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Catering to both Falls keeps chef challenged

As Ontario chef Cory Linkson makes the 20-minute drive between his restaurants in the Canadian and U.S. cities of Niagara Falls, he has been getting to know the farmers, customer tastes and culture differences on this side of the border and adjusting his menus accordingly.

"Things are not the same. In Canada, I know who to go to. I deal directly with farmers," Linkson said. "Going to the American market, suddenly you don't know anybody. You don't know where a good bakery is."

In the year since he has started managing the Merani Hotel Group's local restaurants, he has discovered DiCamillo's Bakery, which now supplies the bread for the Bruschetta at the Four Points by Sheraton restaurant.

"I really love supporting local people, local business," he said. "In Canada, I support the farmers. I go and buy right from them."

Linkson, 40, is Merani's corporate chef overseeing the chefs at two restaurants in each city of Niagara Falls. The Ag, at the Sterling Hotel and Spa in Canada, is the fanciest. For another, now under construction in Niagara Falls, N.Y., he may take a similar approach when it opens in a little more than a year on Buffalo Avenue in the soon-to-be renovated former Fallside hotel building.

Next month -- May 25 to 27 -- will find him and his Coq Au Vin Risotto along with the offerings of 150 other Ontario chefs, food purveyors, breweries and wineries at the Niagara Food & Wine Expo in the Scotiabank Convention Centre in Niagara Falls, Ont.

"It's really an event for regular people who are interested in food and drink," he said.

>Merani is rehabbing the former Fallside Hotel on Buffalo Avenue?

They're going to strip it back to the rafters and rebuild out again. It is going to be a franchise. It hasn't been totally determined yet. It's going to be a level above Four Points. It has a 500-seat ballroom. Rooftop martini bar. A few hundred rooms. It is overlooking the water. It does also have water views just like the Four Points. The concept is not totally nailed down yet. It's obviously a multimillion-dollar project. It's a big hotel.

>So Niagara Falls, N.Y., seems to be on the verge of developing the kind of economic prosperity that Niagara Falls, Ont., is famous for?

Five consistent years in a row they've had increases. All the indicators are up. It's a growing market. The market is not as saturated. It's a good time to get in there.

>The passport and stricter ID requirements for crossing the border have coincided with a spike in Niagara Falls and a drop in American tourism in Canada. More locals seem to be staying closer to home.

We still have a huge clientele from Buffalo. It's down from its hey day.

>Your approach to Ag's food, driving to the Ontario farms yourself, seems unusual and modern.

You can't even call it contemporary. It's the way people ate thousands of years ago. I'm living off the land almost.

Unfortunately, you can't come and get that great dish you had last time. You can't come in October and have that asparagus dish you had last time. When it's asparagus season, you eat it until you're sick of it and then you wait another year.

As opposed to a menu that's the same all the time. You see that food everyday and you're sick of it for a different reason.

>Why go to this much trouble?

This is not a job, it's not a career, it's a life. You have to give into it 100 percent. There's not a lot of jobs where you can have a glass of wine at the end of the night. Once you give in and you live it as your whole life

What about the Niagara Falls, N.Y., restaurants? You don't have the connections to run them as you do in Canada.

It's two totally different entities. All of my philosophy cannot filter over there. We're making everything from scratch in a city where not a lot of people do it in a chain hotel.

Four Points, it's just been a year open. Getting the word out is always a challenge in our business.

The ballroom overlooks water. We've booked 23 weddings already this year. It's just exploding. There's a great patio on the back that overlooks the water.

>Local people have been coming to Four Points because they were fans of the place when it was called the Red Jacket Inn.

During our construction, they were coming in [saying], "When are you opening?" They used to have great Sunday brunches there.

We've done Easter and Mother's Day brunch. We haven't formally committed to an every Sunday brunch. There's certainly plans for it.

>How did you get interested in taking a local approach to restaurant cooking?

I traveled around as a chef normally does In Maine, Kennebunkport, the hotel, the White Barn Inn, they had a great program running. The food is impeccable. It's probably the highest-rated restaurant on the Eastern Seaboard.

They use lots of local products. We would get a call from the fisherman at 8 o'clock in the morning when they were on their way back from picking up their lobster traps. It was so fresh, it was jumping out of the box. You've never seen lobsters this fresh.

It really hit home when I was working at Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Hillebrand winery. They were opening the first farm-to-table restaurant.

In the city -- concrete and skyscrapers -- that's where cutting-edge food used to be. That's sort of where chefs are drawn to: big markets.

Here I was, driving on my way to work, literally through vineyards. Farmers showing up at the back door with product. It really clicked home at that point, how nature has a progression through the year of the seasons. So does the winery. And so does eating. It also just comes together that this is the way to eat.

I was eating in the season. Squash in the fall. Asparagus in the spring. At the end of the day this became something I would never move away from now. As a chef, as a person.

Wherever I go from here, that's the way I will be cooking. The whole concept really reminded me of growing up with my grandmother and her garden. She had beans and corn. She grew tons of strawberries. She would pick it, clean it and use it for dinner. That's the exact same concept I use now.

>Can you tell me about something on the menu now? At Ag?

We have ramps, which are wild leeks, and they're from the Niagara escarpment. It's a ramp and wild mushroom salad. It's served with Lake Erie pickerel. It has a carrot vinaigrette. It's very spring. New spring carrots that are juiced and turned into a vinaigrette. It's time to lighten things up after a long winter.

>And Four Points?

A great thin crust pizza. Prosciutto and asparagus.

We use that nice Calabrese bread. We make a nice Bruschetta. We dice the tomatoes ourselves. We make the pesto ourselves.

Niagara Falls, N.Y., I'm coming to learn. Learning the American taste. They really love home-style restaurants It's like your Nana in there making lasagna for you. That's the kind of down-home feeling that Niagara Falls wants. That's what we're trying to give them.

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Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Bruce Andriatch, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com