Top Chef Canada’s Contestants on Cooking Up Their Careers

All images courtesy of Food Network Canada

If life in quarantine has you flipping channels in a neverending search to find something suitable to watch with your teen, you can now put the remote safely down for at least an hour a week. Food Network Canada’s Top Chef Canada Season 8 has just started wherein 12 chefs from every corner of the country compete in the most prestigious cooking competition in the country, battling it out for the biggest prize in Top Chef Canada history and the coveted title of Canada’s Top Chef. Yes, they’re in for a wild ride but we wanted to talk to the competitors about their lives BEFORE Top Chef. They were open and honest about their journeys that led them to the kitchen (they weren’t all as smooth as butter), the importance of family support (one contestant’s father STILL won’t tell people his son is a chef) and their advice for teens looking to start a life in the kitchen.

Adrian Forte

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

I was always cooking as a teenager, but I decided to pursue cooking professionally the summer before Grade 12. I had realized I wasn’t going to be a professional athlete and I was already extremely passionate about all things food. I enjoyed being in the kitchen, so I thought to myself, “why wouldn’t I want to do this all the time?”

What did your family say when you chose a career in the culinary arts, which can mean a lot of long nights and tough work?

I come from a whole bloodline of chefs. My mother, grandmother, aunts and uncles all spent some time in the kitchen. My grandmother had seven children and it was a rite of passage in our household for every one of her kids to learn the craft. The tradition has been passed down for generations, so when I decided to pursue cooking professionally, my entire family was ecstatic about my career choice and they continue to support me.

What do you wish you knew back then that you know now?

Nothing. I believe life is a lesson and experience is the teacher (it’s sort of my mantra). I’ve always learned from my failures and mistakes, and I apply what I’ve learned to the next situation, endeavor or business venture.

I’m a firm believer in trial by fire or sink or swim. Trials and tribulations develop character. Either you rise to the occasion and excel, or the takeaway is you become stronger, wiser and more ambitious for the next challenge.

What is your advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef?

Lead by example. You have to be the change that you would like to see. Very early in my career, I would always ask questions like, “why didn’t someone prep any garnish?”  or “why didn’t someone restock the line?” and then one day I came to the realization that I was that “someone.”

Brock Bowes

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

I don’t think I knew I actually wanted to be a chef. I had the dream of becoming a professional snowboarder. My mom was the person who suggested I go to culinary school. Truthfully, she forced me to go to culinary school, as I had no idea what my career path would be. There, I found my passion for cooking.

What did your family say when you chose a career in the culinary arts, which can mean a lot of long nights and tough work?

My family was very understanding about me being a cook. When I started my career, I was never home for any holidays. We would celebrate them when it was a slower time at the hotel where I was working, like in January. Birthdays were just another day for me and were usually spent with the other cooks and service staff I worked with that night. But I think because of the sacrifices I made back then, my family is very proud of what I have accomplished and what I will accomplish in the future.

What do you wish you knew back then that you know now?

When I started cooking, I wish I knew how being a chef and being in the food industry would be so popular now. There was no Food Network Canada and very few celebrity chefs back then, so I am very grateful that the “trade” profession I chose has become what it is today. Now it seems that chefs are rock stars with wine, cocktails, craft beer and all other things tied to our industry which have become just as popular.

What is your advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef?

My advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef is to make sure it’s what you want to do! The job is hard, the hours are long, and the pay is not always that great… but I would not want to do anything else for a career other than to be a chef. Take the time to learn the craft and do an apprenticeship under someone who will mentor you. Finding a mentor chef, that’s the most important thing! You will not be a chef unless you want to be a chef. Having the best knives is pointless unless you know how to use them.

Dominique Dufour

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

The career came as an accident for me. I had been working in the industry since my teens. I started in a bakery at 15 and worked about every position in a restaurant by the time I was 20. I had studied something completely different and my partner at the time noticed that I was at my happiest when I worked at the restaurant. I would bring home recipes I wanted to try, and more. So, he suggested I try making a living out of something I actually loved and that was it for me. I went to work full-time at the restaurant and never looked back. I ended up going back to school for culinary arts.

What did your family say when you chose a career in the culinary arts, which can mean a lot of long nights and tough work?

My family was surprised but very supportive. Ultimately, they only wanted me to find something that I loved doing. Both of my parents were doctors and they were both very passionate about their profession. They were happy. I think that they wanted the same for me, whatever I chose to do.

What do you wish you knew back then that you know now?

Nothing. Falling, stumbling, figuring out for myself, through my mistakes is what I needed and wanted and provided the most formative experience. I am very determined (a.k.a stubborn), so trying to impart myself with a wisdom that doesn’t come from experience would have been futile. Trials provide us with growing pains. However, if I do have one piece of advice, it is to talk when you don’t feel good. You are not alone. We always feel as if our situation is so unique, but we are rarely alone and being truthful will only create deeper bonds with people. Being truly and completely yourself is the biggest act of rebellion you can strive for. It is what has made me the happiest.

What is your advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef?

Do it only if it makes you happy. Respect the efforts that have been put into growing your vegetables and raising your meat. Do not waste anything. Stay humble, and if you stop learning, you are done. Discomfort is a symptom of growth.

Francis Blais

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

There was no “a-ha” moment for me, but rather a constant feeling that I was in my element in the kitchen. The better I was getting, the more I’d want to learn, but then I’d realize how little I actually knew, so the better I’d want to get. It was a cycle. When I started cooking, it was not with the end goal of becoming a chef, it was more a matter of circumstances, which eventually led me to commit myself fully and give it all I had and be the best I could be.

What did your family say when you chose a career in the culinary arts, which can mean a lot of long nights and tough work?

They’ve always supported me in all my projects. My parents were happy that I had found something I was so dedicated to, something that I was passionate about and that sparked my creativity. They encouraged me to become the best cook I could possibly be. The long work nights were not an issue because they knew I was doing it for the right reasons.

What do you wish you knew back then that you know now?

What I wish I knew back then that I know now is the importance of striving for balance in all areas of your life. When you start off as a young chef, it’s easy to get lost in the insane amount of work and have only that going on for you. It’s important to take some time to work out a bit, clear your head, spend time with friends and family and sleep. Balance is key.

What is your advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef?

This goes back to the idea of finding balance. Balance between doing what it takes to learn as much as you can and constantly wanting to improve your skills. But this should be applied to all aspects of your life. What it comes down to is doing what it takes to be the best, but not at the expense of your health, relationships or well-being. Also, being curious is probably the best way to start off.

Shaun Hussey

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

I really knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the culinary industry about three years after I graduated from culinary school. Once I got working in the industry and working for a chef that I admired, my own interest starting to peak. I honestly went to culinary school after I flunked out of engineering and was working at Tim Horton’s as a baker. School was great and I learned a lot of very important skills and basics, but the reality of the industry really hits you when you get in the workforce.

What did your family say when you chose a career in the culinary arts, which can mean a lot of long nights and tough work?

They were just happy I was doing something after an unsuccessful run at engineering. They really didn’t say much. They became very supportive as my career grew and have been instrumental for the last 10 years as I’ve owned and operated Chinched, my restaurant in which I am the chef and co-owner with my partner and wife.

What do you wish you knew back then that you know now?

I understand it now but 10 years ago when I opened my restaurant, I wish I understood the business side a little better. For instance, we almost went broke in the first nine months of being open because we didn’t understand how to handle tips. We were paying taxes on them as income. Luckily, somebody realized what was happening and here we are, still open, 10 years later.

What is your advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef?

My advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef is to be prepared to work your ass off and to work for people that respect their employees. I was afraid to ask for a day off for eight years of my career. Come on, that’s ridiculous! Don’t be afraid to learn a little about plumbing, electrical and carpentry, as it will save you a fortune in the long run if you own your own restaurant. And remember – you’re never too good to sweep your own floors.

Xin Mao

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

I think I realized I want to be a chef when I was 22 years old, while I was studying business at school. I’d watch the Food Network whenever I had the chance. I watched how Chef Jamie Oliver challenged the fast-food giant, McDonald’s, when Chef Gordon Ramsay got his first Michelin star at a very young age, and how he helps restaurant owners turn their businesses around. I loved feeding, helping and inspiring people and I knew being a chef allowed me to do that.

What did your family say when you chose a career in the culinary arts, which can mean a lot of long nights and tough work?

My parents weren’t happy when I told them I wanted to be a chef. A chef is a low-level skill worker in China, they work long hours for low pay. After a year of work, my father still didn’t want to believe I became a chef, and he still doesn’t like to talk about it. When people ask him what I do, he just simply tells them that I’m in the hospitality industry.

What do you wish you knew back then that you know now?

I wish I could have started my career earlier since I truly knew I wanted to be a chef. I feel that l still have so many things to do and learn as a chef, and wish I had more time to learn.

What is your advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef?

A very important thing is making sure that it is your true passion. If you don’t want to wake up early and get off late, but you still do it every day, and if you’re really tired and you don’t want to work but you did it anyway, or if you feel as though you can’t make it to the end of a busy service but you push yourself and end it the best way you can… and if cooking is your dream, then you know. That’s your passion, that’s your dream. You should go for it without hesitation.

Lucy Morrow

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

I’ve been drawn to the kitchen since childhood. I have fond food memories throughout the years growing up on the farm. I eventually found myself in culinary school. I was unclear on what my future in kitchens would look like until I found myself cooking from memory in my second year. It was my first time cooking that felt really natural to me. Over the years, that has developed into a clear understanding of how I can make the most of my inclination and passion for food.

What did your family say when you chose a career in the culinary arts, which can mean a lot of long nights and tough work?

My family has always been supportive of my endeavors. When we talked about my decision to make a career out of cooking — the long hours, and the hard work would typically come up — as well as a mutual understanding that I’ve always been the happiest when I’m putting in the work. My family would ask questions that required thought about what cooking for a living actually entails. They gave me advice. They likely worried.

What do you wish you knew back then that you know now?

I wish I was less shy and had more fun in culinary school. I wish I knew then that cooking competitively is something I would enjoy as much as playing sports.

What is your advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef?

My advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef is to dive in. Find enjoyment in the process and have an open mind. Try to find people who love cooking like you do and teach each other new things.

Nils Schneider

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

I didn’t start out knowing I wanted to be a chef. Beforehand, I had a strong interest in science, particularly biology. In my earlier years coming out of high school, I was lost, I had no direction and no idea what or who I wanted to become. When I started to think heavily and seriously about making culinary arts a career, I was 18. I had been working at a fine-dining French restaurant and I got into a bit of trouble with the law one night, and my lawyer at the time was impressed with how I viewed the world and how articulate I was. He said, “Look, you’re a smart kid, it’d be a shame to let that go to waste.” He made a deal with me, that if I went back to school and took it seriously, he’d waive most of my fees. I ended up falling in love with cooking throughout my training even more, and ever since I haven’t stopped pushing myself harder and harder.

What did your family say when you chose a career in the culinary arts, which can mean a lot of long nights and tough work?

When I started cooking was when chefs weren’t “rockstars,” and the industry wasn’t saturated with these self-proclaimed “chefs” on Instagram who have never actually run a kitchen and are just entitled cooks. Of course, there were TV shows, but yelling and throwing knives and hot pans was still quite prominent and there was absolutely no awareness towards mental health in the industry.

To say the least, I don’t think my family quite understood what or why I was doing what I was doing. The pay is low, the hours are long, and you kill yourself over a job that will simply replace you the next day. It was only until I made a name for myself and had something to show for that I felt my family acknowledge cooking as an actual career. Perhaps I was wrong but that’s how it felt. Almost like, “Oh, this is just a phase, he’ll go to university when he’ll sort himself out.” But now I can say that there’s nothing more supportive than my family and friends and I’m eternally grateful to be surrounded by such supportive and amazing people. I feel truly lucky.

What do you wish you knew back then that you know now?

In regard to the industry, I think the biggest thing I reflect on is my health and relationships. I was, and perhaps still am, overly obsessed with my work and with that other parts of my life tend to get neglected and fall apart. Whether it be me ignoring a pain/ache, or never having “time” to spend with a friend or partner… it catches up to you quickly. Friends stop calling you to hang out, partners leave, and health deteriorates beyond simple repair. If there was one thing I wish I knew back then that I’m currently working on repairing now, is to focus on connection and self-care, there’s nothing more important than the vessel given to you and the people surrounding and supporting you. If those parts of life are left ignored your career is meaningless, as you have no one to share those achievements with.

What is your advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef?

My advice for teens is to think thoroughly about every step, and what they see themselves getting out of this industry. This industry does not provide instant gratification, which most kids are accustomed to nowadays. There is no fast track to success and there is no instant acknowledgement, and not everyone is a winner. It takes years of pushing hard, learning, creating, developing, evolving, and among all else, there is patience and persistence. To become a chef, it is not simply by going to culinary school and graduating. It is a title earned, not demanded. About 20 per cent of what a chef does actually has to do with cooking, and I really would like to make that clear to the next generation. The term “chef” derives from the word “chief,” which means leader. If you can’t be a leader, you can’t be a chef, you are a cook. I know many extraordinary cooks, who can’t manage people for the life of them and many chefs who are incredible leaders with almost zero creativity. To sum it up, you get what you take from this industry, only through knowledge and experience will you feel the rewards, push your boundaries, remove your comforts and you will see how fast one can grow!

Imrun Texeira

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

Food has always been a big part of my life. My earliest memory of cooking was when I was two years old trying to prepare Easter breakfast for my family, and almost burned the house down! I guess you can say I was destined to be in the kitchen. My love for food and hospitality only grew from that moment forward.

What did your family say when you chose a career in the culinary arts, which can mean a lot of long nights and tough work?

It was not easy telling my mother that I wanted to go to culinary school and eventually become a chef. She was worried about the long hours, grueling work and low pay. My mother wanted the best for me. But she knows that is where my passion lies and that I am determined to make the best out of this career. Thankfully, the industry is slowly changing for the better and I am happy to be a part of the promising future it holds.

What do you wish you knew back then that you know now?

To be honest, I knew a lot about the lifestyle and challenges growing up in the industry. Being a very young cook working with veterans, you get a dose of wisdom and insight as you grow. I learned from other people’s mistakes so I could make the right choices in my own career later on.

What is your advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef?

I believe that you do not just wake up one day or graduate culinary school and become a chef. More often than not, it comes from years of hard work and sacrifice. It takes a toll on your body and your mind, which is something not many are ready to endure. Their main focus should be on their love for the craft because if they do not have that passion, they will never be happy trying to make it as a chef.

Elycia Ross

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

I have wanted to be a chef since I was a little kid.

What did your family say when you chose a career in the culinary arts, which can mean a lot of long nights and tough work?

At the beginning of my career, my family was worried, but they knew my passion for food was worth it.

What do you wish you knew back then that you know now?

I wish I knew that success can mean many different things to many different people and to do what feels right for you.

What is your advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef?

My advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef is to create a work/life balance and to consider where your food is coming from.

Jo Notkin

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

I suppose I always loved cooking, since there’s an abundance of notes I used to leave my mom asking her to please let me bake a cake. And, although I was always interested in food, I did not want to work in the food industry as a chef until my 30’s, when I accidentally started a catering company.

What did your family say when you chose a career in the culinary arts, which can mean a lot of long nights and tough work?

My family loves to eat and I actually started my catering company out of my parents’ kitchen. They were kind enough to support me through a big career change. They also got to eat ALL the leftovers, which they loved. A lot of different jobs can be tough and long hours. At the end of the day, you must love what you do because the customers can feel it. If you love what you do, then most of it doesn’t seem like long hours or tough work.

What do you wish you knew back then that you know now?

I think it’s best not to know everything before starting a new project. Knowing too much can cause you not to pursue something when it’s really the right path for you in the long run. If I knew how demanding catering was, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But a lot of things I have done have seemed like a big challenge at first, only to be the best decision I have ever made after persevering.

What is your advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef?

You have to really think about how much you love food and want to be part of a hard-working team — you really need to have a lot of different experiences in order to know what specifically you want to do as a chef. I, for one, have never wanted to run, own or work in a restaurant. There are so many ways to be a chef, such as a caterer or private chef, a research chef or a corporate chef. It’s good to explore lots of options and go with your gut on what feels like something you’ll be proud to have done when you look back.

Stephanie Ogilvie

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

Cooking is something I have always loved from a very young age. I have always really loved being able to be creative and experiment with different flavours, and to learn about new ingredients and cultures. Creating a dish from start to finish and getting a chance to share that and create a unique experience for people is really an incredible feeling and opportunity.

What did your family say when you chose a career in the culinary arts, which can mean a lot of late nights and tough work?

My family was really excited for me! My parents have always encouraged me to do what I love. It’s not the path I was initially going to take, but I’m glad it’s what I’ve pursued! I don’t think any of us realized just how tough this line of work can be. It’s constantly changing, so the demands of what’s required are always evolving. It’s long days, long nights, and it can be quite physically demanding as well, as it can take you away from friends and family on holidays and weekends. But if you love it… it’s worth it!

What do you wish you knew back then that you know now?

I wish I knew that travel and eating out is what fuels creativity. So, make the time for it!

What is your advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef?

My advice for teens who are considering a career as a chef is that you have to be willing to put in the work! Start cooking at home for friends and family, and if you like it, apply at a local restaurant that makes real food from scratch in house. Start out washing dishes, immerse yourself in the culture, and learn as much as you can and work your way up!

Top Chef Canada Season 8 premieres April 13 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Food Network Canada. 

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