Robert Davey sits with his back to the wall so that he has full view of the restaurant before him. With the confidence of a man completely at home, he leans forward to tell me the secret of his great success; “feed your team” he half whispers, with a glint of mischief in his eyes.
Indeed, Chef Davey returns time and time again to the central theme of food as healer, soother, and satisfier, where eating is a communal activity, and the table is touchstone of the family. “Good stuff happens at the kitchen table” he explains, “providing a good nourishing meal where we can laugh and talk and chat about our day. That’s what it is all about”. His philosophy shines through as Executive Chef at Quest, where top quality Localized Canadian ingredients transform into comforting, familiar, delicious dishes with International flair. Tucked into the stunning Hilton Mississauga Meadowvale, the tables are full of diners enjoying hearty, uplifting meals; Rigatoni Bolognese featuring a veal, pork, and ground beef blend finished with a 48-hour veal jus and Grana Padano, or their famous double smoked bacon mushroom cheeseburger, handmade from fresh ground chuck and brisket. “True comfort food” muses Davey, “we do a great veal and Portobello meatloaf also. Our business travelers are road warriors. At the end of a long day, when they get back to their hotel they want to feel comfortable, not pretentious.” Despite the familiar offerings available, the top seller is, and has always been, their Butter Chicken. Chef Davey explains that the recipe has been developed and reworked many times over the years, learning little secrets and spice blends from his former dishwashers in Vancouver. They would proudly present their special blends of spices from their respective villages, never revealing exactly what they were, but offering many hints along the way which shaped and created the dish it is today.
Chef Davey feels that he fell into being a chef, starting off as a home cook for his family as a hobby. First, working in small restaurants in Vancouver while completing his education. He was offered an internship placement in a hotel kitchen which transitioned into an apprenticeship in Vancouver where he started to hone his skills while being exposed to opportunities of Culinary Competitions and the discipline required to compete eventually leading him to support Team British Columbia and later Team Canada in their world competition quests. Working with these incredibly talented chefs provided positional growth opportunities, each with more discipline and responsibility, including hotel butcher, Chef de Partie, saucier, a sous chef, an executive sous chef and finally Executive Chef, which would morph into executive chef and director of food and beverage years later. “I would go to work in the dark and return home in the dark” he laughs, but it was extremely rewarding and fun.
Now, as Executive Chef, Davey does not shrink from making bold statements with his food, whether it is in his ingredients, his methodology, or his presentation. “I’m not into nouveau or stacking” he elaborates, “I’m more about layering flavors. I don’t like to fiddle with food too much.” He insists that ingredients are fresh and local where possible.
When asked why he has worked in hotels his entire career, Davey explains “I love being around people. That’s what I love most about being a chef. I love being in my kitchen around my kitchen team, I like the creativity in what I do and how I can manipulate food, but I always tend to go back to the comforts.” Indeed, when Davey describes his desert island food (his mother’s slow roasted pork shoulder and Yorkshire puddings are “to die for”) I can almost see the Sunday table of his youth. Tonight though, the plan is to have something a little more simple; “I love braised short ribs, Osso Buco, and family style meals. But my go-to when I get home is poached eggs on toast or simple breakfast cereal”.