19 Feb The Day I Cooked with Celebrity Chefs
I’ve often wondered about food writers. What makes us such authorities on food exactly?
Whenever I tackle a new recipe, my respect for chefs grows exponentially. Who could have imagined the precision and care endowed on a simple scallop? When I review restaurants, I know how much work, sacrifice and heart goes into those dishes because I often attempt to master new techniques in my own kitchen.
When I heard about the Kitchenaid Cook for the Cure Culinary Showdown taking place in Toronto on December 7th, my heart skipped a beat and I signed up despite everything else I had on my plate (no pun intended). I knew all of the chefs who were donating their time to raise money for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. On the roster were Chefs Lynn Crawford, Mark McEwan, Corbin Tomaszeski, Vikram Vij, Tyler Florence, Dean McDermott and Montreal’s very own hearththrob, uber-talented, Chuck Hughes.
Motivated by a cure for breast cancer
I raised $2,760.00 for breast cancer research. This was especially timely given that my mother was going through the daunting experience of a biopsy. Thankfully, the results came out negative but it awoke me to the unspeakably frightening reality of losing my mother, of the pain my friends endured losing family to breast cancer or supporting loved ones in treatment, and of a friend who underwent a double mastectomy to avoid a second bout of cancer. It made my efforts that much easier.
As a reward for my hard work blasting emails, posting incessantly on Facebook and even baking and selling “boobie cupcakes”, I ended up in the top 50 fundraisers and earned the great privilege of spending a day at the Fairmount Royal York in Toronto for a day of cooking lessons with some of Canada’s top chefs.
Celebrity Chefs School begins
The day was hosted by Tyler Florence, host of the Great Food Truck Race and and Dean McDermott, host of Chopped Canada. I was thrilled to be on Corbin Tomaszeski’s team, a celebrated chef who is frequently on Restaurant Takeover and hosts the hilarious Dinner Party Wars.
A round robin of lessons were set up for us. Corbin was our first stop, showing us plating techniques; giving us a sense of what’s in (carefully displaying all of the ingredients as naturally as possible) and what’s out (piling food and pre-cutting chicken breasts). Next stop was Chef Mark McEwan showing us how to make fresh gnuddis (ricotta gnocchis) and cheese from scratch. We then moved on to Chef Lynn Crawford’s station where she treated us to a decadent butter-basted steak (not for the cardiac patient) and then made a hollandaise in about 30 seconds. Evidence of astonishing skill and speed.
After lunch, we proceeded to Chef Chuck Hughes’ station where we saw his knife skills up-close in action. Shucking oysters, quickly preparing a pepper, dicing an onion at the speed of light and then expertly fileting a fish, just as he has a thousand times over. Talent goes a long way, but the road to near-perfection is achieved by trial and error.
Lastly, we moved to the undeniably hilarious Chef Vikram Vij’s station where we watched him master a chicken masala. As he added layers of ingredients, he had us taste the dish to experience the development of flavours. After letting it sit for 3 minutes we tasted it again and were shocked by the marked difference in complexity. Another lesson that patience is indeed a virtue.
Chefs, please open your baskets…
After an afternoon break to rest, we returned to the hotel that evening for a cocktail party where we had time to hobnob with the celebs and prep ourselves for competition. Outfitted in our snazzy chef coats, we proceeded to the banquet hall with tables set stunningly for over 300 people, large screens and a stage with cooking stations.
Each team sat together and cheered each other on as we conquered the mystery basket ingredients while the timer for each course counted down. Our team, which we aptly named the “C-Cups”, had incredible synergy – we were having the time of our lives and Corbin’s wit and zeal kept us on our toes.
For the appetizer round I fiercely chopped tuna, garlic, shallots and assembled an asian tuna tartare. The energy in the room was magnetic. I felt so grounded, so confident, so in my element yet totally on some other planet – you know…the one where dreams come true. There I was amongst others equally passionate about food, guided by Corbin expertly instructing us how to dice, slice, season and plate. I felt as if I had stepped out of my skin and onto the set of the Iron Chef, my calls of “yes chef” echoing in my ears. Each course we prepared looked like it could have been presented in any high-end restaurant. We were proud.
We were judged by Chef John Cirillo of Cirillo’s Culinary Academy, Claire Tansey, Food Director for Chatelaine, Toronto Star’s Michelle Henry, Canada AM’s Beverly Thomson and food blogger, Melissa Hartfiel. We lost to Chef McEwen’s team but weren’t discouraged by our 4th place standing…we still beat team Chuck Hughes after all. In between courses, each celebrity chef auctioned themselves off to cook private events and to raise even more money for breast cancer. Chuck Hughes egged the audience on to keep bidding on a chance for him to cook a private dinner party, finally raising somewhere around $16,000.
Worth every penny raised
The culmination of our fundraiser, a silent auction and the generosity of the celebrity chefs donating their talent and time was over $600,000. Unbelievable.
My takeaway was three-fold: My contribution to finding a cure to breast cancer, the experience in and of itself, and the absolute exuberance shared with us by the celebrity chefs. It is no wonder that they have earned their reputations in kitchens and have built successful television careers. They are all magnanimous, they visibly ADORE food and their ability to ignite others to love cooking was clear from their abilities as instructors; showing patience, passion and unbridled enthusiasm.
In the past 2 months I have been processing my experience and thinking about my future in food. I still love my day job but I am now assured that food will always hold a prominent place in my life. My cooking skills have already improved dramatically because I am trying new things and taking risks. I think about plating, I taste as I cook, I aim for good technique and I read constantly, my pile of Cooks Illustrated growing steadily.
I am so proud of what I accomplished at the Culinary Showdown, and of the money and awareness I raised for breast cancer. I may do it again but I have one challenge in my pocket and am waiting for the opportunity to strike. Masterchef Canada, hold onto your hats. Harlie is coming…