going to be a marine biologist. I have a need to outlet my creativity at times, so building things and creating things…it would be something along those lines.”

NOTL: What would be on the menu at your last supper?
ML: “For me, my meal would be simple: lobster, clams, corn on the cob, potato, crab, all cooked together in a big sack in sea water, tossed in butter and put on a plate.”

NOTL: What would you say is unique about the NOTL dining scene?
ML: “Niagara-on-the-Lake is unique because we have so many different cultures, and we have so many different wineries, that we get to marry food and wine. It’s something that the region started doing almost 15-20 years ago, but is really becoming popular now. And again, it’s about the journey not the destination, so matching the flavours together, turned out to be a lot of fun for me. A little bit experimental, but a lot of fun, and I like to do the wine pairing events where I can actually go out and talk to the people about the food, tell them how to eat it with the wine and what flavours to look for.”

The Pillar and Post is located at 48 John Street West in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Dining options include The Cannery Restaurant, serving seafood, meat and vegetarian options. Vintages Wine Bar and Lounge is a great place to relax and grab some food off the menu offering classic pub fare.