The Butternut Tree
Discovering Canadian Food at The Butternut Tree
By Quinn Phillips
Edmonton’s Scott Downey is on a mission to answer one question: what is Canadian food?
And despite working in Copenhagen, Denmark and New York City, he’s determined to answer that question in Edmonton in his beautiful downtown space at The Butternut Tree.
Of course, there are the stereotypes we all love: poutine, ketchup chips and maple syrup among them. That doesn’t complete our culinary picture, though.
But before we answer ‘what,’ first we must answer why? How did Downey get to this place of wanting to define Canadian food? It has been a journey worth sharing.
He grew up loving food.
“I wanted to eat anything I’d never had before,” said Downey. “It drove my family nuts sometimes because I wanted to read the whole menu. Kids menus never interested me.”
But he didn’t grow up with a passion for cooking or spend much time in the kitchen.
It was out of desperation while he was in business school in Vancouver that he ended up in a commercial kitchen. He needed money, and a restaurant needed a dishwasher for a day, but when he showed up the fry cook wasn’t there, so he was instantly promoted.
“There was a connection immediately,” remembers Downey. “I really enjoyed the teamwork, the aspect of working towards one goal.”
He ended up quitting business school to work at that restaurant. Then New York came calling, and he attended the Culinary Institute of New York in Hyde Park about 90 minutes North of Manhattan.
“That changed my world and opened my eyes.”
Prior to that, he hadn’t even heard of a Michelin Star. When it was time for his internship, he applied at the three Michelin Star restaurants in New York City at the time. He was hired at DANIEL, a French fine-dining restaurant by world-renowned chef Daniel Bouldun.
“I spent three to four months peeling vegetables and cutting them into shapes for them,” said Downey. “But it was fascinating, this complete elevation. You’re almost starstruck when you walk into this pristine, brigade style kitchen that was run with such precision, such fluency. Everything was done so perfect and that was the only standard; I really gravitated towards that.
They loved him so much, the kitchen staff wanted him to quit school and stay – but he had already quit business school to cook, he wasn’t going to quit culinary school to work in a kitchen.
He would go back to DANIEL after school, though. But not before another eye-opening experience, a three-month internship at Noma in Denmark, a five-time winner of World’s Best Restaurant.
Noma is all about time and place. What’s growing around you that you can use to create a dish?
“It was the definition of Nordic food in the world that people hadn’t recognized yet,” said Downey. “It was amazing the different approaches by each of them (DANIEL and Noma) that I was so fascinated with.”
He would end up being a paid employee in both places for several years before it was time to return to Canada. His first stop was Vancouver, where he worked as a sous-chef at Wildebeest. But something was missing.
“I rented a car and drove to all these ecosystems and started foraging,” said Downey, who would end up quitting his job as sous-chef to sell these wild and foraged ingredients to restaurants in B.C. A nod to his time at Noma.
Through it all, his hometown kept calling, despite the comments ‘you lived in New York, there’s no way you’ll come back and live in Edmonton.’
Downey knows Albertans love of food though and he knows they seek out good food when they plan their winter vacations.
“Why do they wanna do that on vacation,” questions Downey. “Why don’t they do that here? Why don’t you want to have that culinary adventure of finding something new while you’re in your hometown?”
The Butternut Tree in the Ledgeview building on 110 St. and 97 Ave. seeks to do just that. Only Canadian ingredients are found on his menu and that includes the bar, challenging as it might be to make a cocktail without citrus.
“We have always had a team that wanted to explore it,” said Downey, who’s fiancé, Jillian Fonteyne runs front of house and built the events side of the business. “We have a unified goal and want to learn about Canadian food.”
So, do we have an answer? What is Canadian food?
“I don’t have a definition yet,” admits Downey. “I think the biggest thing is I always talk about ecosystems. I know that’s a very vague term, but we have such diversity in Canada from the west coast to the east coast and all the land coming inside of it is so contrasting.
“Then we have the things like the arctic and deserts in Osoyoos and Drumheller.”
Did you know our porcini mushrooms are shipped to some of the world’s best restaurants? Much of our seafood is shipped to the other side of the world. Canada can offer you anything.
“My number one goal, especially for the staff, especially for the guests, is that you have this moment of discovery,” said Downey. “You have this ‘a-ha’ moment of, I found something new and it’s exciting. Whenever you try something new in the food world that you like, it’s an exciting moment.
“That’s the big thing for me I wanted to have that here and express that through our food.”
So, hopefully you understand Edmonton and Canadian food a little bit more when you leave The Butternut Tree.