Toronto vs the World: The Chef’s Cartel Season Finale
May 20th, 2017 | By: TrueCooks
Cooking competitions can be a terrifying proposition. International travel to judge a cooking competition even more so. So, four months ago when Nikko Jacino reached out to us I wasn’t doing back flips at the thought of bringing TrueCooks to Toronto. I’ve always felt cooking competitions play to the home cooks sensibilities & never represent what it’s truly like to work in a commercial kitchen. Cooking is a team sport and if you are working in a professional setting, you are only as good as the team you are working with. Who’s the best here? “Who cares, let’s just cook and get on with it” has always been my opinion. Well, as it turns out what Nikko & his team at The Chef’s Cartel have done is really quite remarkable. At just 26 years old Nikko is completing his third season of the Chef’s Cartel “battles”; something he created to bring the Toronto cooking community closer together, not create bragging rights for obnoxious egomaniacs. He told me, “I felt like we were all segregated into our own little worlds and how cool it would be if we could create an event or event series that would bring out all of our local chefs & their teams in one supportive, network – building setting.” Well, damn if that’s not exactly what this event was all about.
On Wednesday May 10th I had all of my wisdom teeth removed. On Sunday May 14th I arrived in Toronto the afternoon prior to the big event. After 12 hours of travel I was immediately whisked away V.I.P. style by Nikko & his business partner Sean in the team’s Hummer. Pleasantly surprised, they had taken the liberty to set me up in an Air B&B in the Little Portugal neighborhood of Toronto. We had several small bites ( I had soup) & large beers around the delightful neighborhood and called it an early night.
The next morning afforded me the luxury of a few hours to myself of which I spent securing my California State prescribed medicine & finding something “soft” to eat. I had no problem finding a similar prescription in Toronto that was actually half the price. This is a trend U.S. travelers to Canada will find everywhere. Things are generally better, less expensive, cleaner and people are nicer. Again, these are generalizations but I found each to be true over my 24 hours in Toronto.
After securing my prescription I was off to finally meet Chef Dave Mottershall in person. Dave is one of the best guys out there period. He’s devoted himself to his restaurant Loka which features Dave’s inspired Canadian cooking which won NOW magazine’s Best New Restaurant in Toronto in 2015. Loka was initially financed through Kick Starter. Since securing the space Dave has added polish & function throughout FOH & BOH areas in classic ‘Do-It-Yourself’ fashion. Although Dave is probably best known for his charcuterie & dazzling natural presentations – he is also turning out some of the city’s best plant based tastings as well. Dave has quietly supported TrueCooks since day one so it was awesome on a personal level to meet him in person after being Instagram friends for nearly 5 years!
A quick “Good Bye” to Dave & I was Uber’d off to the Luxe Studios downtown. Walking into the space I was transported (figuratively) to the command deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise. It was that sleek. In the States we are doing pop-ups on old fold-out banquet tables, produce crates & portable burners. These guys are slightly more advanced to say the least. After spending some time familiarizing myself with the latest hi-tech oven innovations from Bosch I was ready for yet another in a series of pleasant surprises; meet your co-judges!
Although the majority of my career was spent in the states – I did have a little fling in the early 2000s working abroad and spent 5 years in Vancouver, British Columbia. During my time there I discovered many amazing Canadian secrets, one of which is called ‘Canadian content.’ As it turns out – there is a whole world of quality Canadian broadcasting & Canadian celebrities we never get to see this side of the boarder! One of my very favorites from this period of discovery would be our co-judge, Restaurant Makeover star, Iron Chef competitor, and now Chickery owner Chef David Adjey.
The judges table was rounded out by Chef Ivana Raca who I would go on to learn is my long lost sister or possible animal spirit. Ivana is a long-time fixture in the Toronto dining scene & came up cooking with the McEwan Group. She is currently the Chef/Owner (woman power on display here) of Raca Cafe & Bar and has Beat Bobby Flay, is a Chopped Champ & is a total Bosnian bad ass. Next in line is the 15 year Owner, (one of few women in Canada) of Tutti Matti, Chef Alida Solomon. She was delightful and I was immediately sold on anything she had to say after learning about her Tuscan fundamentals and appreciation for the basics. Our final judge was Abbey Sharp who is a noted dietitian, author, blogger & founder of Abbey’s Kitchen Inc .
The “Battle” itself was very simple. Each competitor would create four dishes featuring a mystery ingredient they would receive at the beginning of the 1 hour match. No prepared items or secret ingredients were allowed. The competitors had only raw ingredients at their disposal. Virtually anything you would ever need to make anything was conveniently stashed in space-age magnetized under-counter drawers. Combine four roving camera men, local celebrities, a full capacity crowd tweeting & IG’ing like crazy and the tons of great giveaways and the stage was literally set for battle . . .
Finalist 1 | Chef Tallis Baker-Voakes is a graduate of Ottawa’s Le Cordon Bleu and has worked in London, England at NOBU. He has worked under Fergus Henderson and Michael Roux Jr. and has cooked for Her Majesty Queen, Elizabeth II, so you have to kind of assume he knows what he’s doing. I had the chance to talk to him for a while before the competition and he struck me as so calm, almost relaxed, in light of all of the craziness going on around him. I liked that & I liked Tallis too. Quite a bit.
Finalist 2 | Chef Missy Hui, A ten year veteran of The McEwan Group, Missy was recently promoted to Chef de Cuisine at Fabbrica. Missy went to Liaison College of the Culinary Arts where she graduated at the top of her class. After working overseas, Missy joined the McEwan Group in 2007 and has since worked her way up from the bottom, the old fashioned way. If Missy’s fan section was any indication of what kind of cook she is, we were in for a treat! It was so cool to see all of her family from work come out in numbers to support her. They had custom pins, signs, chants, the whole deal and if a dedicated cheering section wasn’t enough her big boss, one of the most respected Chefs in Canadian cooking period, Mark McEwan himself came out to back her. It all starts at the top.
The Battle! | The mystery ingredient *ducks* was unveiled and the finalists were literally off and running. Things got off to a rocky start. At the ten minute marker the contestants were told they had to switch stations for the remainder of the contest – meaning that they would have to either have to start everything over or run with whatever their competitor had already started! Frustrated but determined they both headed in their own directions albeit slightly faster then before. At the 45 minute marker we were hit with a rapid succession of shared plates, appetizers, amuse bouches & entrees at the judges table. Everything was delicious with standouts being Tallis’s duck liver crostini & Missy’s roasted duck breast & citrus cabbage slaw.
The atmosphere leading up to the final buzzer was electric. Both finalists did an amazing job keeping their cool while over two hundred attendees snapped, chatted and gram’d the action from beginning to end. The outpouring of support and positive vibes were felt by all and fans kept up with the action throughout the event. We were all impressed, at the judges table, with both Missy’s & Tallis’s professionalism, food quality and skills but when forced to pick one or the other . . .
I’d Like to extend a huge “THANK YOU” to Nikko, Sean, Lulu & fam at the Chef’s Cartel for including TrueCooks in your finale. Huge “THANK YOU” to everyone at the event, all the hard working externs from George Brown & a huge “THANK YOU” to all of our friends & fam in and around Toronto. What a cool food scene you have, cant wait to come back when I can chew!!