Borealis Grille & Bar chef de cuisine Scott Mills says the food scene in Waterloo Region is evolving nicely. It’s a position he takes given his experience in the diverse and bustling Vancouver restaurant market.
“We’re growing in the right direction, I think. There’s more and more diversity popping up every year here. That’s good. And the guests are evolving too and that’s pushing the restaurants. One feeds the other and there’s growth,” he says.
Mills was born in Timmins, Ontario, and the family moved to Thunder Bay. “Mom was a teacher, my father a pilot. We eventually moved to Stratford where I lived most of my life,” says Mills. After spending some time out west, including attending Dubrulle Culinary Arts Institute for his formal training, Mills spent several years cooking in Vancouver before heading to Chateau Lake Louise.
“I then headed back to Stratford for a bit and worked at a few restaurants there as well as trying out some other jobs. I’ve been in Waterloo Region for about six years now,” he says. That included positions at Wildcraft and The Bauer Kitchen in the Charcoal Group—where he worked with a number of Neighbourhood Group cooks, including executive chef Shea Robinson. He has been at Kitchener’s Borealis Grille for about two years.
Mills, 36, has been cooking for quite some time. “I helped with the cooking at home when I was a kid, and I got my first job at Swiss Chalet when I was 14 or 15. I just loved the kitchen.” Out west, Mills recognized the diversity that was the restaurant scene; it’s something that impressed him and which he uses as a kind of marker for the growth that he sees taking place in Waterloo Region.
And when he’s not in the kitchen, Mills is involved in martial arts, both individually and as a youth coach at a Cambridge club. “I’m an active competitor in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and have competed around the world in both amateur and pro events. I’ve trained three to four times a week the last seven years.” He has a purple belt, an advanced designation just below black belt, under Team Renzo Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. “It’s a lot of early mornings,” he says with a smile.
Coaching is also part of his work in the Borealis kitchen. “I think it’s important that cooks keep an open mind. I try to structure the team here recognizing that everybody has experiences that they bring with them. Everybody can contribute and add to the culture. People are invested that way,” he says.
His experience in a major Canadian food city as well as smaller Ontario centres has given Mills a baseline for what he now does with Borealis: the robust local initiatives and the relationships built with farmers and suppliers is the first quality he appreciates, but it extends to the sustainability and quality-of-life that the Neighbourhood Group has also become known for. “There’s an awareness around looking after staff,” he notes. “That’s important and sometimes gets neglected in this industry.” (The Neighbourhood Group is recognized as a certified “B Corporation,” a designation for businesses who “meet higher standards of social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability.”)
The current Borealis menu reflects a blend of Neighbourhood Group philosophy and Mills’s approach to food. It tells the story of local and brings that to the foreground at the same time it strives always for excellent quality and flavour. The menu changes at the end of April, with growers starting to supply the restaurant with the first new crops, such as asparagus. “Barrie’s in North Dumfries produces some of the best I’ve ever had,” he says as he gets ready to launch the new dishes.
“When I look at a menu, I want it to have some fun items and keep it approachable. If it goes too far, it loses that approachability with a range of guests,” he adds.
“We can do simple food working with local farmers and purveyors that is top-shelf. There’s a new generation of people going to restaurants because they want to be involved with something they can believe in. That’s the same for staff too.”
Rapid-fire questions with Scott Mills
Waterloo Region Tourism: Best thing you’ve ever eaten?
Scott Mills: “Mystery” street food in Thailand!
Other career you could have pursued?
Mills: Construction or factory work.
Mills: A Manhattan.
Chef you’d most like to meet?
Mills: Alex Atala (D.O.M. Gastronomia Brasileira) and Anthony Bourdain.
Best footwear (for the kitchen or otherwise)?
Mills: Crocs. And Chucks on the street.
Do you ride a bike?
Mills: Yes. I used to build them.
Greats failed recipe?
Mills: I fail at recipes all the time!
Favourite international food in Waterloo Region?
Mills: Bhima’s Warung
Something that gives you great pleasure?
Mills: Jiu-jitsu. And travelling.
A favourite teacher you’ve had?
Mills: Julian Bond at Dubrelle.
Mills: Tool and old-school hip hop.
Best thing about being a chef?
Mills: Never being hungry.
TV chefs who annoy you?
Mills: I don’t watch TV cooking shows.
SEE WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING IN WATERLOO REGION. CHECK OUT THE LOCAL BUZZ!