Chef School, Week 5: The Fires of a Competitive Heart, Part 1

It’s been a pretty hectic these past couple of days (my first weekend at Crossroads with Jay and Eats of Asia’s new location being one of the big highlights) and things are about to get even busier these final three weeks of chef school, as our class enters the longest and possibly the most deceptively challenging module: hot foods. Stocks, soups and classic dishes…it’s all here.

But you’re probably not here to hear about my weekend, right?

Oh, you are? Oh yeah…Saturday. For the first time in a year since MasterChef, I actually entered a cooking competition. The challenge? One chicken breast dish, two servings, two hours. Serve it with a starch and three vegetables. Simple task for someone who has served steak and fresh pickled kimchi to a four-Michelin star chef within 65 minutes, right?

Turns out it’s not as simple as it sounds.

As you may recall, a bit of pride goaded me into entering the contest, dubbed the Cast Iron Chef Challenge. It was a way for SAIT to show off its professional cooking program during its winter Open House, which is one of the best in this country. (No, I’m not saying it glibly!)

In the days leading up to the challenge (even before they had given me the call to compete), I pondered what I would make. I scoured my notebooks trying to find an inspiration, all while the ghosts of my past failure with chicken still haunted my mind. But it was during a weekend practice session after my week of butchery classes, that I finally came up with a recipe for the chicken dish, almost like a bolt from the blue. My butchery tutor (he knows who he is) was the first person to taste it, and from his words of encouragement I knew I had hit upon a winner, and the competition provided a platform for it! How fortunate is that?

But the chicken was only one part of the story; there needed to be a starch and three vegetables to go with it. My mind raced again and again, until one night, it struck me.

I would attempt to make fresh ramen from scratch in two hours, and serve an upscale bowl that could feel like home in the high towers of Tokyo’s Roppongi, but could also be appreciated by the salaryman taking a late night snack on Ramen Street in Chiyoda, or a tourist craving an authentic ramen meal in Jimbocho. Lucky for me, I knew someone who makes ramen from scratch and sells it to critical acclaim — so I had a lead. Of course I did my own research, but nothing really spoke to me.

“Why don’t you try to use Lucky Peach’s recipe?” My ramen sensei said.

Of course — Lucky Peach. While I had considered using Ivan Orkin’s rye flour recipe, I felt that the colour of the noodle needed to play its part in the overall presentation — and for that, I needed those noodles to be bright but not unnaturally coloured that you could see it in the dark.

I kept researching, as the days to the competition drew closer. No call came, and both me and Chef Volke got a little nervous. Was I going to get picked?

But undaunted, I kept pressing on. I looked through more recipes, with each calling for different types of flour, and even one that called for vital wheat gluten. Some needed kansui, others needed kansui powder, and some with none at all. Lucky for me though, I had a way to test out my theories on the Thursday before, as it would be pasta day, and we would be making our own pastas. Some of my classmates made ravioli, another made pirogis, but one would attempt to make ramen.

Some classmates were intrigued. Ramen? Isn’t that the stuff that comes in the packs No, I reassured them. This was going to be the good stuff.

The day before, I baked off some baking soda to make kansui powder. Harold McGee, the food writer who popularized the concept, called for it to be dried by a third. Duly doing so, I had kansui powder at the ready, and with vigour charged headfirst into the noodle battle.

And then, I stopped. What flour was I going to use?

I looked at the all-purpose flour, and then eyed the semolina next to it. As I gazed upon its golden beauty, it was as if a lightbulb came on in my mind.

Almost involuntarily, I picked up a container and measured out some semolina. I dissolved some of the kansui into the water, and mixed it into the flour. I kneaded it with all my might, and following the Lucky Peach method, let it rest for a few minutes before sparring with it again. After the second knead, the dough took a time out in the fridge to settle, while I experimented on the other elements of the prospective dish. (Later I would discover McGee had also used semolina…thanks, Harold!)

When all the other parts were done, I came back and checked on the dough. It was firm but not impossibly so. I cut it into portions, flattened a piece, and ran it through the pasta machine.

What came out next is beyond words — a golden sheet of pasta came forth. I rolled the dough a few more times, each time getting it thinner. The magic of fresh ramen was unfolding in front of my eyes!

But as I was being dazzled, I didn’t see what was coming. I rolled the dough to cut it into thin strips. They looked a bit rough on the first go, but hey…practice makes perfect. I popped the first batch of noodles into a pot of boiling water, getting it to the required al dente.

I popped a noodle in my mouth, and all of a sudden there was a party in there!

…and then, it tasted like someone threw up.

Suddenly, a taste of bitterness came through, and while none of my colleagues could taste it, it got to me. I left the class wondering what happened — I had followed the recipe, and it looked fine. Just the taste.

I spoke to the ramen sensei again, and he figured it out. I can’t tell you what it was (trade secret, I guess) — but when the next day came, I was ready for another round of testing. By that time it was the day before, and I had only one day to do a trial run of the entire dish (with Chef’s blessing of course.)

I ran through the elements, closely keeping my eye on that clock. It didn’t tick loudly, but there was a ticking sound in my mind driving me on. The noodles had to be hurried along, and with great resolve I pounded out the dough and anxiously set it down to chill.

But this time, with a few adjustments — there was no bitterness. The dough was a bit drier (I had cut back on the amount of water) and came out crumbly at times in the roller, but it still worked. The noodles were al dente, and came out beautifully yellow, while sitting in a serene pool of double soup along with the roasted chicken and various vegetables.

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Is this a winner?

The class dug in, and my classmates raved. The noodles were gone within a few minutes, and I knew I had a winner on my hands. But would I be able to come out on top when the heat is on?

I’ll leave that to Part 2…tomorrow!

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MasterChef Canada S2E1: A New Season Begins!

It came a week early, but a new season of MasterChef Canada has arrived.

I don’t think I’ve ever wished for a Super Bowl game to end this much before, but when the final whistle went CTV brought us a frenetic-paced episode, packed with auditions from a new group of home cooks eager to make their mark and ready to fight for their place in Canadian culinary stardom, plus $100,000 and a shiny trophy to demarcate their victory.

Because of the breakneck pace of the episode, many of the auditions were very much like last season; lots of people were shown in blink-and-you-missed-it moments. For those who were able to secure one of the coveted white MasterChef aprons, we will see them again. For those who did not, I always say this: never stop cooking with love and passion, and never give up on your dreams!

From my count, 11 aprons were given out — I wasn’t able to pinpoint one of the home cooks who got one, but I’m sure we will see her again in the near future. Below, I’ve evaluated most of the auditions…I try to be nice, but there are some who just need a good wake up call.

So…who is looking suave in white, and who is drowning their sorrows at the Heartbreak Hotel bar?

 

THE APRON WINNERS

Sabrina: She missed her only sister’s wedding to cook a traditional Italian medaglioni (stuffed pasta) dish for the judges, which earned the ire of her family in the process. I know the feeling; and just by the look of the simple yet elegantly put together plate, I knew she made the right gamble, securing Claudio Aprile and Michael Bonacini’s vote to win a white apron.

Jon: Normally as a Stampeders fan I would be playing the world’s smallest violin for some BC Lions player, but this guy has some moxie, tearing a page from mine and Bubba’s book with a steak-and-perogy dish. He ran into trouble with what looked to be very rare steak, which Alvin Leung found to be tough. The plate looked fine, and Jon moved on in a 2-1 decision.

Andrew and Debra: They were just briefly shown, Andrew with his deconstructed Halifax donair and Debra and her beautifully seared scallops. Both won aprons, so we’ll be seeing them cook again.

Christopher: Christopher is one of the 8 home cooks I had originally pegged as one to watch, and he has repaid my faith in spades. The tart looked a little shaky on the plate but the bright golden colours looked amazing enough for me to try to eat the screen (I didn’t, of course…screens do not taste great and I don’t have Taste-O-Vision. My original statement on him stands — my Canto homie is still one to watch!

Tammy: This single mother of SIX (yes, SIX) arguably delivered the plate of the night; a simply plated, straightforward plate of elk carpaccio. A few greens on the rare meat, a few drizzles of sauce, and there you have it: the season’s FIRST unanimous decision, and probably the biggest tear jerker of the night. She was not on my radar before, but she definitely made her presence known!

Michael: Very reminicent of Dale from last season, his plate stood as a counterpoint to Debra’s scallops (centred and looks full); it was far too artsy (my chef instructor would have had a field day with him about it being overworked), way too much empty space on the plate (at least Dale used the whole plate) and as Aprile said on the flavour, it had “no boom.” — but somehow he got through on Bonacini and Leung’s vote.

Nathan: Was the only one out of three “comfort food” makers to make it out with an apron, his April Bloomfield-inspired fish and chips won over the judges and made me want a whole plate of that stuff. Could be a sleeper pick.

Jennifer: A self-professed “chatter box”, her blueberry pie looked a bit rough but the flavours won over the judges. However, she committed a cardinal MasterChef sin: she talked over BOTH Leung and Aprile. If she is truly serious about going professional and possibly working in a restaurant kitchen, she will need to learn how to shut up. The first and last words out of your mouth should be a hearty “YES, CHEF!” — and you NEVER talk over him/her!

David: The final home cook to win an apron, he was forced to drop out of school at Grade 10 to work in the concrete business. He kind of reminds me of Danny, a battler who is now finally getting his chance to shine. It certainly helped he put together an amazing looking dish of miso sablefish that wowed the judges, but his kids ARE SO ADORABLE!

Kristen: She’s the one whom we just got a glimpse of — a shame, as she is Newfoundland’s FIRST White Apron Club entrant. What Shane, Billie-Jo and Kristal could not do, she’s done it! NL is on the board!

 

THE EMPTY HANDERS

Kristal: This Gander, NL home cook certainly does not lack confidence; she proudly proclaims to the judges that her daughter calls her “the best cooker in the world”. News flash — if you did not remember Leung bellowing to us that “AMATEUR HOUR IS OVER!” at the beginning of season 1, you are just asking for trouble. Plus, when adding sugar or any seasoning, ADD IT GRADUALLY. Once it’s in, you can’t pull it back out. Her plate did look okay, but ultimately, the amateurish performance was too much for Bonacini and Leung who sent her home, putting Newfoundland & Labrador at 1/4 over two seasons with one more Newf next week.

Clarissa and Shane: Guys, it’s cool you want to show off. But a) raw shrimp paste in a dish is a TERRIBLE IDEA, and b) if a judge asks you something about your technique, you better have an answer!

Carmen: You get one shot with the judges, and their rule is cook first, talk (and hug) later! Plus, as much as I try, I can’t see lobster and blue cheese being a good match. Sorry, mamacita.

Mishie: Oh my goodness, no matter how bad your dish turns out, saying you want to learn from someone by opening their heads and eating their brains is not a good idea But hey, take solace you made Leung laugh, which is incredibly rare.

Lisa: Both Mylene and Andrew had a whale of a time last year with soup, and looks like the MasterChef Canada soup curse has struck again, with Lisa serving a soup that was too salty. I do like the confidence though — if you were afraid of somene in the Top 49, why even stay?

Kenya: The only member of Team Alberta seen tonight. The Edmontonian bragged a lot about her travels, and then got her bubble burst by Leung who derided her for serving chicken and waffles when she had been all around the world. The chicken was far too dark, and the waffle looked mediocre at best, failing to entice the judges. I’d say something about that plate being the epitome of Edmonton cuisine, but…I’ll hold back.

 

So those are the home cooks we saw this week. But as an added bonus, each week I will name up to three Stars and three Goats. Who made it this week?

My Third Star this week is Christopher; he made an excellent plate, and made all of his Canto bretheren across this country proud.

Second Star goes to Nathan, who while getting very limited screen time showed off an amazing plate of fish and chips that looked great, and probably tastes amazing.

And my First Star of the week has to go to Tammy, for obvious reasons.

Now, to our Goats…

The Third Goat of the week goes to Jennifer; if she wants to last, she must learn to tone down the chatter, as it will end up putting a target on her back.

Second Goat goes to Kenya; way to represent our great province with a disappointing dish.

Lastly, my TOP GOAT of this week goes to a surprise candidate: Kristal. Using your child to judge of food is NOT a good idea, especially when the other judge is a seven Michelin star chef. S/he may think you’re a great cook…but when you get on MasterChef Canada, amateur hour is over.

 

That’s it for this week — next week, we will see the remaining hopefuls visit the judges, followed by the dreaded stress test to create the Top 16. Myself, Marida, Narida, Jason, Dora and Billie-Jo will all be live tweeting and chatting with home cooks (and of course, all of you out there) during the show next Sunday (personnel and times vary from time zone).

I will also be tweeting from Nikita’s viewing party. So look out for that. And now, time for me to catch a few winks before school tomorrow!

Chef School, Week 4: Bad Moon Rising On The Midpoint

Well folks, I’ve survived four weeks of school. Four more to go!

And yes, I am still super nervous about the ever-ominous axe of failure that hangs over my head. but at least I’m starting to get into a groove now that the worst of the worst (math, bakeshop and surprisingly, butchershop) is over. We’ve entered into the Cold Foods segment, which for me allows me to draw from the experiences I’ve gained so far, as opposed to going into it completely blind — a massive relief!

Plus, for the first time, I feel like I’m learning amazing new things to apply to my cooking, and getting inspired at the same time. The sheer fact that I’ve not had to constantly question my own worth as a chef and feeling deflated about it, really eases a lot of the cramping on my creative outlets. Heck, I’ve been inspired enough to put my hat into the ring for a cooking competition at achool. But more on that later.

Meanwhile, for those of you who don’t know, MasterChef Canada season 2 has had its season premiere bumped up a week to tomorrow right after the Super Bowl on CTV. Call it perfect timing or whatever you like, but I got a neat little writeup in the SAIT school paper The Weal this week. Originally I had planned on keeping my origins a secret (save for one classmate whom I trusted enough after week 1) lest some of my classmates would look down upon me — that ruse certain didn’t last long, as one of my work colleages at Co-op tipped off one of her friends at the Weal about my origins. Call it my diva instinct, but how does one turn down an interview request? Ya don’t.

So anyway, the cat is out of the bag. I had a bad hunch somehow there would be trouble, and shortly after the copies of the paper hit stands across the campus, it found me.

There are a few classmates of mine who work for a certain hotel chain (you know the one) that seemed to have a superiority complex over the entire class, and for the sake of this story I’ll call him Emile. Emile has had a lot of experience in the food business, and has even earned a certification from another province. Since said certification isn’t recognized here in Alberta, he is forced to do the Red Seal course. This seems to annoy him greatly, and it shows in his attitudes to his fellow classmates and even to the instructor as well. Now it’s great to be experienced, but being a dick about it constantly is just crossing that one bridge too far.

This attitude usually gets Emile into a lot of grief from the instructor, which spurs another one of his colleagues from the same hotel chain (we’ll name him Joe), and another guy from another restaurant (let’s call him Len) to do the same thing. Together, Emile, Joe and Len seem to cause endless amounts of headaches for Chef Volke, and that’s not including the massive headaches my inexperience cause him. Lucky for him though, Len has recently been forced to drop out and Joe seems to have settled down. Which leaves Emile, who still hasn’t seen the error of his ways. Most other chefs I’ve talked to chalk it up to the culture of the company that owns said hotel chain, and so far Emile has proven them right.

Which then brings us about a day after the cat came out of the bag, Chef announced that there would be a competition being held for the first year PCK and apprentice students during a SAIT Open House. Naturally, the competitive side of me was piqued by the possibilities, given that most other contests outside of school are usually reserved for folks under the age of 30. And as much as many a liquor store clerk mistake me for under 18, turning 32 in real years in March means I’m largely ineligible. (Although I do harbour dreams of going on Chopped Canada sometime in the near future, in the footsteps of Steve Glavicich, Paul McGreevey, Pierre Lamielle and Dilan Draper — but that’s another post for another time.)

So I thought to myself, why not? There’s not many options for competitions for me, so why not give it a shot? Screw the nerves, I was going to do it. And it looked as though a couple other classmates (Joe being one, plus another…let’s call him Tanner.)

My mind was made up, but what pushed me over the edge was the next little exchange with Emile.

“So, you’re going to cook that chicken fully, right?”

I laughed, covering a direct hit on a sore point in my psyche while ignoring him. It wasn’t worth getting into an argument with a dumbass. As a friend taught me to do, keep calm and find my centre. It’s not worth the energy, or the effort. Zen…

Chef handed out the entry forms, and I filled it in. Emile goes on the offensive again, looking for a killer blow.

“Make sure you cook that chicken!” He laughed derisively.

I can only be nice about being attacked by a dick for so long, and forgetting the whole zen/calm mantra, I snapped.

“Emile, the joke is only funny the first six thousand times. Fuck you.”

Lucky for me the instructor didn’t hear, but I was incensed. Insulted, humiliated. I had bared my own soul on that plate as an amateur, and I’ve largely moved on…mostly. Maybe it was the sniffling at where I work (a grocery store kitchen and a street food booth), or maybe it was the constant distraction he was causing, or maybe it was the derisive way he treated many of us — whatever it was, I boiled over.

After the lecture, I stormed out, form and toolbox in hand, and went to hand in the form. No dillying, no dallying. I put the form into the receptionist’s hands, and walked to the kitchen where our lab was. I’ve never been so incensed about something like this before, but I’ve never been so insulted in my life culinary-wise. You can joke about my failures on national TV only so many goddamed times before I lose my patience, and for someone like Emile to add his two cents just pushed me over the edge.

Actually, you know what? I hope he enters too if his ego actually lets him through. I’d love to see how he cooks that chicken (which yes, is the theme of the challenge) — will I get picked in the random draw for contestants? I certainly hope I will. Because I’ve been working on a dish just for it.

Pierre Trudeau once told a reporter in 1970, “just watch me.”

You should be. Not Trudeau. Me.

#ChefSchool Week 2: My Love-Hate Affair with Baking & Other Foibles

Well, two weeks down, six weeks to go. But more importantly, the two worst parts of technical training is over.

Are new nightmares on the horizon? I don’t know but without the dreaded twin burdens of math and baking (I can sense the bakers in my readership rolling their eyes in unison already…) on my mind, gnawing away at my deepest innermost fears and whatnot, i am actually excited to find out more! Anything, including the world of butchershop (which starts tomorrow) has to be a cakewalk compared to the super fussy world of baking. Right?

Whatever butchershop throws at me though, I feel I am at least going to be one more iota prepared than I was for bakeshop: I have had meat cutters at Co-op, butchers at Sunworks and even a fish cutter from Calgary’s best known fish shop, Billingsgate, give me some pointers. Heck, even the chefs at work have shown me a thing or two. These are all pros, and I have to say I am grateful for what they have shown me. Now if it will all come up in my mind when I really need it.

Oh yes…last week. Math went surprisingly better than I had originally expected; I think I aced the test, having been one of the first to finish the test even after checking, double checking and even triple checking my calculations,  but until Chef Volke gives us back our exams I am not going to start relaxing. As for baking, that’s a story unto itself.

Baking D-Day, as I like to call it, was two-fold. First up was the theory exam, which again I had no problems. I got the baking terms and how each pie crust and cookie method down pat by and large, but like a triathlon, the transition from theory to practical can make or break you.

Entering the bakery that now feels like home, I unpacked my tools, and immediately got to work. Earlier in the day, my mother (who is a master baker herself) gave me a few pointers to producing the impeccable product to present to Chef Warden. With almost four hours to produce two baguettes, a loaf of white bread, and two beautifully garnished chocolate cream tarts, there was no time left to lose. Luckily, Chef Warden had allowed us some time on the day before to complete some basic scaling and to complete a blind bake of our pies — of which I took full advantage.

My pie crusts ended up just a smidgen on the dark brown side, but since they were usable still (and judging from the dough scraps, and weighing it against both making two new tart crusts or keeping the very beautiful yet slightly too brown tarts), I decided to forge ahead.

Mixing the doughs was easy enough; as they began their first bulk fermentation I got to work on the pastry cream/chocolate cream/chocolate pudding filling. You’d be surprised as to how easy and versatile pastry cream is; but it’s the tempering of the egg yolks is the tricky part. If your scalded milk is too hot, you have scrambled eggs. Too cold, and the starch doesn’t activate. Nervously, I watched the milk warm as I vigourously whisked the egg yolks. I almost gave myself tennis elbow doing it, but finally, as thin wisps of steam began to rise, it was time for the milk and egg yolks to meet. Slowly, they met. So far so good.

Then, it was time for the heating to thicken the cream. Slowly I stirred under the medium low heat. A thick layer of bubbles covered the surface, a machination of my own doing as I had whisked too hard. Desperately trying to stir while trying to get a good view for the custard, I incurred the attention of Chef Warden.

“John, you’re stirring too fast,” She chided. “Slow down.”

Slow down? SLOW DOWN? I was on auto-pilot by then; any slow down could cause massive disasters. But I followed her advice, and slowled the stirring. And sure enough, as heat was allowed to disperse throughout the liquid, the magic of thickening happened. But I still had to be careful — too much, and my pot would be filled with scrambled eggs. I was out of the frying pan, but back into the fire.

Sweat rolled down my forehead; time was ticking away more incessantly than that annoying clock from Chopped. I wasn’t about to allow myself to screw this up, and I didn’t. The custard gained vanilla and chocolate at the correct consistency, and was immediately put into the tart shells and sent to the chiller. Round 1 was complete.

Once that was over, the breads once again took centre stage. By then I was a bit more relaxed. but still fretful. I punched and portioned the doughs, rounded and benched them. The shaping came together quickly, and it was then off to the proofer. For the white bread I proofed the loaf alone; for the baguettes I tied my fate to a classmates’, sharing their tray. Their fate and mine would be intertwined.

Meanwhile, I took up my battle with whipping cream; the tart required perrfectly whipped cream with rosettes piped on. Earlier in the week, the rosettes on my lemon meringue pie looked atrocious, mainly because my hands were shaking like a leaf. I got the whipping cream to the proper consistency (stiff-ish peaks), filled the piping bag, and did a practice rosette.

It was perfect.

I did another. Perfect again.

I pulled out the tarts, which by then had been cooling. I moved onto the first tart, filled the middle with a swirl of cream, and then began the piping.

I don’t know what happened, but for the next three minutes, I executed rosettes. Eight on one tart, then eight on the other. It was complete, and I had somehow done it. I piped rosettes. Properly.

I stood back for a moment. Shock, elation (no, not to the level of exuberance that led to THAT moment) and RELIEF.

The rest of the day passed by without much of a hitch; I followed my mother’s advice on the breads during the proofing phase (“The product is fully proofed when the surface is dry and it slightly spills over the sides.”), and as soon as the doughs’ surfaces were dry and puffy enough I sent them to the ovens. Once the white bread came out of the oven, I took it out of the pan to cool and breathed a massive sigh of relief. All that was left was the tasting and marking.

Wait. Marking? Shit, I had forgotten all about that.

I laid out the products on a metallic platter, sliced a few tranches of bread as per instruction, and took it all for marking. I took a huge gulp of air, and looked on with bated breath as Chef Warden looked over the products, and tasted them. I barely squeaked out my answers as she quizzed me on some of my procedures, and the whole thing felt like an eternity. Then. finally…marks.

The white bread…perfect.

The tarts were a bit overdone on the shells, but the pastry cream was perfect consistency.

And then…she declared the baguettes to be misshapen and barely passable. The inside was slightly moist, which was a sign of underproofing. There were some cracks from the folding, and the colour was under.

But it didn’t matter. I had somehow taken on the baking monster for a second time, and won in a split decision. The verdict on the theory exam? That’s still in the air, too.

All in all, I have to say I have survived baking. There will be more adventures in the future, and I pray that next time we meet I will score a knockout. Here’s hoping, of course.

Compared to that adventure, work has been rather uneventful. Eats of Asia is moving to Crossroads starting in February, so you’ll get to see me in action slinging bao and pulling noodles in Ramsay-Inglewood soon. Oh, and I ran into Nikita Scringer, a MasterChef Canada season 2 finalist. Pretty cool chick. I have a feeling we will meet again…

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some studying of meat cuts to do…

MasterChef Canada Season 2: The Contenders Revealed!

The torch has been passed.

Just a year after me and 49 of my fellow home cooks were named Canada’s first ever MasterChef Top 50, CTV yesterday revealed a new group. These individuals will now take up the battle amongst themselves to become Canada’s next MasterChef. On first glance, it looks like a very diverse group (not unlike ourselves), with varied backgrounds and different flavours for the judges to sample.

Looking at the list, it looks like a record nine provinces of our great country will be represented, including two Saskatchewaners and two New Brunswickeians. Sadly, PEI looks to be once again the lone left-out province (Step your game up, Islanders! We want to see a Malpeque master!) while the Territories go unrepresented again (No seal hearts or whale blubber this season, I reckon…) One Calgarian will carry the YYC flag amongst six Albertans, but I will talk more about her a little later.

As always, the best of this group will gain a coveted white apron, while the crème de la crème will rise to the Top 16 and enter the kitchen of their dreams (or nightmares, depending on how you do on your first challenge!

So, based on first impressions, who am I looking out for?

Bear in mind these are first impressions, so I will update this list as premiere date (February 8th) gets closer. Please don’t be insulted, rest of the Top 49. There’ll be more love to share! 

Suzie Cui (Casino Cashier Manager from Windsor, Ontario): With her traditional Chinese dress (I wonder who she got that idea from? Hmmm…), she produced an amazing looking Chinese dish for the Toronto auditions in the video Road to MasterChef. I see a bit of both myself and Tammara in her; an Asian master coupled with a zesty “take-no-shit” attitude. Being a casino cashier boss, you gotta be mean with the unruly drunken asses. She looks like a Northern Chinese mama you don’t want to cross — in life or in the kitchen.

Christopher Siu (Pharmacy Student from Markham, Ontario): I have a strong feeling about this aspiring pastry chef. I have had a chance to check out his Instagram account (which of course is @baker_siu), and it is filled with pastries as far as the eye can see. How will the lone Cantonese candidate in the field fare when the clock is ticking? He should have no problems when baking is the name of the game — but how will he handle other dishes? Will he go European like Eric, or Asian like me?

Nikita Scringer (Healthcare Sales Consultant from Calgary, Alberta): She is the lone hope the season for a city of 1.1 million people, with a booming food scene and chefs coming out of the woodwork in every corner…

…oh wait, I forgot. I’m talking about Nikita. Anyway, she was someone who had applied for season 1, and came back again and qualified for this season. Her Caribbean (Jamaican?) flavours look amazing, and her fierce competitiveness will serve her well when the knives are out and the flames are licking throughout the kitchen. What Fabian, Sparkle, Narida and Marida failed to do — can Nikita do? I think she’s got a great chance…and besides, you don’t bet against a girl with awesome blue carbon Masakage knives.

Anh Nguyen (Business Student from Ottawa, Ontario): One cuisine that made the radar last season but didn’t resonate (mostly because of Sarah’s elimination) was Vietnamese, a cuisine that has exploded in North America, and helped along by the victory of Christine Ha in MasterChef USA season 3. I’ve looked at some of his work on his Twitter feed, and it is definitely not constrained to Vietnamese, with many cuisines fused in. Can he replicate in season 2 what Christine did in the USA, in popularizing modern, simple Asian cuisine? I think so!

Ted Pechey (Radio Sales from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan): My friend and fellow blogger Bernice (who hails from That Flat Province) must be over the moon; two of her fellow Saskies have made it — one of which is Ted, the other being Deanna. While I didn’t get to see what Deanna made, Ted’s dish at the auditions screams “SASKATCHEWAN” at 100 decibles. How will that translate to the sophisticated, urbane palate of the judges? Crack a Pil, and see!

Sebastien Champagne (Graphic Designer from Montréal, Quebec): Okay, this one is obvious. Bleached blonde, pink apron. He’s going to be a sassy one, that Sebastien — but based in Montreal, it’d be easy to put him in the pigeonhole of Quebecois French cuisine, but I think we could be in for a surprise. Could he pull out some Asian flair, or some North African, or modern American a la Dale? He will be a wild card, this one. Regardez, Canada! 

Meg Tucker (Radio Host from Red Deer, Alberta): She is an exciteable one, Meg. Just by her reaction to me congratulating her, I can tell she will be an exciting one to watch. Plus, given how well radio folks have done (think Mike Green and yours truly) last season, and judging from her blog (which has a lot of great comfort food recipes), she looks like she’ll know what to do when the challenge is thrown down!

Giorgio Theofilpoulos (Florist from Toronto, Ontario): Greek cooking was one major cuisine that very few of us had in our arsenals (sorry Pino, Mediterranean doesn’t count buddy!), and I have a feeling that Giorgio (who looks a bit like of a cross between the Italian papi and my Latin amigo José) will be filling this southern Mediterranean/Aegean niche. I definitely can’t wait to see some spanakopita or Avgolemono…anyone know of a place that serves late night gyros? I got a hankerin’ for Greek food all of a sudden.

Those are the eight I’ll be keeping my eyes on. Who are you most excited for? Who will you be rooting for starting Sunday, February 8th at 7pm ET/PT (8pm local here in Calgary)? Let me know in the comments below!

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.

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!