Delicious dishes with Top Chef Canada contestant Andrea Nicholson

This Top Chef interview is a little different because instead of doing it over e-mail, I actually spoke to Andrea Nicholson over the telephone. We had a great chat… but unfortunately I kind of suck at taking notes and find it hard to quote someone verbatim for long stretches at a time. Anything that she said directly is in quotes, and everything else is my interpretation and rephrasing of her words.

Top Chef Canada - Andrea Nicholson (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

Top Chef Canada - Andrea Nicholson (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

Why did you decide to apply to be on Top Chef Canada?

“I applied because I am a junkie of a fan of the American version and wanted to see what it would be like and showcase my food. It was a nudge to show that I’m a great cook and can do great things.”

What surprised you most about the competition?

“Everything surprised me because it was unknown territory from hour to hour.” I expanded the question by asking about the U.S. show, and she said, “Watching the American version kind of prepares you,” but that they didn’t have the same kind of budget that the American show has. “No high tech equipment, no nitro,” she said.

Another thing that surprised her was the process of how it the show came together behind the scenes.

What special items did you bring from home to help you in the competition?Andrea brought all her knives, a vacuum sealer, tea from Great Cooks’ tea boutique for cooking and smoking, star anise, truffle paste from her truffle supplier out of Italy, and a huge meat saw that came in handy for the butchering of the pig.

Tell us about your favourite challenge. Why that one?

“The first one because they really let us highlight what we do and show what we create on a daily basis.”

As one of three women in the competition, did you feel there was more pressure on you to do well?

“No, not really. I’ve worked my whole career with his kind of stigma and I don’t want to try to segregate myself from the other cooks.” Andrea went on to tell me that she encourages her kitchen staff to treat everyone equally and that she’s doing what she’s doing because she’s a chef and not because of her gender.

“I do think female chefs can be amazing because they can multitask,” she added.

You’ve worked in a number of restaurants in the past; how did you get into teaching?

“We’re also a restaurant,” she said, speaking about Great Cooks. “During my 15 year career I was asked to do a teaching gig at Humber College. A butchery class. And I really liked it. I did it for a semester. I met Esther (the co-owner and CEO of Great Cooks) 7 years ago and did a guest chef gig. It was an easy transition. Teaching is something you do anyways as a chef; you are constantly teaching line cooks, etc.”

In the French food episode you had to make a dish using horse. At the time, did you realize the issues that could arise from that ingredient?

“I didn’t realize [there would be an] issue because we have restaurants in the city that prepare horse.” She’s been to Quebec and France in the past, and has eaten horse. “It’s kind of hypocritical when you think of foie gras.”

Why make a tartar?

“We all collectively came up with the menu progression. It would have been one of the mains or starters, and had to go into the cold section of the menu. I had made it and eaten it that way before.”

Any other future plans that you’d like to share?

“We filmed the show almost a year ago. I’ve got a very successful condiment company called Killer Condiments. Doing a lot of travel to promote myself.” She recently had a contract with Tim Hortons to make a birthday cake for the 35th anniversary of the Timbit. She’s also been really busy at the restaurant and doing a lot of dinners including a Top Chef Canada dinner with Todd Perrin.

Other than your own establishment, name one of your favorite places to eat.

Per Se in New York City.

Any last comments?

“It was a great opportunity. I would do it again if I could.” She was pleased that people watch and enjoy the show, but was a little disappointed by some of the criticisms that have been on the Internet about the quality of the production and the food that the contestants made. “We’re just cooking food and at the end of the day, food needs to taste delicious. It doesn’t need to be totally out of the box and it’s not rocket science.”

You can read all the other past interviews by using this Top Chef Canada list.

One last note – I know that there are a lot of very passionate people who are upset about the use of horse in the show. While I do have my own opinion, I respect that people may not agree with me and so for that reason I am not talking about the specifics of this for either side of this issue. I hope that you will respect me in return and not flood my blog with comments for or against horse meat. I do my best not to censor comments on this blog, but any disrespectful comments will be edited or deleted. If you want to educate yourself about this issue, I highly recommend doing a search on the Internet. There are many detailed resources out there.

CHARCUT Roast House, Calgary

Even before Connie DeSousa appeared on Top Chef Canada, CHARCUT Roast House has created a lot of buzz. An enRoute Canada’s Best New Restaurant for 2010, their charcuterie and alley burgers (served in the back alley at various times announced on Twitter) has kept their name on the lips of people in Calgary and beyond.

I ate there with a friend back in February, coincidentally just 10 days before the names of the Top Chef Canada contestants were released. We ended up getting the same entrée, but different sides.

For an entrée we had the Spring Creek Butcher Steak, with arugula, fried matchstick potatoes, and chimichurri. It was probably one of the best steaks I’ve ever had. The meat was so tender that it practically melted in your mouth.

My friend also ordered the duck fat fried poutine served with cheese curds and truffle gravy. It was delicious and so very rich. So rich in fact that we couldn’t finish it even though I ended up trying to help her eat the dish. We were stuffed silly. I could easily see this dish being a good appetizer for 3 to 4 people. It’s definitely something that you need to share. I was sad that they cut out Connie’s Top Chef Canada’s poutine Quickfire challenge because I wanted to know if she had made this version for the competition or not.

Butcher steak and poutine

Butcher steak and poutine

The other side that we ordered was the slow roasted heirloom beets served with house-made soft goat cheese and arugula. The beets were tender and slightly sweet, but to me the star of this dish was the goat cheese. It was creamy and fluffy, and had a light tang instead of a strong tang that you find in many goat cheeses.

Butcher steak, heirloom beets and goat cheese

Butcher steak, heirloom beets and goat cheese

For dessert my friend had cheesecake in a jar. I think they were preserved saskatoon berries, but my memory is a little hazy. The cheesecake was light and fluffy.

cheesecake

cheesecake

I had the flourless chocolate cake with graham crackers and ice cream. It was dense and chocolately, with a brownie-like texture. I ended up having to bring some of it away with me because of being much too full from all the good food.

flourless chocolate cake

flourless chocolate cake

Our receipt was delivered with a postcard and the cutest little pig paper clip.

The bill and the pig

The bill and the pig

Alley burgers were actually being served later that night but I was too stuffed to even think about eating them. I had a great meal and would definitely come back again.

P.S. Did you know that I’m doing interviews with the Top Chef contestants? You can read all the other past interviews by using this Top Chef Canada list.

CHARCUT Roast House
101, 899 Centre Street SW
Calgary, AB
www.charcut.com

CHARCUT Roast House on Urbanspoon

Home grown cuisine with Top Chef Canada contestant Todd Perrin

Todd Perrin brought some much needed Maritime influence to Top Chef Canada. With his unique, but traditional, ingredients and cooking skills, he quickly became a fan favourite and many people were sad to see him go.

Top Chef Canada – Todd Perrin (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

Top Chef Canada – Todd Perrin (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

Why did you decide to apply to be on Top Chef Canada?

A friend sent me the notice of the casting call and for the first time in my working life I actually had time to consider something like Top Chef Canada. In my previous work, I was just too busy to be able to get away for such a long time in the height of summer. I am still amazed that some of the other Chefs could do it given their restaurant commitments. It just sounded like it would be fun and winning $100,000 wasn’t bad motivation either!

What surprised you most about the competition?

A bit cliché, but just how hard it was! It is an extremely difficult competition and I wasn’t really prepared for the intensity and difficulty of the challenges. Having said that I thought I held my own pretty well, but it was very, very tough.

What special items did you bring from home to help you in the competition?

All my specialty items pretty well made it onto the screen, salt fish, seal flipper, moose, capelin (dried and salted). I also had some rabbit, but didn’t get a chance to use it.

And along those same lines… in various challenges you used salt cod, moose and seal flipper. They’re all traditional foods that aren’t used as much (or in some cases hardly ever) in Canadian kitchens anymore. Why did you decide to use them?

They may not be used as often as they used to be, but there are many homes in the country that still enjoy these traditional items – especially here in Newfoundland and Labrador. I mean that’s where I am as a Chef. I try to use local ingredients wherever and whenever I can and I wanted to show that NL food is not all about Fish and Chips. My province offers great ingredients that can be prepared in a myriad of ways and that’s what I hoped to get the opportunity to showcase. Lucky for me I held on long enough to do that pretty well. I felt it important to show these items on Top Chef CANADA, emphasis on the Canada. It was the best way I saw to represent where I come from – both my province and my country.

What has been the reaction to your use of seal flipper since that first episode aired?

Generally very positive. There was a little negativity which given the controversy that sometimes surrounds the seal hunt, was not unexpected. Overall I’d say people respected that I thought it was important enough as a local ingredient to use it. I mean people eat seal! Flipper pie is not everybody’s bag no doubt, but it isn’t a made up dish. Seal meat is a sustainable, healthy readily available protein source that has been eaten here for hundreds of years and prepared properly can be quite delicious!

You’ve worked in some busy kitchens before but are now running your own place. Did you find it hard to adjust from your B&B to the speed of the Top Chef kitchen?

A little, but it’s a bit like riding a bike. I have spent a lot of years working in very busy, well respected restaurants. I have taken a different path for a bit, but I still have those skills. They just needed a little of the dust blown off them perhaps and being with the other Chefs certainly helped to do that. The whole thing has re ignited the fire I used to have in my belly when I worked on a busy line for 14 hrs a day. Not sure my wife is happy about that but there it is!

Did you have any dishes that you wanted to make for the competition but never got a chance to

Except for the winning dish on the final episode,  nothing that really comes to mind. I mean I did have a personal agenda to incorporate the ingredients that we have already talked about, but I really tried to react to the challenges that we were given and not plan my dishes in advance.

Any other future plans that you’d like to share?

We are working on a couple of things. An expansion of The Chef’s Inn to include a small restaurant is on the table. Also working on a couple of concepts to pitch for my own food show perhaps? Who knows about that, but I have been given lots of encouragement to do that. I think there are some people that would like to see more of me doing my thing?! We’ll see.

Other than your own establishment, name one of your favorite places to eat.

Top of Signal Hill watching Humpback whales, with a take out Chicken Curry from International Flavours!

Any last comments?

Just to say a big thanks to everyone involved with Top Chef Canada. I had a blast and would do it all again in a second! Also thanks to the folks who watch the show. The support I have gotten from across the country has been truly humbling and very inspiring. Keep watching for me guys, I hope I can keep spreading the message about accessible, local simple but delicious food! Lastly, I hope that I have helped to dispel that thought that “nice guys finish last” – they finish 8th, or at least on Top Chef Canada they do! ;)

Did you know that they’re casting for Season 2 of Top Chef Canada? I hope more chefs from outside of Toronto apply. It’d be nice to more people from different parts of the country. Imagine what kinds of things someone from up north could do!

You can read all the other past interviews by using this Top Chef Canada list. Got a question for a soon-to-be eliminated contestant? Let me know in the comments!