Why did you decide to apply to be on Top Chef Canada?
I’m a HUGE fan of Top Chef, mainly because I’ve always felt that the challenges (while extreme) reflected the unique skills that professional chefs need to have in their bag of tricks. Of course, getting some exposure for my business and the chance to win $100,000 was a big part of my motivation as well.
What surprised you most about the competition?
The judging. Of course, it’s TV, and it needs to be interesting, but I got the feeling that Mark McEwan approached the judging as if we were all raw apprentices and the prize was a job at his restaurant. I was also pretty surprised that we were shopping at Loblaw’s given that the US competitors all shop at Whole Foods. (Lots of chefs shop there, though, it’s where I would most often get to chat with other chef/owners when I was shopping for my own restaurant!)
Did you learn anything from your experience?
If anything, it was an affirmation of what I knew already… that I make the best desserts of anyone I know, it’s what sets me apart from other chefs, and marching to the beat of my own drum is the only way to go.
What special items did you bring from home to help you in the competition?
We were all allowed to bring 10 ingredients with a combined value of no more than $200 with us from home (hence Todd’s seal flipper). I brought tartaric acid, gelatin, citric acid, fromage blanc cultures, espelette pepper, cranberry honey mustard from Brassica Mustard, rose petal harissa, pickled cattail hearts, pickled spruce tips, Joel Robuchon instant stock sachets and organic Japanese matcha. As far as tools go, I didn’t bring anything crazy, just my favourite tongs and a quilting ruler.
You were told to paint a picture of your partner with cheese. Other than the Quebec cheese, what did the rest of your dish say about Derek? It was hard to tell from the shots on the show – was the cheese underneath the meat and fruit?
For starters, at this point in the competition I had made two simple, very cheese-focused dishes. I had received no feedback for them, and was worrying that I needed to show that I could branch out in order to get some recognition. On top of those silly head games, I over conceptualized the dish… I tried to make every component reflect my partner. First, I chose a Quebec cheese (Guillaume Tell, a gorgeous washed-rind cheese) and then chose to use veal as it was the only Quebec protein available. I asked Derek about his favourite flavours to cook with, and he mentioned cranberries and mustard, which made me think of the delicious Brassica mustard that I’d brought from home. Last, I needed a way to serve it, and I thought of the yummy buckwheat pancakes he’d made for his first challenge, so I decided to make a buckwheat blini as the base. All in all, there were some good ideas there, but to try to force them all to work together was not the best idea I’ve ever had.
Your ability to make savory dishes was questioned in the competition. Was this dish a good example of savoury dishes that you make? Why or why not?
I felt those comments were poorly thought-out, and were particularly galling to me as a classically trained chef and certified sommelier. Critiquing a flawed dish is fair. Saying you think it means someone doesn’t know how to cook or worse, taste? Rediculous. I think those comments were badly phrased sound-bites.
As for whether it was a good example of how I tend to cook savoury… well, I hope not! As I said above, the dish had too many dissonant ideas going on, it had no focus. I like to think my signature style is simplicity, and I totally abandoned it for this dish. It did, however, have elements of the way I cook: veal blanquette is one of my favourite things to cook (and eat). Washed rind cheeses scooped out right at the table? I’m so there!
You addressed the closure of Nectar Desserts in your blog (http://rebekahpearse.blogspot.com/2011/04/bankrupt.html), so Im not going to ask you about that. In hindsight, did this issue happening at home affect your ability to properly compete?
Absolutely. I was jet-lagged, exhausted and underprepared when I got there, then continuously distracted the whole time I was on the show. My head was only half in the game, and looking back on that time, if I hadn’t been kicked off the show I would have needed to drop out.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of applying to be a contestant on Top Chef?
Do it! Despite the fact that it didn’t turn out as I’d hoped, I got so much out of the experience, particularly the chance to meet so many cool people and participate in creating some pretty wicked TV! As far as how to get on the show? Be yourself.
What are you doing now? Any future plans that you’d like to share? Will you be opening another business anytime soon?
I just accepted a position as the pastry chef at a high-profile winery in the Okanagan. I’m SO excited about it! I’ve never spent a summer in a growing region (even when I worked in Europe it was in the winter and spring).
I’m working on a follow up to “SWEET Seasonal Desserts” called “SWEET Chocolate Desserts”. The title is pretty self-explanatory and I hope to have it published this fall.
I have no doubt that I’ll be opening other businesses in the future, but right now it’s just about waiting for the right opportunity and the right time.
Other than where you are currently working, name one of your favorite places to eat.
This isn’t a plug, I honestly LOVE Connie’s restaurant, Charcut [in Calgary]. She feeds me up good there on a regular basis. If you haven’t been, you need to go.
Any last comments?
A huge thank-you to my friends and family, but most of all to the crew at Nectar. I would never have been able to go on the show without them, and their love and support made everything not only possible, but worth it.