Prince Edward County is often known for its plentiful wineries, picturesque landscapes and local farms. However, in recent years, it has also gained a reputation for its booming culinary scene. Access to local farms and ingredients allows chefs to feature products from around the county while also focusing on seasonality when creating their menus. This is Chef Amanda Ray’s approach in her role as Executive Chef of The Drake Devonshire Inn: a staple in Prince Edward County.
In a recent sit-down with Amanda, we learned how she uses these local ingredients and seasonality in her dishes to her advantage, and how it helped when it came to a partnership she did with the local Sandbanks Estate Winery. We also discussed her journey to executive chef and got her favourite foodie spots and tips in Prince Edward County.
From family cooking to executive chef
While local farms and businesses influence Chef Amanda’s menus today, her interest in cooking goes far back and is influenced by her travels further abroad. “I spent a lot of time with my grandparents growing up. My grandmother was an amazing cook. [She] taught all the grandkids how to cook and bake and do preserves. So I started early,” she says.
Amanda’s love of The Urban Peasant, a cooking show that aired on CBC also sparked an enthusiasm for cooking and food. “I [would come] home from school and would watch The Urban Peasant‘s James Barber, and I thought he was pretty funny and just really loved that aspect. So that kind of started the journey”.
I fell in love with it and never looked back.
When Amanda finished high school, she started traveling while trying to figure out what she wanted to do next. “I couldn’t decide what I wanted, but [cooking] was always in the back of my mind.” Eventually, her sister made a suggestion. “[She] said ‘why don’t you go to school and study to be a chef and see if you like it?’ So I went to George Brown College in Toronto, and I fell in love with it and never looked back.”
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Studying to be a chef led Amanda to even more travelling so she could complete stages. (Pronounced staj, it is similar to an internship where young chefs work in another chef’s kitchen to learn new skills, techniques or cuisines). She did a short stage in Tuscany and a longer stage in the south of France and these only fuelled her desire for more travel. “I just wanted to travel to places and incorporate foods and the culinary aspects [into dishes],” she says. She would then take those learnings and use them in pop-up dinners at the restaurant she was a chef at, using them to gain perspective on different flavour profiles. “It gets your wheels turning… you can either take something and make it your own or learn how they did it.”
For 15 years after graduating, Amanda lived and worked in Toronto with Oliver and Bonacini, which is recognized as one of Canada’s leading hospitality companies. She reflects on growing within the company and how having a mentor influenced her. “I had a mentor for a long time in Toronto who worked with Oliver and Bonacini… and he was super passionate. He was kind of the one that helped me when I was a sous chef coming up and helped mentor my thoughts about food. If I had ideas about dishes, he would kind of take them and help me with my focus to make something better and to learn through techniques.” She worked her way up at a number of Oliver and Bonacini restaurants including Auberge du Pommier and Canoe, and then became executive chef of Biff’s Bistro.
A new challenge
Eventually, she took a leap into something and somewhere new. “The company that I was working for was opening a restaurant in Montreal, and I loved Montreal as a dining city and it just has a different smaller town feel,” she explains. “I’ve never opened a restaurant before and we were doing a hotel, a restaurant, and an event space. I had that option to kind of cut my teeth doing something new!”
She stayed in that position for a few years before COVID hit. “Everything sort of shifted and I realized that my job had changed and it wasn’t going to go back to being what it was for such a long time. I didn’t want to just be complacent… and I didn’t want to wait around to move on to something else.” So Amanda started looking for a new adventure and that is when she found an opportunity at The Drake Devonshire Inn.
“I had a friend whose parents lived [in Prince Edward County] when I was in my twenties, so I would come out in the summers. And that was before the boom of hospitality and wine. But I knew this place, and there was just something really special about it.” In March 2021, Amanda started her role as the executive chef of the Drake Devonshire Inn.
Eating seasonal and cooking local
Prince Edward County was once called the “Garden County of Canada” and has been a “thriving agricultural community since the Barley Days of the late 1800s,” according to the county’s official tourism site. That agricultural community is still very present in Prince Edward County today and is seen in Amanda’s menu. Her food philosophy and passion is for using seasonal, fresh ingredients that celebrate the diversity of Canada — something that is perfect for her role at The Drake Devonshire. When she first started her role in 2021, she started building relationships with local farms and businesses. “They’re all such passionate people,” she shares. “I built a relationship [with the farmers] around food and seasonality showcasing their food, putting their names on the menu and trying to showcase the county bounty.”
Using local products also goes beyond building those relationships. Amanda frequents the Prince Edward County summer weekend farmers’ markets that feature a wide selection of local produce, condiments, meats, wines, and other small businesses. But Amanda is not the only one in the Drake Devonshire kitchen who understands the importance of supporting the county’s businesses. “We really try to embrace teaching the staff about where [ingredients] are coming from and have that appreciation and understanding that we’re not just getting something that’s coming off the truck… it has a little bit more of a story. So that makes it a lot more fun.”
This support for local businesses led to a collaboration with another Prince Edward County institution — Sandbanks Estate Winery. Amanda, and the Drake Devonshire sommelier worked together with Sandbanks to find wines and dishes that paired well together, that were featured exclusively this past summer and now both recipes and pairings live on the Sandbanks Winery Instagram page. As one example, Sandbanks Pinot Grigio was paired with Sofia’s burrata, local tomatoes and peach salad with sourdough. Similarly, the Sandbanks Summer White was paired with a summer zucchini soup. “It’s a nice thing to do when you can work with somebody who has passion on their side of wine with somebody equally passionate on the food end,” Amanda says of the collaboration.
Where to eat in Prince Edward County
When it comes to restaurants in Prince Edward County, Amanda has a few recommendations. “There’s a new wine bar in Picton called Theia. They have shared plates and lots of nice wine.” She also really enjoys Darling’s Pizza and Stella’s for lunch or brunch. Amanda also recommends doing the classics like visiting a winery, biking along the Millennium Trail or taking a picnic to one of the beautiful beaches. “There’s so much that the county has to offer! [It] is so beautiful, quaint, quiet… well not maybe in the summer months,” she jokes.
If you do get to stop by the Drake Devonshire to taste some of Amanda’s seasonal, local and absolutely delicious food, she recommends the burrata for a starter in the summer. And although she says it’s like choosing a favourite child, she does have a top pick. “The lamb, to me, is a winner,” she says. (For the record, we ordered the lamb while visiting the Drake Devonshire and can confirm that the lamb is, in fact, a winning dish — full of flavour and visually stunning with carrots and asparagus.)
Amanda’s journey from a fan of cooking to an executive chef has been full of experience, adventure, and flavour and this is seen in the dishes she presents at the Drake Devonshire Inn.