In the Kitchen with Jesse Vallins, Maple Leaf Tavern and Port

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Passion defines Jesse Vallins as a chef — when he speaks of food and his restaurant, love coats every word. That passion started when he was young. “I [was] a fat kid who loved food,” Vallins says with a smile. “My earliest food memory is waking up at my grandma’s house to the smell of bacon, which may explain my love of pork.”

Growing up in Scarborough, Ont., his love of restaurants stems from family outings. “I’ve always loved the experience of restaurants,” he says. “One, because I didn’t have to do dishes afterwards but also because — no matter if it’s a Michelin-starred restaurant or a local joint — every restaurant has a distinct experience.”

After finishing culinary school at George Brown College in Toronto, Vallins worked throughout the city —from the Air Canada Centre and CN Tower to Splendido and Monsoon. Eventually, his experiences led him to Maple Leaf Tavern in Toronto and, subsequently, Port in Pickering, Ont., where he’s executive chef at both restaurants.

At Maple Leaf Tavern, customers can indulge in Vallins’ handmade veal shank, bone marrow and porcini lasagna ($24) or a plate of three of his signature handmade sausages ($17). At Port, the menu includes grilled organic salmon with saffron sauce ($20) and from-scratch wild-boar pepperoni pizza made to order in the wood-burning oven ($16).

Vallins’ love of the industry goes beyond food and cooking — he’s also a certified cicerone and a certified sommelier.

“One thing I really dork out on is pairings,” says the 40-year-old chef. “To me, a good beverage pairing is like a second sauce on a dish. I’m a nerd who gets high on learning.”
Vallins’ love of learning is equaled only by his dedication to his craft. Almost everything in his current restaurants is made from scratch by hand.

“If we can do it better than what we can buy, then that’s what we do. It’s a sense of pride; you owe it to the guest to not just be a middle man. If I’m going to go to someone’s restaurant, I want to know they’re making it themselves,” Vallins explains.

When it comes to presentation, simplicity is the name of the game for Vallins, but the flavours that come from his dishes are anything but. “I would like my food not to be over the top in presentation, but when you take a bite, you taste all the work that went into it,” he says.

When Vallins isn’t cooking in the kitchens of Maple Leaf Tavern or Port, he’s giving back to the school that helped him achieve success, teaching the next generation at George Brown College.

Vallins has split his time between Maple Leaf Tavern and Port for the past three years and sees himself in it for the long haul. He’s also looking to expand the brand.

“I hope to open up one more concept in the next couple of years. I’m not sure what kind yet — [maybe] a quick-service restaurant that specializes in burgers and sausages.”

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