A Chat with Chef Robin Howe Catering at Willowbank
By Emma Cavanagh
When we pulled onto the property it was as if we had gone back in time. Off the beaten path, but just minutes from the Canadian/American boarder, Willowbank National Historic Site is breathtakingly beautiful. Reminiscent of 19 th -century Antebellum architecture found in the deep South of America, the building is now an institution for heritage conservation and renewal. You can also rent the space for weddings and other events.
Standing front and center outside between two opposing staircases was Robin Howe, Chef and Proprietor of Robin Howe Catering, who just so happens to be the primary caterer for Willowbank. This is a match made in heaven, as Howe grew up in old town Niagara-on-the-Lake and knows just how special this region is, especially for the culinary industry. Howe greeted us with a smile, and an enthusiasm only shown by someone who truly loves what they do, and where they are doing it.
Following a tour of the building and the grounds, we sat down in one of the classrooms and got to know more about Robin Howe, and Robin Howe Catering.
While attending University for Biology, Howe realized his passion for hands-on work, quickly determining academia wasn’t for him. Instead, he dove deep into the culinary industry and never looked back. Starting his career at The Windsor Arms in Toronto, Howe was thrown into the fire with chefs from all around the world; the energy and speed he experienced there had him hooked. While working at Scaramouche in Toronto, the wine industry in Niagara was just taking off. Howe decided to move back and land a position at one of the hotels in the region. He then started catering out of his mother’s kitchen, moving onto a B&B in Niagara-onthe-Lake, before finally launching his own catering company.
What excites you in the world of food today?
“What excites me today is the same thing that excited me 25 years ago when I started, and that’s local and seasonal produce coming in and trying to figure out new ways of cooking them, and presenting them. In the summer it’s the heirloom tomatoes, peaches in the late summer, apples in the fall. Especially in Niagara, there’s nothing better than Niagara produce.”
Favourite part of being a chef in Niagara?
“There’s an excitement about being in Niagara now that wasn’t there years and years ago. Being able to go down to the local farmers market and shop is my favourite part. I do all of the shopping for fruits and vegetables myself.”
Describe a day in your kitchen
“Get up early, work a long day, start cooking and don’t stop. It's crazy work and it still is after 25 years. I’m still working the crazy hours. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I do food prep all week. I don’t eat when I get up, I go straight to the kitchen and start cooking. I'll cook for 2-3 hours and get stuff done that my staff can't and then I shop for 2-3 hours. Then the staff does their prep work. I come back and I'll do admin work, and then when my staff is gone for the day that’s my quiet time to go back into my kitchen and I'll cook until about 11:00-12:00 at night.”
Favourite ingredients to cook with?
“Firstly, fresh herbs from my garden, combinations like béarnaise sauce with fresh tarragon, fresh thyme with fish. Secondly, local wine and spirits.” Although Howe spends a lot of time in the kitchen, one of his favourite activities is foraging for wild, edible mushrooms and plants in the woods. Being active is an important part of his life and on his nights off, which is few and far between, Howe likes a good pub meal with local beer. You may even see him enjoying a big diner breakfast with a newspaper the morning after catering a big event or wedding. It's clear that there’s a connection between food and being in the moment for Howe. It is also important to note that Howe does not follow food trends; instead he uses seasonal, local ingredients. Cooking them respectfully, bringing out the best taste and quality possible. Robin Howe Catering works together with clients to design a unique and delicious menu that brings together special moments, and local food for a truly beautiful experience. TM