Wining & Dining on the East Coast

August 01 2019

A chef who wasn’t going to be a chef, Justin Floyd went from cooking out of necessity to cooking out of obsession with his favourite flavours - and the guests of Nova Scotia’s wine country couldn’t be happier.

We stopped by Chef Justin Floyd’s kitchen at Avondale Sky Winery to learn about his journey from casual cook to master of elevated wine pairings and tasting menus; complete with a never-ending love of pickles.

Having grown up within a busy family and very simple cuisine, how did you first get into cooking as a profession and what inspired you to make it into a career?

When I first started cooking, I always considered it as a side job. Right out of high school, I had travelled quite a bit, moved to the west coast and enjoyed backpacking around. Cooking in pubs or restaurants was always a way to hold a job wherever I went because you can pretty much do it anywhere with a little bit of experience. I never really took it too seriously during those years, but little did I know I was actually developing a skillset for busy lines and restaurants. These experiences and roles allowed me to learn what I didn't like about food and what I did like about food.

When I later moved to Halifax, I realized I wasn't going make a career out of the trade I was originally studying so I decided it was time to get serious about cooking. I buckled down, gained as much knowledge as I could educating myself and started working with legitimate chefs to better myself and my career.

Now that you’ve been working in food for over a decade and have specialized in elevated cuisine without the pretentious concepts, describe your approach to cooking and the flavour processes behind it.

My approach to cooking is simplicity. We're located in the belly of the province’s growers and providers, so I try not to throw too much shade over the ingredients. I create dishes with really simple, great ingredients and good cookery. I believe that's the ticket to good food. I'm not trying to plate with tweezers or put 50 components into a dish. We're not set up for that type of service here at Avondale Sky Winery so we have to do minimal component and clean dishes with great local ingredients.

To me, what elevated food means is cooking your food properly. I don't think it needs to be anything super special and cookery alone is often overlooked in a lot of restaurants. For example, when chefs or cooks make a dish with foam, plate it with tweezers and it looks really fancy, it’s not going to be on point if the cookery is off. This is why we focus on just cooking things properly and presenting it in a beautiful way.

On top of that, with flavour profiles, I think these are something that are ever changing for me. My profiles at a given time depend on what cookbook I'm reading or whatever's inspiring me. For example, I once went through a phase where I was really interested in Asian cuisine, so a lot of my food reflected that in the way I was cooking and the spices I was using. Later, we took a trip down to New Orleans and I got really into Southern food for a bit.

I think it's really important to travel to develop your palate. If you're travelling and eating elsewhere, your flavour profiles are going to naturally change along the way. 

How do you best combine elevated cuisine with the local, seasonal ingredients Halifax has to offer? 

My cuisine is dictated by the season and what's growing. We're lucky enough to structure our menu so that it can change five times in one season. For example, when I go to the market, which I do every Saturday for the restaurant, if there's something fresh and newly grown, we're going to put a new dish on the menu to reflect the seasonality. I get bored really quickly of menus and am always looking for changes and adjustments. 

I also always structure the menu format in a way that we can constantly evolve it, even during a short season like the wine season which runs here from June until October. We might run four or five different menus in that time. This keeps it interesting for people who are coming in often and makes them want to get here to see each menu and try the food as it changes. 

What are the biggest challenges in developing menus that pair well with the wines offered at your winery and how do you overcome them?

I don't feel like we have too many challenges. We're on a winery so we have an incredibly talented team. I work with the winemaker and front of house manager to always offer proper pairings. I think something that I do struggle with is that I'm a big fan of heavily acidic food, I love vinegars and pickles in my dishes. That doesn't always jive super well with wine pairings. Thankfully, we have such a dedicated and well-equipped team that they've managed to create really great pairings, even for the dishes I'm doing with pickles. I tend to lean heavy on the wine side of the team and they help me through that stuff.

How would you like to evolve or grow the food program at Avondale Sky Winery?

I'd like to grow more food on-site. The first year, we tried to put gardens in, and it went really well. We got a pretty good yield. As far as timing goes, I can't run two restaurants, grow and be a farmer at the same time, which is a struggle. Accommodation and a garden would be a huge help to this space because we are quite remote. Offering a place for guests to stay would give people the ability to drink that extra bottle of wine and stay on-site. On top of that, if we grew 80% of produce on-site, that'd be pretty amazing. 

What would you pinpoint as unique about Halifax wineries that could persuade tourists and connoisseurs outside the Nova Scotia area to make this their destination?

I think the fact that it is still somewhat of a hidden gem. You're not going to run into the crowds you might find in other wine countries. The beauty of this land is incredible and over-sighted; I don't think many people realize how beautiful the valley is until they drive through it. The climate here is also building itself to be a producer of really great sparkling wines over the next decade. I think it's going to stand out as a sparkling wine destination.