You think you have challenges in the kitchen?
Let’s turn up the heat a bit. Add bright lights, stern competition and probing questions. Now go to the Toronto Zoo and create a dessert themed around a yellowtail macaw for a panel of Canadian culinary icons.
For Chef Matthew Stowe, product-development chef for Cactus Restaurants, this is the stuff of which happiness is made – and last year earned him the coveted title of Top Chef Canada for the third season of Food Network Canada’s most competitive showcase.
“The television aspect was really not so different. You are always under the gun with time in the kitchen, so I was completely comfortable with that part of it,” explains Chef Stowe. “The oddest parts were always the interviews, but when you are cooking you don’t really notice those until later. I actually got more nervous watching the shows than being on the show.”
Born and raised in Surrey, Stowe followed his culinary dreams to New York City after graduating from high school. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 2002, he sharpened his craft at the famed French restaurant Lutèce.
“It had a very modern French approach and French restaurants were not really popular with the media at the time. Things get pretty competitive at the 4 Star level, so we had to think differently. I learned to make every second count and I would write my prep lists on the train on the way into work.
“When I got back to school, I could see the benefit of that sense of urgency. I learned so much at Lutèce, I went back and worked all the stations.”
Returning to B.C. in 2004 as executive chef of Sonora Resort, he found the change of pace and scenery as fortuitous as it was refreshing.
“There are no distractions when you are working in a spot like that, so it’s unbeatable for training. The beauty of it was they really wanted to move beyond being a fishing resort from the start, so we aimed at achieving Relais and Chateau status and we did that in 2009. It’s a huge honour to be able to be a chef working for a place developing that kind of identity and it worked wonders with the European clientele when the U.S. dollar went soft.”
That same year, he also wrote his first cookbook, the award-winning The Tastes of Sonora Resort.
So, how does one go on to win eight out of 13 challenges to emerge as a Canadian culinary star while remaining grounded throughout? In Stowe’s case, creativity counts in large amounts, but the fundamentals of basic cooking are key.
“On the show, it was really about foundation cooking in strange environments. Those basic things you learn right away are the ones that I applied on the show,” says Stowe, whose own culinary foundations cover the pastry kitchen as well.
“When you come in they give you a notebook and take away everything but your toiletries, knives and clothes. I sat down right away and started writing.”
Not recipes though – ratios.
“Being able to be super creative really comes down to having those basics down cold so you can deal with the curveballs,” he says. “When I drew the yellowtail macaw card for the competition at the Toronto Zoo, I thought, ‘Well, it eats fruits and nuts. Sounds like dessert.’”
The judges agreed and found his tropical tapioca with a macadamia nut crumble and exotic fruit the perfect thematic embrace of yellowtail macaw. He relishes the victory, but is more ardent in championing the overall impact of such “reality” programming.
“The Food Network has really educated and has given people expectations. People want to see what’s going on in the kitchen now. Good food is no longer this big secret.
“We didn’t know what to look for in our own backyards before, so in that sense it is a new world that has been there all along. Farmers markets are flourishing and restaurant-quality ingredients are as accessible to the home cook as the chef,” he says.
“Even our retail stores, which tend to drive that year-round mentality, have changed so much in the past 20 years, and our pantries as chefs have expanded to reflect that demand for local, seasonal and organic.
“All these terms are just another way of saying real or done properly and we’re rediscovering that.”
What he credits Top Chef Canada with is buoying a country-wide culinary renaissance and helping anchor a Canadian food identity. “We truly now have a Canadian cuisine and we’re not backed into any one corner like Italy or France. Our palate is global and our ingredients are local.
“The West Coast has always attracted top chefs – and now we have a great generation of chefs born and raised here. This could be the most exciting food going on anywhere right now.”
It’s more than a belief, but an ethos that he celebrates as much at home with his wife, Amber, and toddler, Gavin, in their Cloverdale garden, as he does daily with the ever-growing Cactus Club crew – headed by fellow Food Network alumnus and executive chef Rob Feenie. “What I love about our restaurants is that they are so busy you learn to cook and we have a lot of committed young people in our kitchens pursuing their Red Seals. They teach us too.
“Our kitchen staff is so diverse, so it’s cool to interact with all those global flavour profiles. What might be new to us have been family favourites for others for generations.”
As for the summer season ahead, it is the one Stowe looks forward to – and not just for the fresh ingredients.
“It’s really barbecue season I look forward to the most – outside, social, no mess in the kitchen and a cold beer in hand. That’s a great food experience in itself.”
Moreover, it’s the perfect setting for any Canadian to tap their Top Chef within.
Chef Stowe’s Sweet Fraser Valley Pea Soupwith pickled mushrooms, crème fraiche and crispy prosciutto
Soup:3 cups shucked English peas or frozen peas½ cup baby spinach½ cup onion, sliced thinlyice cubes as neededto taste salt and pepper
Mushrooms:2 cups assorted mushrooms3 Tbsp olive oil1 tsp minced shallots¼ tsp chopped fresh thyme3 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
Prosciutto:4 slices of prosciutto
Garnish:crème fraichepea shoots
For the soup: In a small saucepot combine the onions and the olive oil and place on medium heat. Reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes, add water to the pot and continue to cook for 10 minutes until liquid has evaporated and the onions are very soft. Set aside. Bring a pot of heavily salted water to a boil, add the English peas and cook for 4-5 minutes until the peas are very soft.
Once the peas are tender remove them from the water and plunge them into an ice bath. When cool, remove from the bath and set aside. In the same pot, add spinach and cook for 2-3 minutes, remove from the water and add to the ice bath. In a blender combine the English peas, cooked onions and spinach, add a few ice cubes and blend on high speed until the soup is totally smooth and has a nice consistency.
You may have to add more ice cubes until the mixture reaches a nice velvety consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside in the refrigerator.
For the prosciutto: Preheat the oven to 325°F. On a parchment-lined baking sheet lay out the slices of prosciutto. Bake for 10-15 minutes until the prosciutto is crisp, remove from the oven and set aside.
For the pickled mushrooms: Heat a large sauté pan on medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and mushrooms and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the thyme and shallots and continue to cook for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and add rice vinegar, season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
To serve: Place the pickled mushrooms in the centre of 4 bowls; carefully pour the soup into the bowls, top with crème fraiche and garnish with pea shoots and crispy prosciutto.