We stopped by Aquaterra the other day to have a little chat with executive chef Brent McAllister. For those of you who are unfamiliar, McAllister has been leading the Aquaterra kitchen since 2004.
Before working in Kingston, he spent time as an apprentice under critically acclaimed chef Tony de Luca and now draws on his expertise and relationships with local farmers to bring his best to the Kingston food scene.
We caught up with Brent to see what it’s like to be an executive chef, what defines Canadian food, and what he thinks of Kraft Dinner.
You’ve been working at Aquaterra for over ten years, that’s quite a long time. How did you first get into the food industry?
I just started off with washing dishes in high school. There were a lot of late hours at the restaurant and early mornings before school. I was studying accounting in school, but the more I worked in kitchens, the more it grew on me.
With all the skills and techniques to learn, I just got hooked, and twenty plus years later, I’m still at it. This is my passion. My calling.
Any advice for aspiring cooks who want to get their feet wet?
Just try it out, don’t get discouraged and realize that everyone starts somewhere. I started off as a dishwasher and if you want to rise up the ranks, you have to put in the hours to get noticed, and that can take a long time.
Just don’t give up, pitch in and go above and beyond what’s expected of you. People come and go and it’s the people that do things outside their job description that really get noticed. Hard workers with dedication are hard to find these days, dishwashers don’t have a glorious job, but putting in 110% is the only way to get where you want.
Switching to the other end of the spectrum, there’s a lot of people that think cooking’s a chore. What would you say to them?
The thing about cooking is that it’s really what you want it to be. You get what you put in. Try going beyond just following recipes. Tweak them a bit to really make it your own and that’s where cooking gets fun.
You don’t really need a recipe, just the ingredients. And obviously, the fresher the ingredients and the more you know about them, like where they come from, the better.
What do you think shapes Kingston’s food culture?
The biggest factor has to be the farmers and suppliers that give us the ingredients to work with. The food scene is really tied to the local growers and I’ve had suppliers approach me with things like frozen French fries and my response is “get outta here.”
So I guess with ingredients it’s safe to say that the fresher and closer to home, the better.
For sure. I really enjoy growing my own stuff at home, I get a sense of enjoyment and stress relief from just slugging it out in the garden and putting in the work because you know what the outcome is going to be: just a better ingredient.
And it’s the same thing for the farmers I work with. They don’t get rich doing what they do, but they have so much passion for their work and you can taste it in the product.
You gotta love the work and if you don’t, then you’re just in the wrong business.
Kingston’s got a big student population and things like instant noodles and Kraft Dinner are big dorm room staples, do you think you could work them into something servable for your guests?
Well the instant noodles are a bit easier than Kraft Dinner. KD just sorta is what it is: it’s so processed. With the instant noodles, you can really play off of the flavours of all the different ramen dishes, which are really hot these days. Add in some cilantro, lime, chilies, beef, maybe an egg, and suddenly it’s more than just instant noodles.
What about the KD?
That’s definitely a tough one, it’s got such a distinct flavour that’s really hard to work with. Admittedly, I do have some in my cupboards at home and my wife will sometimes make a box, but no, I don’t think I could serve it to my guests.
So KD’s not gourmet material, but it’s definitely got a Canadian identity. What does Canadian food mean to you?
We’re labelled in so many ways that people don’t even really know what we’re about, but its definitely not just poutine and maple syrup and KD. Canadian food’s all about supporting the local growers and making a strong connection to the land. It’s not just in Kingston, it’s all across Canada.
Are there any spots in Kingston you’d recommend to go out to eat?
I’m a family man so I like to stay at home and make things for the kids and get them involved too. There are some hot spots like Pat’s for Thai and for Chinese food there’s East Side Village. Sometimes I’ll just bounce around downtown. Some others that come to mind are Woodenheads, Olivea and Casa Domenico.
Do you find being a chef lends itself to making networks with the owners or kitchen staff wherever you’re eating out at?
I tend to stick to myself. It’s not that I think I’m better than them or anything, I’m just shy. When I go out to eat, I don’t really expect anyone to come out and give special treatment just because I’m also a chef, I’m just out for a good meal.
Are there any influences on your cooking style you’ve picked up from times you’ve gone out to eat?
No. Like I said, when I’m eating out, all I’m doing is enjoying good meal. And when I’m out with my wife, it’s about spending time with her and it’s not even about the food.
So what would you say you’re influenced by?
There are a lot of food trends, and you evolve as they do. I do a lot of research online and see what’s hot around the world.
Two big trending ingredients for 2015 were harissa and kale. They’re starting to fade away, but they’ll be back because that’s just how trends go. And it’s the same way for dishes, there’s always some new trend, but they’re all based off old, classic dishes, it’s just the tweaks that people put on them.
Any cooking shows out there you keep up with?
I used to watch Top Chef, but I didn’t keep up with it just because of the attitude of a lot of the people. It shows chefs in this arrogant light and I actually find that’s why a lot of people want to go into cooking, because these shows glorify what it is to be a chef. But they don’t show the time and hard work it takes to get there.
Fondest food memory?
I’ve had a lot of good meals, but the one thing that sticks out is just walking through my grandmother’s garden, picking radishes and green onions straight out of the ground. I do the same thing with my kids now and I really think that’s what sparked the love of food in my life.
Getting to talk with Brent was a great opportunity. His well-mannered air is a stark contrast from the arrogant, control-freak caricature of chefs presented in reality cooking shows and other media.
Brent really brings out the human element of cooking with his connections to the farmers and growers he works with, and at the end of the day, that’s really what cooking’s about, just bringing people together.