Brent McAllister: Living the Happily Ever After

By Lindy Mechefske

AquaTerra’s Executive Chef Brent McAllister is reserved, a tad shy, and quietly profound. He believes strongly in family and community, and food. He speaks about values, community, learning, and love – all of which he ties back to food. He is frank about his own lifelong process of growing up which he talks about with a rare sense of self-awareness. There’s no doubt about his being in the right place, Chef Brent McAllister has two feet firmly planted on the ground. He knows exactly what matters in life and he loves where he’s at, and that includes being at the helm of AquaTerra.

Lindy Mechefske: Where does your passion for food come from?
Brent McAllister: I have wonderful early memories of food and family. Of being in the garden and plucking radishes and green onions straight from the earth and eating them right away, with just a little sprinkle of salt. Those are tastes that are still with me. And I have many memories of big family gatherings where my mother was busy in the kitchen. When I was still in grade school I got it into my head that I wanted to make an apple pie for a holiday dinner. I can still remember that sense of accomplishment – and the feeling that I was contributing something meaningful. Food is often symbolic of bigger things.

LM: How did you train to be a chef?
BM: I was always good at math, so in high school, I planned to become an accountant. At the time, I was working in a restaurant as a dishwasher. When I went on to study accounting, I was still working in a restaurant and slowly working my way up the ladder. In hindsight that humble early training taught me to really respect every position in the restaurant.

After I graduated from accounting, I realized that my first love was really being in the kitchen and working with food. I started at AquaTerra in 1999, before going on to Queen’s University Club, and then Hillebrand Estates Winery in the Niagara Region. Eventually, I wound my way back, full-circle, to AquaTerra, bringing back everything I’d learned. Some cooking skills are innate, some techniques can be learned but it strikes me that one of the most important things a chef can learn is how to move in the kitchen – there’s a sort of fluency of moves, a kind of efficiency in the kitchen, which is so important.

LM: What drives you forward in your career? Are there important influences or things that inspire you? Other chefs, cookbooks, movies, specific cuisines – or something else entirely?
BM: Cooking is just what I love to do. The Winemaker’s Dinners at AquaTerra, for example, for me those dinners are pure love and joy. As for inspiration, I draw it from everywhere but I am inspired by such simple things as really good produce straight out of the garden. At its best, produce is gorgeous, just gorgeous.

LM: What’s your absolute favourite thing about being a chef?
BM: I love the opportunity to create. And I also really value the relationship with the community around food: farmers, producers, other staff, and ultimately, customers.

LM: What’s makes you happy at work?
BM: I’m happy when everyone else is happy. A big part of my job is keeping customers happy. And also keeping the team happy. The easy part of my job is cooking. The more difficult part is the management side of things – that’s more complex, more layered.

Brent McAllister: Living the Happily Ever After
Photo via AquaTerra

LM: How do you see Canada’s culinary identity?
BM: I think we’re evolving beyond the notion that Canadian cuisine consists of French fries and maple syrup. There’s an important emerging trend of being involved with local growers – knowing who they are, supporting their efforts, using what the land provides us with. I think we’re starting to treat food with greater respect. I think we’re getting better at doing things seasonally too. Our growing season is short but we can optimize it by preserving, pickling, and planning ahead. For example, I make tomato jam while tomatoes are at their peak and then we have the opportunity to savour that optimum flavour all year round instead of eating cardboard tomatoes in the middle of winter.

Brent McAllister: Living the Happily Ever After
Photo via AquaTerra

LM: What are your favourite off-duty, go-to meals at home or out?
BM: My absolute favourite meal is a toasted tomato sandwich made with a fresh tomato picked straight from the garden. I’ll use whatever bread is in the house. A bit of salt and pepper. Some mayonnaise. And maybe, but not necessarily, some bacon. Really impossible to beat a fresh from the garden tomato sandwich.

LM: What unusual thing do you have in your refrigerator right now?
BM: I don’t know if you’d call it unusual but I usually have some kimchi and chili peppers from the Asian Market. I like a fresh salad with some chopped cabbage in it and a kimchi dressing.

LM: If you could cook for anyone at all, who would you choose?
BM: I’d cook for my Mom and Dad. They’re both gone but I’d love to show them how I’ve grown up over the years, how hard I’ve worked, the man I’ve become. I’d like them to see how I’ve taken over the family dinners so that the tradition continues. I think as a society we’re in danger of losing that sense of community that big, old-fashioned gatherings around food created. In general, families are smaller than they used to be and gatherings are getting less common. We’re really losing something when we lose that sense of community. I’m working to try to keep that alive. I want my two children to understand the importance of food, family, values, and community.

LM: What do you value most in life?
BM: No question. FAMILY. I love what I do and I put my heart into it – but I do it to support my family. I want to teach my children well. I want them to know what matters. Food just happens to be a big part of all that.
I also really value the feeling that I am where supposed to be. I love what I do. I’m living the happy ever after.

LM: And lastly, could you let us in are some of your favourite local suppliers?
Asian Market
Beking Poultry Farm
Empire Cheese
Enright Cattle Co.
Forman Farms
Hogan’s Honey
Kingston Olive Oil Company
Mensen Farm
Salt of the Earth Farm
Seed to Sausage
Sonset Farm
Upper Canada Creamery

AquaTerra is open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Vu lounge, adjacent to the restaurant, is a perfect spot for a quiet drink alongside the water and offers its own menu in addition to the restaurant menu.
For full menus and reservations, please visit their website here.