Head chef of Butternut Tree’s menu demands an open mind and a love of things that grow wild
Edmonton has embraced Scott Downey’s homecoming with open arms, after the local chef spent almost a decade learning, exploring and cooking in New York City, Copenhagen, Vancouver and Atlantic City.
He knew he would return after his time at the Culinary Institute of America, the Michelin-Star-awarded Daniel (a restaurant) in NYC, and the oft lauded Noma. New to his resume is his own venture, the Butternut Tree which enthralled Edmonton’s culinary scene with it’s unique style of foraging-forward cuisine inspired by the prairie landscape when it opened in 2017. The restaurant overlooks downtown’s iconic Alberta Legislature Building.
“This is my home,” Downey says. “This is always where I wanted to end up being at the end of the day. I wanted to go out and get my experience and bring it back to Canada. I wanted to be able to share that with my family, I wanted to share that with friends, and I wanted to be part of our city that was growing again.”
Downey was able to see the contrast that can exist in fine dining between his time at Daniel, with it’s classical French foundation, and Noma, a Danish restaurant that was famed for its inventive 20 course dinner.
His three months at Noma are what really became the basis for the idea of The Butternut Tree. The Danish restaurant sourced locally farmed ingredients and worked with them in creative ways to help define Scandinavian cuisine. Downey brought this creative touch to Vancouver’s Wildebeest. He looked to push the limits of food, flavours, and the unconventional places that they could grow, and started the process in earnest on a city block.
“I kind of thought of this idea,” Downey explains. “If this is what I found on the block, what would happen if I spent a week looking for this. So I took a week off work and ended up finding about 50 different wild ingredients that were just not just edible, but delicious.”
He then chose to open his own foraging company which supplied ingredients to nine Vancouver restaurants.
Nothing at The Butternut tree is ordinary. The menu is filled with curious flavours from plants and flowers that most people never think to pick out of the wilderness, and fewer think to put in their mouths. Chef Downey is not most people, as he proves from his ever changing menu.
“When I go to their farm they always want to show me one thing,” Downey says. “But I’m always looking at the weed growing in the corner saying ‘I want that.’ It’s funny because sometimes they think I’m nuts and sometimes we end up agreeing that it’s absolutely delicious.”
The only way to dine at The Butternut Tree is with an open mind. While many ingredients are native to Canada, and even hyperlocal, plants like oxalis, pickled spruce tips, and green alder catkin find their way into Downey’s recipes. This type of innovation gives Downey the confidence to work on the definition of Canadian cuisine.
“By no means do I think that we will ever ourselves be the ones that defines Canadian cuisine,” Downey admits. “I just want to start the conversation about it.”
The Butternut Tree was recently named as one of the reasons Edmonton is a top 50 travel destination this year according to Travel + Leisure Magazine. With the likes of Sabor, Bar Clementine, RGE Rd and the Corso 32 group already established, The Butternut Tree is constantly adding to the already impressive growth of Edmonton’s culinary lineup. Downey is well experienced but there’s still a lot of pressure on the young chef and his wild creations.
“I now have a lot of responsibility in running the restaurant,” Downey explains. “But once service begins I’m not working anymore. Once dinner service starts that’s kind of my home. It’s been my home for the past 10 years now and that’s just where I’m most comfortable.”