Turning up the heat with Top Chef Canada contestant Derek Bocking

I don’t know about the rest of you, but to me it seemed like last week’s episode was a tough one for the contestants thanks to guest judge Susur Lee. Unfortunately for Derek, this wasn’t his week.

Top Chef Canada - Derek Bocking (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

Top Chef Canada - Derek Bocking (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

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

My brother Steve, and his girlfriend Melanie really pushed for me to apply. I left it for the last minute, because I wasn’t sure if I could get the necessary time off work, but when I decided I was going to go for it, they rushed over to my apartment and we filmed the audition video in one day. I still thank the two of them every time I see them and will be forever grateful that they push me to do this

What surprised you most about the competition?

How “real” it was. There were many moments where I was just pushing myself to get the job done and I would forget that I was on TV and not in my restaurant. But then Chef McEwan would walk into the kitchen I would be suddenly reminded that, of s#!t, I’m really on Top Chef! One of my favorite moments was when Andrea was being a little abrasive and I had to remind her that we were on the same team. I have to admit, I smiled when her comeback was “Yeah, well this is still Top Chef!”

Did you learn anything from your experience?

So much.  Besides learning some of the ins and outs of TV land, I learned a lot of little tips and tricks from the other chefs. I’ve been cooking in one style for most of my career, French/North American comfort, so it was interesting to see the techniques that some of the other chefs were using, especially those who came from a more fine dining background.

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

Besides my knives, I brought my own pair of tongs, because I’m very particular about the kind I use and I was glad I did, because the ones in the Top Chef kitchen didn’t feel right. For ingredients I brought a few modern stabilizers and emulsifiers. I brought them to maybe do something fancy and modern like a flaming sorbet recipe I know from the Fat Duck, but I also knew that they work wonders added to the more traditional recipes I usually do. They saved me in episode 2 when the acidity of the blue cheese that I put into my cheesecake split my mix into curds and whey. I used one of my emulsifiers to bring it back together and the dish was a hit.

We never saw your Quickfire salad; what did you make?

They skiped my Quickfire dish twice! I was pretty upset about that. I didn’t win any Quickfires, but I did come on the bottom either, so unfortunately two of my dishes didn’t get any airtime. For the breakfast challenge in episode 2, I made my version of cheese on toast, with a nod to the traditional Irish Sunday fry up. I made worchestershire glazed wild mushrooms with back bacon, served on grilled bread with melted camembert. My salad was a beet carpaccio (had no idea that’s what Dusty was making!) with persimmons and a citrus vinaigrette.

What went through your mind when you pulled that knife and saw that it said “Mexico?”

Ironically it was “sweet, this will be easy!” and it should have been. I was paired with Dustin, who was Susur’s sous chef, so besides the fact that I’m already familiar with Mexican cuisine, that was a definite advantage too. There were so many dishes that I could have chosen to make that I could easily have banged out in less than 2 hours, but I felt the need to over reach and try to make one of my signature dishes, a dish that I usually make over the course of 2 days, in just 2 hours.  It was a foolish, foolish decision, one that will haunt me for the rest of my life, but that is the game. Everything happens so fast in the Top Chef kitchen, and that’s what makes it an exciting show. I knew I made a terrible choice early on in the challenge, but once the clock started, there was no turning back.

Top Chef Canada – Thea Andrews and Susur Lee, Episode 4 (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

Top Chef Canada – Thea Andrews and Susur Lee, Episode 4 (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

Why did you decide to use a braise on the ribs even though you’d have only a portion of the cooking time normally needed?

In the previous challenge I played it safe with a dish that left me with lots of time to spare. I got on to Top Chef Canada by cooking a dish (rabbit pot pie) that normally takes hours in just 30 minutes. That definitely impressed the producers in my audition, so I thought I could pull of a 2 hour version of my braised ribs. Unfortunately there were a couple of things that knocked me off my very tightly planned timetable that put me a good half hour behind, and what I presented to the judges was far from a finished dish. What kills me is I’m a huge Top Chef fan and I’ve seen many talented chefs asked to pack their knives and go because of undercooked braises and that is exactly what happened to me.

Your bio states that you have no formal culinary training. In your experience, has that hindered you at all in your career, or do you see it as a benefit?

I think it’s neither a hindrance nor a benefit. Going to culinary school might have helped me early in my career, but by the time I knew I would be making a career in the kitchen it was too late and I would have been relearning things that I already knew for years. I was fortunate enough to work with some great chefs over the years, particularly Fred Morin of Joe Beef, who has had a major influence on my cooking style.

Did you have any dishes up your sleeve to make later in the competition had you not been eliminated?

I was pretty upset that I didn’t once use fois gras. I’m a big proponent of sustainable agriculture and I think it’s incredibly  ironic that fois gras gets so much heat from animal rights activists.  I’m aware that there are some videos out there of unhappy ducks being force fed, but I’ve done my homework and I can tell you that I’d take the life of a fois gras duck over a fast food chicken any day. I was surprised by some of the backlash I saw on the net about Todd using seal, when from a sustainability point of view, it’s a more ecological choice than most of the commercial beef you find in the supermarket.  I’m not saying that seal would be an ideal replacement for everyday meals (that would never be sustainable) but I wish that people put more thought into where their food comes from. I wanted to really represent Montreal and Quebec on the national scene and fois gras is one of our specialties. There are a lot ways a could have used it, but I was waiting for a challenge where I could do my version of the ultimate PB&J: fois gras parfait with blueberry jelly and walnut butter. That one I was saving for the finale.

Any future plans that you’d like to share?

My goal for a while now has been to open my own restaurant by the time I’m 35. I’m 31 now so I have a few years to spare. The exposure from Top Chef has led to a few offers, but I’m in no rush and I want to make sure that when I do open my own place, I do it right.  For now, I have my blog, www.derekskitchen.com , where I post restaurant style recipes that people can try at home.  The recipes are very detailed and I include pictures of all the steps to make them very easy to follow.

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

There are so many amazing restaurants in Montreal. My favorites are DNA, Joe Beef, Le Chien Fumant, and L’Orignal.

Any last comments?

If you want to see more of what I have to offer, visit my blog or come see me at Beaver Hall.

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

Adding a Latin flair with Top Chef Canada contestant Steve Gonzalez

Poor Steve. It was starting to seem like Steve would be one of the more colourful contestants on Top Chef Canada, but we never did really get to see much about him or his style of food before he was eliminated in last week’s challenge.

Top Chef Canada – Steve Gonzalez (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

Top Chef Canada – Steve Gonzalez (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

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

I decided to do Top Chef cause I felt this will help get my name and face out there. I left Toronto a few years ago and came back saying [th]is was going to do big things.

What surprised you most about the competition?
I was surprised at how well we all got along and how different our food styles where.

Did you learn anything from your experience?
I learned that I can still move fast when I need to.

What special items did you bring from home to help you in the competition?
I brought Yuzu juice, Aji amarillo and achiote.

It seemed like some people had better experiences working within teams than others. What was your team dynamic like?
Our team worked great together. We were all cool and worked like a well oiled machine.

Top Chef Canada – Dan Aykroyd Episode 3 (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

Top Chef Canada – Guest Judge Dan Aykroyd, Episode 3 (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

The potato salad dish you made – did you change the recipe at all to make it fit better with the theme of the challenge, or is that how you would normally serve it?
Ya I changed it totally changed it to fit in the vessel and I really wanted to put caviar in it. It’s not something I make all the time.

Latino cuisine isn’t as common in Canada as say, various Asian cuisines. How fast is knowledge about Latino cuisine growing in Canada? If you had stayed in the competition longer, what kind of dishes would we have seen from you?
Latino food has become a little more know but not as well as I would like. We would have seen more ceviches, modern sancocho and maybe ropa veija.

Any future plans that you’d like to share?
I’ll just be doing my thing here at Origin and raising the bar in the food scene in Toronto.

Other than your own establishment, name one of your favorite places to eat.
I like doing the China town thing. Late night at Taste of China or Pho Houng for lunch [in Toronto].

Any last comments?
I’d just like to say that I had fun and it was a great experience.

You can read past interviews by using this Top Chef Canada list. If you have a question that you want answered by the latest eliminated cheftestant, let me know in the comments, preferably by the end of the broadcast night on which they are voted off. I make no guarantees about using your question, but if I do use it I will give you credit for it.

Sweet talk with Top Chef Canada contestant Rebekah Pearse

Here’s my interview with eliminated Top Chef Canada contestant and Alberta chef Rebekah Pearse.

Top Chef Canada – Rebekah Pearse (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

Top Chef Canada – Rebekah Pearse (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

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.

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

Grilling Top Chef Canada contestant Michael Stauffer

To get you ready for tonight’s new episode of Top Chef Canada, here’s an interview with last week’s eliminated contestant, Michael Stauffer.

Top Chef Canada – Michael Stauffer (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

Top Chef Canada – Michael Stauffer (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

First of all, congratulations on being chosen for the first season of Top Chef Canada! What was the selection process like for you?

Thanks! The selection process was cool and nerve racking. It was kind of a last minute thing when I put the audition tape in (evident from the quality of said tape), and it seemed like forever before I knew if I was being passed through to the next stage.

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

My friends were begging me to at least try! I thought it would be fun and a good experience. Also, a chance at $100,000 doesn’t hurt.

What surprised you most about the competition?

The intense level of talent they brought in from across Canada. These guys and girls were good. Also, just how much work goes into production of these t.v shows.

Did you learn anything from your experience?

Haha…yeah, that drinking 5 cups of coffee before a quickfire challenge, does not make filleting a fish easy.

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

Just some really good olive oil, a bottle of Saba, and some Asian seasonings that I figured they wouldn’t have.

Top Chef Canada - Episode 1 (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

Top Chef Canada - Episode 1 (photo courtesy of Food Network Canada/Insight Productions)

Can you explain the reasoning behind the food you created for your elimination dish? Did you intend to serve the lamb that rare, and why did you choose to use chevre in that way? Have you made this dish before?

I had never made that dish before. I had made each component many, many times before, but never together like that. It was my thinking that we were to try and represent our personality on the plate. I think I read into that a little too much and tried to represent it literally. Transparent (consomme), Cheesy Humour (Chevre), Haldimand County (lamb – close to where I grew up), Mixture of Personalities (5 different veg cooked 5 different ways).

The consomme was straight from France, I used heirloom tomatoes as they were height of season at the time and infused it with basil. The Cheese was definitely a bad idea, I had had this before at a restaurant and I loved it. The combination of the 120 degree kitchen and the 15 minutes of sitting on the plate before being eaten did not help, but I should have seen that before…that’s what being a chef is all about.

But one thing I am still absolutely perplexed by, and I feel compelled to defend, is the doneness of the lamb. I have cooked lamb fillet 100,000 times at some of the top restaurants in Canada, and I have to say that without a doubt, it was perfectly cooked. Brought up to room temperature before, seasoned with olive and citrus, wrapped in caul fat, slow roasted with thyme, garlic, rosemary, bay-leaf, lots of butter and allowed to rest for the same amount of time that it cooked. When I cut into it, I couldn’t have been more pleased. There was no eye, and a perfect, juicy, uniform pink through out. I just didn’t get it.

But according to the resident expert, it looked and tasted like vomit. I doubt Gael Green could have said it much more eloquently, but I’ll take it as constructive criticism and move on.

If asked, would you compete on Top Chef Canada again?

Sure, I would love to take another stab at it.

Any future plans that you’d like to share?

I have been nailing down a rosticceria concept for the past year that I feel will become very big. It’s called Celli’s. We are opening our second concept restaurant in Burlington, Ontario and also a 30 seat dining room concentrating on a very stylish form of cuisine. I fully intend to put the lamb dish on the menu (probably change it up a bit though), and allow my guests to taste and judge for themselves!

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

My backyard, end of August, next to my vegetable garden with Grimier’s Pride Tomatoes, Soldier Basil, Burrata Mozzarella still warm from Bella Casara, liter of Olive Oil, Saba, Grey Salt, Black Pepper, Crusty Bread, friends and 10 bottles of wine from Organized Crime in Niagara. Who would honestly want anything else?

Any last comments?

Would just like to thank all my friends and family for the unwavering support and I will continue to cook my heart out for them!! Thanks.

I am interviewing all the eliminated contestants, so if you have a question that you want answered, let me know in the comments, preferably by the end of the broadcast night on which they are voted off. I make no guarantees about using your question, but if I do use it I will give you credit for it.

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

Top Chef Canada initial impressions

Okay, so you all watched Top Chef last night, right? I’m not planning on recapping every episode because frankly, I just don’t have the time. But I did want to jot down some of my initial impressions and predictions (mostly spoiler free).

First, my impressions – I was pleased to see that many of the US Top Chef elements were there – the types of challenges, the interviews with the cheftestants, etc. It put a big smile on my face to see all those Canadian images in the intro. I do have some concerns about the chefs finding the ingredients that they need though. Loblaws, a main sponsor of the show, has a lot of items in their stores but I know they usually don’t carry stuff like venison and um… seal flipper (at least they don’t in their Edmonton stores – maybe it’s different in other parts of Canada?). I mean, sometimes I even have problems finding canned black beans in stock at my local Superstore! I’m sure that the show has thought this out though, and I am hopeful that this won’t be a huge problem for the duration of the show.

And now for predictions. Let me preface this by saying that I am usually wrong every time I try to guess who is going to win any kind of competition like this. 🙂

Based purely on their audition videos, my top three guesses were Dustin Gallagher, Connie DeSousa and Dale MacKay, with Dustin winning.

After watching the first episode, I would have to say that I am still relatively confident in Connie DeSousa and Dale MacKay. Not quite sure about Dustin now. It’s still pretty early yet, and time will tell. I’m excited. This is going to be a great show!

I will be posting interviews with each eliminated cheftestant every week. You can read my past interviews by using this Top Chef Canada list.