Coming up as a Chef de Cuisine in the Big Smoke, Amber Plourde was literally surrounded by Chefs. At all times. Everybody wanted to be a chef. She was able to use her skills to assist and guide chefs, and likewise, was able to learn from those around her. Now as the Executive Chef of The Grey, the hottest new establishment on the Thornbury harbourfront, things are drastically different – and it’s working out to be a blessing in disguise.
“Nobody wants to be a Chef in there,” says Amber on the patio overlooking the marina. “It’s just a filler until ski season until they jump to a different property – but they’re blowing my mind.”
The Grey is staffed by a rag-tag group of ski town misfits who have risen to the high standard of Chef Amber, despite some having never cooked a day in their life – a true testament to the power of an affirming, supportive environment - and to Amber’s abilities as a culinary powerhouse and leader.
“My Walmart worker,” says Amber referring to an employee who used to work in the big box giant until ski season took off, “is now my main baker. She’s my number one, and I adore her.”
You’d think with any new kitchen, the environment would be chaotic and hectic – and it certainly can be, Amber admits – but the dedication of these folks has given the kitchen landscape at The Grey an immediate family-vibe that you can taste in the stunning, mouth-watering dishes that come out the door. Imagine Gordon Ramsay’s behaviour in Hell’s Kitchen. None of that jazz here. Stereotypical alpha-male Chef personality barking at line cooks? Nope. Never. Instead, there’s a weirdly dialed-in process that means food is made serenely; fresh-to-order, in-house, and from scratch whenever possible.
That’s nothing short of epic in a new kitchen, especially one staffed by a group without any kitchen experience.
“It’s working because we’ve created a family. There’s no yelling, there’s no screaming, there’s no putting anybody down. That old-school mentality is just gone. It’s more about, one: empathy, but also – they’re so proud of themselves. They’re learning something… And you know what? I have a bunch of followers in there and I love it. They’re the nicest people and it’s a little family in there and I love each and every one of them.”
But it’s been a long road to get this far, admits Amber. The Niagara native worked in wine country but grew bored of the scene. She and her partner, Jeff, who works alongside her at The Grey as the pastry chef, high-tailed it for Toronto where Amber landed at the iconic Drake Hotel; here she got her first taste of the kitchen-family dynamic she’s created here on Georgian Bay.
She won the Ontario Hostelry Institute’s prestigious 30-under-30 award back in 2016 for her dedication to her craft, and took from it a boost of confidence and enthusiasm she needed to thrive in one of the most competitive culinary scenes in North America. When the couple had their son, they knew the fast-paced environment wasn’t for them, so they began searching for a way to satisfy their culinary roots, while laying some familial roots of their own.
“That’s one thing I told [Spencer] when I met with him. I said, ‘listen, I want to work with my man – I want to see him, he inspires me. He’s the logical part of me and balances me. This is my first Chef de Cuisine job, I’ve been a notorious, professional sous chef for everyone. I never wanted to do this by myself. I always wanted to cook the food, to control the kitchen, and for nobody to know who I was – so this is very different for me.”
Why the change after such a powerful emergence onto the restaurant scene? Another aspect of The Grey’s family mantra; the owner, Spencer.
“I randomly went on Indeed one day and met with Spencer and just his passion and enthusiasm for this place? It blew my mind. And honestly, his love and care for my family is astounding. He’s my boss here, but outside of work he’s my personal assistant,” smiles Amber. “He found me a place to live in Thornbury, he’ll pick me up in the morning so my son doesn’t have to wake up – he’s a very caring man, and he really wanted that family feel here. He wanted no division between front-of-house and back-of-house – we’re just one.”
That love between management and staff goes beyond the pan, as well. Served fresh at The Grey is a culinary ethos that demands local, ethically produced, sustainable ingredients. From beef to produce and dairy, The Grey gets it from South Georgian Bay producers when it can, making for a delicious and inspired menu that changes as often as the weather around here.
On the plates in front of me, Amber plops down a menacingly good-looking upside down apple cake with whipped streusel crème fraiche that was only made a few short hours ago. To it’s right, a chicken dish as chic and modern-looking as a Jackson Pollock painting. Ready for this? There’s a grilled radicchio salad with a blackberry agrodolce, toasted hazelnuts, and Red Price apples sitting adjacent to a confit chicken leg that’s been cured in fat for 18 hours and hard seared.
When you eat at this place, you’re forced to question your preconceived notions of what fine-dining means. This spot is fresh. It’s exciting. It’s elegant, brash, poised, and reckless all at the same time. It’s out-of-the-gate approach to turning the kitchen archetype on its head is working – because like the food they source here, there’s care that goes into every last relationship under the roof.
The taste is upscale and grandiose, while the attitude is both humble and appreciative; who wouldn’t head back for seconds of that?
Photos by Nelson Phillips. Chef photo provided by The Grey.