Simple. Fresh. Fast. It is not a complicated equation to follow in Chef Brett Cournoyea’s sky-high kitchen. Against the popular trend of utilizing a thousand and one ingredients, Chef Cournoyea is unapologetic in his belief that food’s flavours should be enhanced and not complicated; and nor should he be. As the Executive Chef at the famed restaurant with the best view in town, Chef Cournoyea continually innovates each one of the Skylon Tower’s dishes with fresh, real ingredients and his uncomplicated way of cooking.
I sat down with Chef Cournoyea to discuss his culinary world, how he fosters his love for cooking and how he continues to innovate and infuse the Niagara culinary scene with authentic dishes each year.
How did you get into cooking?
A joke that I always say is my father is a mechanic, and he told me two things: first, if you try to be a mechanic I will break your fingers; second thing was get a job where you don’t have to bring your lunch to work every day. Joking aside, my best friend’s father was Karl Gehriger who was the Executive Chef with the Parks Commission. I grew up watching him in the kitchen and getting to see him work behind the scenes so it was always in the back of my mind. Another of my best friends was aspiring to be a chef and being in this area I started working in restaurants when I was 14. I started work in a kitchen as a busboy and then I transitioned to a job in the back of house and from there it was just an evolution.
What inspired you to become a chef?
I was always interested in learning everything in life that I could. I told myself, for the rest of my life I will be cooking so I might as well do this on a professional level.
Did you have a mentor[s] who was influential on your career?
I had applied here at the Skylon Tower, so I came here for an interview with the chef Maurice Olaizola … I walked in and he was a very stern intimidating kind of figure, so it was a very serious interview. I just looked at him and I knew that it would be a very tough route, but if I went and studied under him I felt I would learn a lot. He had a lot of training – he had had apprenticeships in three different countries – so he pushed me very hard and saw the potential that I had.
How long have you been with the Skylon Tower?
I have worked here since 1986. I worked the ranks up [underneath Olaizola] until I was his assistant chef for many years and then unfortunately he passed away and I took over his job.
Do you have a cooking and/or work philosophy?
I use good fresh ingredients and I only season to enhance the natural flavours; I don’t like to overpower – I like to promote and build one ingredient with another ingredient. My other philosophy is that I hire [employees] solely on attitude. We promote the training in house. We are always bringing in young, enthusiastic, eager attitudes and then from there they promote themselves.
What is your style of cooking?
It is a quick, simple, fresh and calculated style. I will cook and the mise en place and the completion of all the cooking will be all done at the same time. People seem to complicate things. I think they are overthinking it, overpowering it, they want to create more flavours by using more ingredients and that backfires on them.
How do you stay inspired?
Every day you see things and the funny thing is when you do something day after day after day – say pouring water or using water – you see the water differently after ten years of experience. So when you make a sauce the same way every day, you see different colours, you see different textures that you don’t see in the first few years. So it is about always trying to reevaluate what you are doing every day and enhancing that routine. The good part [about cooking] is that it is new every day. Yes, you are doing the same thing and cooking the same things every day, but you can tweak it and see something a little different.
Do you have a favourite ingredient to work with?
I love a very fresh fish. We deal with local [suppliers]; I have even gone so far as to bring in a whole live fish in a big tank.
Do you have a dish you like to cook at home?
It is usually pretty simple. A lot of times it will be a nice fresh piece of fish with salt and pepper, grilled to perfection and usually a mixture of a couple types of cabbages and coleslaw with nice light vinaigrette. My kids love the coleslaw. It sounds funny, but they are always asking for that.
What is your favourite meal to have when you are not the one in the kitchen?
I am a sucker for octopus. I was just in Boston and had a great recipe there with some Moroccan red lentils and grilled octopus
Written By: Gabrielle Tieman