Our city’s best chefs have proved Calgary to be a top culinary destination
In a world of ‘Real Housewives’ this and ‘Honey Boo Boo’ that, it’s always refreshing to sit back and watch a reality-focused series with some substance. The Canadian Idol craze has long since come and gone and the winners (how many were there again?) are but a mere afterthought in a pop music world ruled by Carly Rae Jepsen. Thank god the reality of the food world is considerably less fleeting and much more appetising to take in.
In our country, we can be consumed by Food Network Canada almost hourly, but Monday nights are when Canadians are captivated most. Since premiering in 2011, Top Chef Canada has consistently been the highest rated series on the network. Now just wrapping up its third season, six great chefs identifying with our city have experienced the good, the bad and the ugly that is our country’s most public food fight.
In its inaugural season, back in February of 2011, we saw two competitors representing Calgary in the national kitchen battleground. The first, pastry chef extraordinaire, Rebekah Pearse and, of course, Calgary’s culinary sweetheart Connie DeSousa.
The show’s format was simple; sixteen chefs from coast-to-coast were pitted against each other in a string of challenges. They would be eliminated, one by one, until the country saw its first official ‘Top Chef’. Best summed up as a culinary ‘Survivor’ minus the beaches, makeshift shelters and tans, of course.
Back then, having just recently opened Charcut Roast House with co-chef and partner in crime, John Jackson, the show couldn’t have come at a better time in Connie DeSousa’s career. If past seasons of the original American program were any indication, leveraging one’s time on a series like this could result in national notoriety and a never-ending stream of business.
Sadly, local foodies watched Rebekah “pack her knives and go” after only two episodes. The talented chef satisfied many a sweet tooth with her dessert cafe, Nectar, which used to inhabit the space that is now Without Papers in Inglewood. Pearse now happily resides in Toronto, lending her culinary expertise and charm to popular downtown restaurant, Luma.
Then, there was one…Connie became a stronger contender week after week, as we watched other cheftestants drop off one-by-one. She sailed gracefully into the finale, finishing third place to Rob Rossi and winner, Dale Mackay. If DeSousa’s aim was setting the bar for future Calgarian chefs that would appear on the series, she couldn’t have set it much higher.
Fast forward to season two. France transplant and fine dining chef, Xavier Lacaze was announced to follow in Connie’s footsteps. He was Calgary’s sole chef for the new year and quickly garnered a supportive fan base. Although he did not fare as well as DeSousa from the previous year, he came in at a very respectable fifth place. Whether he was up or down, Xavier impressed local foodies with his level-headedness and refined cooking style.
The talented chef is still commanding attention in the city’s dining scene, set to open Brigg’s Kitchen and Bar on 10th Avenue SW in just a few weeks. “I definitely do not miss the judges table!” explains Lacaze, reminiscing on the roller coaster ride that was his Top Chef Canada experience. “When you’re on top, it’s awesome, but when you’re on the bottom, as I was a few times, it was always a shocker.”
A few weeks before the series wrapped up in spring, 2012, auditions began with a brand new batch of chefs for the next season. “I didn’t actually think that I was going to make it.” chuckled Geoff Rogers, competitor from season three. “I know, what the hell, right…? But, once you make it to the producer cut, it’s starts becoming a lot more real…Getting the call…I thought, holy crap, now I get to cook and show them what I actually can do.”
Rogers, whom ended up placing sixth this year, continues, “To see it on TV, seeing Connie go through the experience and then Xavier. I was just excited for the experience…Really, if you think about, less than 50 [chefs] in Canada have had this opportunity…it’s really cool to look at it that way.”
Boutique caterer/owner of Nicole Gourmet, Nicole Gomes chimes in, “I was going to apply [for season two], but it wasn’t the right time. I thought it would just be fun, really. The money was obviously an incentive, but I just thought that I had the skill level to pull off everything that they would throw at me.” Had she applied with her original intentions, Gomes would have been a welcome addition to the second season, which arguably lacked a prominent female chef. “I wasn’t going to be disappointed if I didn’t get on [this year]. If they called and told me no, I would have just gone on with my life. But, I would have tried again, I tell you that! Ha, ha, ha.”
When the show premiered earlier this year, we quickly saw Gomes, Rogers and Chris Shaften, the third Calgary cheftestant, separate from the pack in terms of personality. The three chefs regularly offered up humorous commentary, rather than the typical fierce “I’m not here to make friends!” competitiveness when it came to the culinary challenges. “There were moments where I considered that some of the stuff I may have said in the sound booth may have been pretty over the top.” Chris points out, laughing, “But, personality aside, it was always most important what I was putting on the plate.”
Shaften, who was eliminated midway through the season, made Canadians smile weekly with his quirky comments and unabashed public affection for the ladies. “I went in with an attitude of having a really good time. I was imagining that there would be some hot girls and that we’d be having some bikini parties in the hot tub…Ha, ha, ha. I was excited to have a good time and to cook, but I wanted to win!”
As charming as Geoff and Chris were on camera, it was undeniable that Nicole grew to be the darling of the current season. Whether it was her now infamous ‘Beaver Balls’ dish or her unabashed love of gin cocktails post-cooking challenges, people fell in love with her talent and ‘tell it like it is’ persona. Finishing the current competition in fifth place, there was no doubt that Top Chef fans across the country shed a tear or two watching Nicole gracefully depart from the series.
Now that a third year of Top Chef Canada is coming to close, looking at the stats, Calgary chefs have been portrayed extremely well in this national kitchen warzone. We’ve, thankfully, had no ‘villains’ and have offered up one eighth of the total culinary talent to this intense spotlight, with the majority of the chefs making it past the halfway point. It’s no secret to us that the Calgary culinary scene has something special going on, but now it’s undeniable to the rest of Canada too.
“I’ve been here for 11 years and I’ve seen [Calgary] grow from not really understanding fine dining to where it is now and I do think it’s still underestimated by the rest of Canada.” points out Gomes, “I love that it’s new, it’s keeping up with the trends and I think our Calgarian [diners] do really understand the ‘trend’…It’s becoming a lot more cosmopolitan. The restaurant scene has blown up and there’s a lot more possibility to come.”
Although this city may still not have an official number one ‘Top Chef’ – yet – in its ranks, it can’t be argued that our chefs are leaving a good impression on food lovers from coast-to-coast. Like many situations in our lives, it’s true what they say: It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. I may be biased, but I think these Calgary chefs have all played a pretty damn fine game.
Episode 2: Rebekah, 15th place
Episode 13 (finale): Connie, 3rd place
Episode 11: Xavier, 5th place
Episode 13 (finale): Xavier returns to cook off to regain a spot in the finale, doesn’t succeed.
Episode 7: Chris Shaften, 8th place
Episode 10: Geoff Rogers, 6th place
Episode 11: Nicole Gomes, 5th place
Episode 13: All three competitors return as sous chefs for the quickfire challenge, Connie appears as a guest judge for the elimination challenge.
Photo by Ingrid Kuenzel