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.
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.
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.