by Shelley Boettcher
Maybe it’s praise from the right people at the right time. Maybe it’s an inspiring cookbook, or the taste of a hauntingly delicious flavour.
Every great chef has that moment when they discover they’ve found their calling. That time when they realize that the universe has pointed them in precisely the right career direction. But for everyone in the culinary industry, that time is slightly different. Maybe they were still in high school, searching for something to do when they grew up. Maybe they were already cooking professionally, but, at least for a while, they weren’t always convinced of their career path until that time. Here, six of Calgary’s top chefs talk about their “a-ha!” moment, that point in their lives when they knew they had found the career they were meant to have.
Chef/proprietor, NOtaBLE, The Nash and Off Cut Bar
Executive chef, River Café
Chef/owner, Meez Cuisine
The first Canadian chef to appear on the hit TV series Iron Chef, Michael Noble grew up in Vancouver where he went to culinary school and then worked at renowned restaurants across Europe and North America, including six years as executive chef at Vancouver’s Diva at the Met. (Even Gourmet magazine took note, naming it Vancouver’s top table at the time.)
After finishing a sociology degree at the University of Calgary, Matthias Fong briefly considered going to law school. It seemed like the right thing to do – until he stopped and thought about what he loved to do.
Judy Wood says that, as a child, she was constantly surrounded by dinner parties and good food. “My parents entertained all the time. At least once or twice a week, they were throwing a party or hosting an event.”
Ever since he was about 15 years old, he had been working in restaurants in Calgary, becoming the summer intern prep cook at River Café when he was still just a teen. It’s been an upward culinary trajectory ever since. In 2015, he was named the new head chef at River Café, and this year, he placed second at the Calgary Gold Medal Plates for the Canadian Culinary Championships.
By the time she was a teenager, Wood was handling much of the cooking for those parties, but she didn’t think of it as a career choice.
Then, for a time, he headed up the culinary program at Earls and he was the head chef at Catch when it opened in Calgary, too. These days, he’s the head chef and proprietor of the acclaimed NOtaBLE and The Nash and Off Cut Bar. His A-Ha! moments – first, there was his experience apprenticing under chef Ben Weber and then competing alongside him for a decade, as a member of the Canadian Culinary Team. “I wish he knew what he gave me. I’d say thank you for teaching me to make sauces, for teaching me how to organize myself for service and to be professional.” His time working under chef Bruno Marti was also pivotal to Noble’s career, he says. “Two or three times, I got discouraged and I wanted to leave and become an instructor,” he says. “But Bruno said, ‘Michael, we need people like you within the business. You need to stay.’” He was right, Noble says, “and now it’s my turn to be a mentor.”
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His focus for River Café is making food – even fruit vinegars – from local ingredients, including vegetables, flowers and even apricots harvested from the restaurant’s Prince’s Island garden. His A-Ha! moment – when he realized he was spending more time reading cookbooks than his course books. “The real a-ha moment was one of the first sets of cookbooks I ever bought: seeing the food, the way it was photographed, and the complexity of every dish,” he says. “All the flavours that were, to me, unknown and unusual. I wanted to put them together and see how they’d work.”
Her parents, however, had a rule for the kids: university or Europe, and realizing their youngest child wasn’t inclined to go to university, they gave her two cookbooks for Christmas for her final year in high school. One was from the Cordon Bleu cooking schools; the other was from L’Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris. Her A-Ha! moment – when she opened those cookbooks. “I thought, ‘Wow, I could do this. It was a big a-ha moment for me because I realized I didn’t have to go to university. I could go to school in Europe and learn more of the craft I really enjoyed doing, for which I could actually get paid.” So she did just that. She studied at L’Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne before cooking at the now-defunct Four Seasons Hotel in Calgary, followed by stints at Buchanan’s Chop House and Sunterra. These days, she heads up the kitchen at Meez Cuisine, a gourmet take-away shop and catering business in southeast Calgary.
Published on Dec 20, 2017