Becoming a parent pulled Justin Pepe’s heartstrings — right back to where he was born.
Pepe comes from a legacy of Niagara-on-the-Lake entrepreneurs, including his father, Gerald Pepe, and, most famously, his grandparents (Tephi and Joseph) who owned Pepe’s Corner. Now Willow Cakes and Pastries, Pepe’s is remembered by long-time locals for the penny candy, the cigarettes they bought for their parents, and the coin stuck in the floor.
“My grandma would tell me stories about a stick she would use on kids who stole from the store,” says the returning scion. “She was a tough lady.”
Pepe’s father’s business, Gerald Pepe Painting and Decorating, is well-known and respected locally. “He has all the stories of every house in town,” says the proud son.
And now the prodigal one has returned to his roots, bringing with him a lovely wife, Ashley Robertson, and a young son, Maverick (15 months now). In the near-year since their resettling, they’ve added baby Lennon, who is approaching nine weeks.
The loop Pepe made away from and back to NOTL is an interesting one, with many stops.
Young Pepe’s culinary interest started with his job at the Pillar and Post, when he was 16. He bussed tables there evenings and weekends while attending Niagara District Secondary School. Upon graduation, he veered off-track a bit to attend Niagara College, studying professional golf management. That lasted about two years, and then the travel bug hit.
“I went to Lake Louise, and did what I could to ski during the day and work at night,” he says, and it’s not hard to picture this fit, dynamic person on the slopes. The work he did at night was in restaurants, usually behind the bar. While in Lake Louise he explored another passion: wine. He was trained as a sommelier.
“Lake Louise was just snow 11 months of the year,” says Pepe, so the decision to make the Cayman Islands the next stop was an obvious one. For a year, he worked as a bar manager and sommelier. Sadly, it ended abruptly. “I was on a brief trip back home when a hurricane hit the Caymans,” he recalls. “I couldn’t get back, couldn’t get a flight in. I lost everything.”
The ambitious restaurateur started fresh by moving back out west, this time to Surrey, B.C. “I took a job as a sommelier and wine steward, but it didn’t last long,” he says.
Upon visiting Vancouver for a day, for the first time, Pepe ran into an old friend from the Caymans, who said, “This is the best restaurant.” He got a job that very day at the Blue Water Cafe and its partner restaurant, Cin Cin. He worked there for three years in the front-of-house, then moved into the kitchen where he found he truly belonged — although, “I got used to fine wines and dinners — and it all went away when I moved to back-of-house,” he says with a grin and a shake of his head.
“I was always cooking. It was a passion,” Pepe says. He fulfilled that passion by attending the Northwest Culinary Academy in Vancouver, a condensed program for five or six months, focussing on fine culinary skills. At the same time he was working behind the bar at the Wedgewood Hotel’s restaurant. “Busy times,” he says.
Busy — but profitable enough for the hard-working young man to buy a house outside the city in an area of Langley called Cloverdale. “I was commuting into Vancouver for a few years, and I got tired of that. An hour each way every day — it got to be a little much,” he says, presaging the next shift in his life, and perhaps the most important one.
Pepe had been following a local agri-tourism business called Vista D’oro. It seemed to be the culmination of all of his passions. One day he knocked on the door and said, “I love what you’re doing. This is what I want to do. You don’t have to pay me.” Now he says, laughing, “They did pay me, which was nice, because I still had mortgage payments.”
“So I totally changed my pace,” he says. “I took a job as an assistant winemaker and heirloom farmer. I knew where I wanted to end up: running a small hobby farm, with food products and wine.”
At the time Pepe would lead cooking classes from his home. “Eventually I needed to cook for real. This is my passion,” he says, foreshadowing another stop on the loop.
Yes, Pepe likes change. There’s a reason for that. “I have severe ADHD,” he says, with a grin, without shame. “I hate making the same thing twice.” Which is a funny thing, since he next became a sous chef at the tony Tap restaurant. The sous chef is responsible for much of the kitchen’s prep, including making all sauces, condiments and stocks from scratch. Every. Single. Day.
Pepe says the challenge of working with a very inspiring and supportive chef kept him going. Chef Alistair Veen allowed Pepe to ultimately “challenge” his Red Seal, an accreditation that means a great deal in the culinary world. “That was the most stressful thing I’d ever done,” says the parent of two children under two years old.
The next turn in Pepe’s life came when Robertson showed up for her first shift as a server at Tap. “That was that,” he says. “A couple of times of working together and I knew this was going to be a good thing.”
After Maverick was born, it felt like time to change the scenery. “Now that we had a child, Surrey seemed more city-like,” says the small-town boy, who was over 20 years old when he took his first public transit bus.
“We looked at Burlington, Grimsby — but I am comfortable here. I feel safe here, it’s a safe place,” he says of his home town. Robertson was amenable to the idea of moving to NOTL, recognizing the appeal of the demographic for Pepe’s skills and business ideas — and also that of having Grandma Judy nearby.
“We took some time to relax and get settled when we got here, spent time at farmers markets — I had worked every day of my life since I started my paper route at age 10,” he says. And they did some R&D for the business Pepe was starting to develop.
“I would mill over ideas for a business and then change them. As soon as I would finish a business plan I would start a new one,” he recalls. “Everyone around me would go,” he groans in imitation. “But I knew this idea would allow me enough leeway.” The idea is Cacio Pepe, a prepared meal service delivered all over Niagara by the chef himself.
“I was working as a sous chef prepping all day. When I got home I still loved to cook, but it was the dishes I didn’t want to do.” Pepe mimes watching several pots and pans, saying that fine dining dirties a lot of dishes. “I started to make meals in advance, and vacuum seal and freeze them, to have ready-made food and no dishes,” he says about the “aha” moment: “This thing I do for myself could be a business.”
The farmers markets became research for suppliers; Pepe sought out rental kitchens in town, and started building a devoted clientele. “I’m very proud of our 90 per cent re-order rate,” he says. The business is already expanding: “I hadn’t planned on a kids’ menu, but I saw the opportunity as soon as Maverick started eating solid foods.”
NOTL’s many groups and clubs have embraced Chef Pepe’s practical take on fine-dining. He’s a social person, and is easily approached at the community centre, for example, by people curious about his chef’s coat. That has led to the organic growth of the business. However Pepe is quick to point out, “Our mission is not just trying to sell a product, but also about trying to create a culture in Niagara of better cooks, and all around a better culinary community.” To this end he has created a blog on his website which he uses to reveal normally-hoarded chef’s secrets and insights.
Back at home Pepe is getting ready to plant his kitchen garden, and set the kids up with music lessons. “Inside I’m struggling when I play guitar and sing; I don’t want my kids to feel that way,” he says sincerely. He and Robertson are also keeping an eye out for a nice rural property in town where he can make another dream come true: the hobby farm, with food products and wine. Not quite his grandparents’ corner grocery store — but not that different, either.
But mainly he’s trying to tidy up after a toddler. “Can Maverick make a mess faster than I can clean it up?” It turns out he can.
Cacio e Pepe Risotto Recipe:
Onion ¼ medium (finely diced)
Garlic 2 (finely diced)
Olive oil 3 tablespoons
Arborio rice 1 cup
White wine ¼ cup
Chicken stock 4 cups
Pecorino cheese 3/4 cup (freshly grated)
Black pepper 1 tablespoon freshly ground)
Salt (to taste)
Butter 1 ½ tablespoons
Cacio e Pepe translated simply from Italian is “Cheese and Pepper.” Like all Italian cooking it is based on simple, great ingredients that complement one another well. Risotto is not a dish as much as it is a method of cooking.
1. Finely dice the onions and garlic. (You do not want the pieces to be bigger than the rice, as this will hinder that creamy texture risotto is known for.)
2. Put chicken stock into a small sauce pot at a simmer.
3. Heat pan to medium heat, and sauté onions and garlic until translucent.
4. Add the arborio rice to the pan. It is very important that you cook it for a minute, and that you coat every piece of rice in oil.
5. Add white wine and cook until the wine disappears (1-2 minutes).
6. Start to slowly ladle in about ¾ of a cup of the hot chicken stock, you don’t want the rice to be floating in liquid.
7. Stir, stir, stir! This is the most important part of making risotto, as the agitation of the starch is what gives risotto its classic creamy texture. There is no such thing as over-stirring, you should feel like you got a good arm workout by the end.
8. Your stock will eventually run out before the rice is done cooking. This is when you fill your stock pot on the back burner with water, and bring it to a simmer to finish cooking the dish.
9. Check for the doneness of the rice. Look for what Italians call “al dente” which loosely translates to “toothsome.” You want the rice to be cooked, but not mush, with a slight bite to it.
10. When the rice is cooked, you may want to add a little more liquid than you think. The liquid will evaporate as it gets to the table, the cheese will help to combine the dish as well (slightly runny without being a liquid).
11. Finish with grated cheese, black pepper, and butter (optional). It should seem like you are using a lot of cheese and pepper, as these are the stars of the dish.
12. Season with salt to taste.
13. The finished dish should still be slightly runny, not stiff. Plate in a shallow bowl, and finish with a little more cheese and pepper on top to bring out the aromatics of the dish.
If you need more pictures or instruction you can find our blog on the risotto method at www.caciopepemeals.com