Where Are They Now? Pino di Cerbo

It’s closing on one year to the day when 50 of us made our national TV debuts, and as we begin the process of passing the torch to season 2’s crew, I’m sharing with you some of the amazing stories of some of the home cooks that have made strides in the food business since the camera lights went off.

Today, I’m bringing you the story of one of the biggest class acts of the show…no, not Danielle, Julie or Meghan (I didn’t mean class act sarcastically),  I meant everyone’s favourite Italian Papi and a gentleman of the highest order, Pino di Cerbo.

I have to admit, I never got much time to talk to Pino one-on-one while on the show. We were from two different worlds; me a fresh-eyed Chinese kid from Calgary cooking in-your-face Asian cuisine, and he a stay at home dad to two boys from Mississauga cooking traditional Italian fare. And of course, his kids are freakin’ adorable, as you can see in this darling little audition video:

Despite not talking face-to-face with him, he definitely he spoke pretty loudly when it came time to cook. Spurred on by a large cheering section led by his wife Anna, he pounded out a plate of crepes filled with beef and ricotta that blew the judges away. And as he progressed on the show, he became a sleeper pick to win. With his strong Italian stylings in his pocket, Pino proved to be a rock in the rough, turbid sea that is MasterChef Canada.

Sure, his plates might not have been as flashy or diverse, nor was he the centre of every drama storm, But time and time again, he got it done. Who knows what would have happened if hadn’t been undone by a box of donuts? Nevertheless, the pastries ended his hopes to win the prize money for a charity working to end eye disorders.

But no matter how he exited, Pino showed true class throughout, playing an honourable game; I seriously  can’t recall Pino losing his temper at all even when facing the pressure tests, whereas in those same situations I probably would have lost my shit repeatedly (and probably on him, too…I shudder at the very thought.)

In a game where tripping over your own feet to stab someone else in the back to gain an iota of advantage is routine, Pino was steadfast in his gentlemanly ways despite being under constant pressure, staying above the head games and the drama while letting his cooking do all the talking for him. Now that, kids, takes some mad skills.

After leaving the show, Pino wanted to do more with cooking. He still had his kids to take care of, which practically rules out working in restaurants and most professional kitchens. Yet he longed he to share his passion for authentic Italian cuisine with others. And that is where the Presidents’ Choice Cooking School came in.

A few times a month, at Loblaws stores across the GTA, you will find him wowing home cooks with his Italian flair, showing them how to create some of Mama Di Cerbo’s time-honoured recipes that’s been given a twist that is indelibly Pino. Times and locations vary by month, but from the listings he has three classes, one of which shines a spotlight on the crepes that made him a superstar. With these classes, Pino has the best of both worlds: he gets time to spend with his family, while showing the world the gospel of Di Cerbo style Italian cuisine, which in my opinion is a well-deserved reward for a gentleman and class act.

Pino is proof that in the pressure cooker that is MasterChef, that there is still a place for honourable play; one can do extremely well without resorting to dirty tactics and back-stabbing, and he got it done. The unsung hero during team challenges and rock solid when the chips were down, this is a man who will continue to forge his own path, and someone to be looking out for in the future.

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Where Are They Now? Dora Cote

As we count down to another season of MasterChef Canada, I’m catching up with some of your favourite home cooks that were with me on season one, now that the glare of the spotlight is no longer on us. Today, I look at the person whom I consider my MasterChef “mama”; the Badass Motherplumber of Rocky Mountain House, Dora Cote. Dora

At first glance, she is a tough cookie, hardened by years in the male-dominated plumbing trade. But like a good home baked cookie, she has a tender chewy side too. You won’t see it if she doesn’t like you, but it’s there if you earn the right to see it; and luckily for me I’ve stayed in her good books (Believe me when I say you don’t want to be in her bad books…certain members of the Top 50 know what I mean!) long enough to see it.

The first time I met Dora, it was at the Calgary auditions. On first glance, her tattoos and tough demeanour scared me a little, but then again so did JP and Bubba (and their amazing dishes, but that’s a story for another day…) But on the other hand, I think my somewhat over-the-top persona might have scared her a little too. But the moment I tasted her amazing strawberry-rhubarb pie that she had baked before making the long drive from her home to Calgary, it was clear to me that she was a lock to go to Toronto.

I however, wasn’t sure I had done enough with my dish, an Indonesian beef curry on garlic flatbread. But as I fretted and panicked, what she told me would become a catalyst for what I have become today.

She told me that was my dish was one of the best dishes in the room, and that I was certain to make it.

For a kid that has barely cooked for anyone else besides family, for a complete stranger to say that knocked me for a massive loop. For a brief shining moment, I felt I could cook! But was she was just being kind to a poor kid that was turning into a nervous wreck in front of her eyes, or was she playing the game trying to pump me up hoping to see me fall? But after getting to know her over many a night (and many a pint), I realized she wouldn’t have said that if it wasn’t true.

Yes, she us a very good hugger, as Michael Bonacini and I both know.

Yes, she us a very good hugger, as Michael Bonacini and I both know.

Despite my deep-seated misgivings about myself, Fate proved her right. Fate proved me right as well, and together we became two of Canada’s inaugural Top 50. Joining this elite club meant that she had to leave her 11 year old son Devyn Jay behind; and seeing I was in need of a cheering section, I became her “little egg”.

She mentored me in all she knew about cooking (and vice versa), celebrated with me when I won my apron (and I celebrated her apron win), kept me motivated and loose when the nervous wreck threatened to return, and (along with Tammara) one of the first to comfort me when I was given my marching orders from Claudio Aprile.

It was after I was eliminated, however, is when she gave me a second and arguably the most valuable piece of advice: that what happens on MasterChef cannot define who you are, unless you choose for it to be. (From which I read: Quit feeling sorry for yourself, you did all you could…now stop worrying and get living!)

So, I did. With hers (and the rest of Team YYC’s) encouragement, I have embarked on my chef apprentice journey, while she made her dream come true.

She had told us that her dream was to open a restaurant in her hometown, serving amazing food for a population crying out for some “Canadian soul food”. And when I got to visit Rocky during the last May long weekend (and seeing what an amazing ambassador Rocky has gained in her time on national TV), I got to see first hand the place that she was going to make that dream into reality.

Dora doing good work in the community. (Photo Courtesy B94)

Dora doing good work in the community. (Photo Courtesy B94)

The Black Stump was an old restaurant just off Highway 11 in Rocky that had a reputation of being a dive bar. When we went into the now closed restaurant for the first time, she was beaming like a proud parent. As we went through the restaurant, she was detailing what her dream would look like in reality. She was so sure, so steady, so calm…yet so excited and self sure. It was this kind of self-assured, hard-nosed positivity that made her a darling amongst MasterChef Canada viewers, but for me it was just classic Dora: tough but tender, salty but with a large dose of sweet.

When I departed for home after that long weekend (which included spending some time cooking for and drinking(!) with her amazing friends) — she was still in the midst of finalizing her finances for her new restaurant, and helping Tammara out with some of her catering gigs (one of which I was called into help at). But as this is being published, the old Black Stump is slowly being transformed into the new Dora’s Rocky Mountain Road House, which will put her into an elite club of MasterChef finalists worldwide who can say they have achieved their stated dream. While there is currently no set grand opening date, word is that many of her friends (myself included) may be making guest appearances in her kitchen!

In my life, I have had many great female culinary role models, with my grandma at the very top. While she won’t displace my Poh-Poh from the very top, Dora ranks pretty high on that list. And if you ever happen to be in Rocky, and you’re smelling something amazing coming out of the kitchen at Dora’s…better run fast, ’cause the good eats are just about on!

The dream team, bitches!

The dream team, bitches!

Where Are They Now? Tammara Behl

It’s almost been a year since the 50 of us made our national TV debuts on CTV, and a lot has happened to some of us since then. I’m sure some you have wondered where some of your favourite contestants have gone to after the cameras went off, and the set lights extinguished. And believe you me, there are some amazing stories! Today, I will begin my “Where Are They Now?” series with Tammara, someone whom I consider a friend, a mentor, culinary kindred spirit and a sister from another mother.

My MasterChef sister. (Photo Courtesy CTV)

My MasterChef sister. (Photo Courtesy CTV)

When I first laid eyes on Tammara, she was just another person chilling out at the airport waiting for our flight to Toronto. But when I actually got to talk to her, I knew in my gut she was going to go far in the competition. Like most of us, she was putting her entire life on hold to make her culinary dream come true. She was not only leaving a special needs teaching job with the Calgary Board of Education, but her husband Rick, and her darling young daughters, 3 year old Abby and 5 year old Breanna. It was a risk she was taking, but for her to be leaving two kids and a hubby behind for up to two months? My folks weren’t happy with me gone for that long, but a spouse and kids? That had to be a challenge.

If she did have any pangs of homesickness though, very few people could read it from her steely poker face (I sure as hell couldn’t.) — in a stressful situation, she proved to be the most genuine, free-spirited and generous person I’ve met in my life so far (beside the rest of my Team YYC colleagues, of course.) And when I first got a chance to talk to her, it was abundantly clear she was something special. She is caring, kind and generous. Wanna know why?

This is the real Tammara. 100% genuine article.

This is the real Tammara. 100% genuine article.

For those of you who have been on a MasterChef set, you would know that we are warned that days on-set will be long. And if you think the producers are joking, you are DEAD WRONG. Armed with that fact and knowing she had only 60 minutes to make perfect authentic Indian samosas from scratch, she still took the time to make extra samosas for us, on top of making the ones she would blow the judges away with AND the two chutneys. Chalk that up to parenting, maybe, but that’s chef-level time management if I ever saw it. And the fact that she barely broke a sweat, keeping totally cool as ice in her adorable ice cream heels…if that isn’t grace under fire, then I have no idea what is.

Since her elimination (which was a shock, since I was pegging her to win the whole thing), she has launched head-long into her food dream. She has launched a catering company (aptly called Chef Tammara’s Catering) along with Rick. I had the chance to work alongside her and Dora (who helps out on occasion) at one of her gigs earlier this year, a 50th wedding anniversary, It was a thrill to say the least; for me it was almost like a MasterChef Canada “what if”, as in “If only the judges had kept the three of us together!”

Tam hard at work with Chef JP!

Tam hard at work with Chef JP!

On top of that, she has made a number of guest appearances on CTV Morning Live in Calgary, as well as doing a popup dinner at Muse Restaurant (before its closure) with their head chef, J.P. Pedhirney.

As well, she has also soared through the ranks of The Pampered Chef, a cookware sales program that she had been part of before going to Toronto. Since the show, she has been promoted to the program’s Alberta regional director; and at a recent Pampered Chef associates conference in Toronto, she was one of the opening speakers, and was greeted with a raptuous welcome by all in attendance. Just looking at the Facebook pictures of smiling attendees with Tammara, and you can tell.

But most of all, Tammara is still a mother at heart. She takes great care of her two daughters and husband, as well as her friends. Steadfastly loyal, she was one of the first people to embrace me when I was eliminated, and has stood by me ever since, encouraging me on my journey. She is so much to so many people, but all at the same time keeping a cool facade. Slowly but surely, she is making her dreams come true, and staying fabulous despite the crushing pressure.

A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll.

A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll.

Tammara is living proof that if you’re willing to take the risk, and know how to play your cards right, you can make the impossible, possible. The fact that she exudes love and confidence is just icing on top of the proverbial cake. I certainly can’t wait to work with her again…and who knows? Maybe the next time Chef Tammara caters your event, you may see a familiar face!