Cory Linkson knows he’s going to be judged when he’s at work today.
It won’t be for anything he says. It certainly won’t be for his outfit — Linkson wears the mandatory chef’s whites every day. Instead, strong opinions will be cast about what the executive chef does behind the burner at AG Cuisine in Niagara Falls, which is to be expected when yours is a four diamond-rated restaurant 11 years running.
“Who goes to work every day and gets judged on everything they do?” Linkson asked rhetorically. “Not too many people. You can’t have an off day in a restaurant. It’s not an easy environment to work in, for sure.”
Still, it’s one he loves. The proof is in that consistently high rating Linkson and AG Cuisine, set in the Sterling Inn just off the well-worn tourist path, have received every year since the restaurant opened in 2007. Not only are there four diamonds, awarded by CAA/AAA, to live up to, there are other reputations to uphold, including being one of OpenTable’s 100 most romantic restaurants in Canada, or residing on the reservation app’s best overall list.
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That success is rooted in Linkson’s talent as a chef, which he began honing as a teen while working in the commissary of his parents’ St. Catharines pizzeria. But it can also be attributed to something else: Linkson’s passion for showcasing Niagara du jour on a plate.
“We try to take seasonal and local to a hyper-extent,” Linkson explained.
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The reason is simple. It’s not only because Linkson cooks in one of the most fertile regions in Canada, whose microclimates make it easy for almost anything to grow here. It’s because ingredients from far-flung places have passed their four-diamond prime by the time they make it to a professional kitchen.
They simply aren’t good enough for Linkson’s calibre of cooking.
“All food in the grocery store is designed for you to eat in the last 30 per cent of its life,” he said. “By the time it gets to a restaurant, there’s really no life left in the stuff. We wanted to get closer to farmers. I wanted to change the paradigm of how we eat our food.”
He does that by having land and a staff farmer who uses permaculture, farming that “goes in the way of nature,” to grow vegetables harvested the same day they appear on an AG menu.
Linkson’s drive to be a good steward of nature led to the addition of bee hives at the farm three years ago, and with it, the birth of the AG Busy Bee Honey Factory. The honey and pollen the bees provide inspire creativity in the kitchen, but they also do the heavy lifting during a growing season that no farmer can: they pollinate crops on the AG farm and those surrounding it.
“It’s sort of a circle of life that we’re trying to develop,” Linkson said. “It’s not just singular. It’s many things that we’re doing to be good stewards to the land and planet.”
What they don’t grow themselves is easily sourced on other local farms whose names and stories are shared with diners, he noted.
“We should be highlighting the farmers in this area. The terroir of this soil is really special in this area and this is why we should be doing it.”
It was also the next logical step after 30 years working in an industry with a black eye for being wasteful.
Linkson, who travelled throughout North America to climb the ranks in a professional kitchen, could have taken his cues from some of those mentors in the early days of his career, who called suppliers across the globe for ingredients. That was when imported was de rigueur, and little thought was given to how food was grown in other countries, or farm labour conditions.
The years spent in kitchens operating this way wore on him, and Linkson didn’t want to be part of what he saw as a significant problem.
He was struck by a chef he worked with out West who did “Rocky Mountain cuisine,” featuring local bison and berries on the menu. Returning to Niagara in 1996 to help usher in the farm-to-table movement that spawned the region’s wine country cuisine also inspired him to forge a solution to the restaurant industry’s largesse.
At that time, Niagara was importing chefs bringing a new approach to fine dining. The first winery restaurants were opening and big city cuisiniers, including Tony de Luca at Hillebrand in Niagara-on-the-Lake (now Trius), were hired to begin a shift away from the quantity over quality mentality that drove many kitchens in tourist hot spots here.
Linkson worked as de Luca’s sous chef for five years before moving down Niagara Stone Road to the restaurant at Peller Estates. In both winery kitchens, he fell into the rhythm of Niagara’s seasons and it moved him.
“You get into this rhythm year over year. You gravitate toward that rhythm of nature. I was really glad I could come (to AG Cuisine) and do the same. Maybe I was a farmer in another life,” he said with a laugh.
Those rhythms of the growing season set the tune for the daily menu changes that happen at AG to show diners “this is Niagara Falls right now.”
“Whatever is ready at the farm has to go on the menu, so we just change, change, change,” he explained. “We sort of fly by the seat of our pants. The goal is to keep the same quality level menu change after menu change. It doesn’t matter what you order, we try to have the same quality, the same freshness. We try to let the area speak to you.”
And then let diners speak about the experience — something that drives Linkson “to get to that level of expectation I need to meet.”
“It’s a creative endeavour,” he said. “You have to be a person who enjoys having a creative idea, turning it out on a plate and seeing guests’ reactions.”
Tiffany Mayer, My Niagara Profiles
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