By Ali Manigat
Photos: Jason McNamaraAs a big fan of Food Network Canada’s “Chopped Canada”, it was my pleasure to recently chat with Luc McCabe, Executive Chef, to discuss his participation in the reality based cooking competition, his culinary background and his vision for Nav Centre’s food & beverage program. Nav Centre’s Propeller Restaurant is joining a growing list of local restaurants offering a special prix fixe menu during the winter edition of the Seaway Food Festival taking place March 3rd through March 7th, 2015.
Q: Luc, thank for taking the time to speak with me. I’m a HUGE fan of Chopped Canada and an even bigger fan of your cooking, which I had the pleasure of tasting at last’s year SSFF BeirGarden party. Now, tell me a bit about your culinary background.
A: I grew up in Smith Falls, Ontario and was my first introduced to food at the age of 14, while working part-time at a local chip truck stand. The restaurant owner showed me the basics of cooking and was very influential in my career. He taught me the importance of having pride in my work and also the discipline and passion required to work in this business. Next, I was fortunate enough to work in a hospital kitchen through my co-op program during high school. A knee injury my senior year derailed my plans to play university football so I decided to pursue a career in cooking. It something that I had been doing for years in a series of part-time jobs and I knew I had talent for cooking so it wasn’t really a difficult decision. In fact, it was the next logical step so I applied and was accepted in Algonquin College’s Culinary Management program.
Q: Tell me a little about your time at Algonquin.
A: The first year was mostly spent in the classroom, learning the basics: food theory, sanitation and safety procedures, nutrition, menu planning, management, communication skills, etc. The second year was spent mostly in the kitchen doing actual cooking.
Q: What did you do after graduating from Algonquin?
A: I knew I wanted to focus on my cooking and further my career. I was not interested in the “lifestyle” associated with some chefs such as late nights and partying. I was eventually offered a position with Fairmont Hotel & Resorts at their property in Lake Louise so I packed my bags and moved out West. During the 4.5 years in Lake Louise, I was able to work in fine dining under incredible chefs who were great mentors and teachers. I left Fairmont Hotel & Resorts and joined CARA where I became an Executive Chef at a Milestones in Edmonton then did stints in various locations in Vancouver and Calgary training new staff until I moved back to Smith Falls. Then, I was hired as the chef of a small Scottish pub called the Kilt and Castle.
Q: What drew you back to the corporate environment after owing your own business?
A: I really enjoyed owning my own business and managing a small team of employees, but after 2 years I realized that I missed the hustle and bustle of a larger kitchen. That being said, I had no desire to return to a life in a big city. I came across a job posting for an open position at Nav Centre and was intrigued with the opportunity to join this team. Although Cornwall is considered to be a small to medium sized community, Nav Centre is the largest facility of its kind in Eastern Ontario. Interestingly enough, after running my own kitchens for the last few years, I was actually looking for a sous-chef position. After meeting with the management team at Nav Centre, I knew this was type of environment I wanted to work in. I assume, they had the same thought, because I was offered the chance to oversee the food & beverage program. I’ve been here for 3 years, and haven’t looked back!
Q: What is the most challenging aspects of running the food & beverage program at a place like Nav Centre?
A: The most difficult part is managing the various operations: à-la-carte dining, banquet facilities, pub and café; however, my diverse background and our incredible staff have made the experience enjoyable.
Q: So now for the fun part, how did you get on “Chopped Canada”?
A: I saw on Food Network Canada’s website that they were looking for competitors, but I didn’t want to apply because these shows are extremely mentally challenging and require a lot of preparation. I wasn’t sure I was ready to invest that level of commitment considering my responsibilities at Nav Centre. Finally after a lot of coaxing from my manager Jacques as well as other co-workers at Nav Centre, I applied online and received a screening phone call about 8 months ago. I then attended an on-camera interview in Montreal. A few hours later, I received a call informing me that I had been selected for the show! It was all pretty exciting.
Q: Did you do anything to prepare for the show?
A: I knew the biggest challenge was going to be time management so much of my preparation focused on being able to present a finished dish within the allocated amount of time. With the help of my sous-chef, I did mock practices using mystery baskets selected by him.
Q: How was the actual taping of the show?
A: Filming for the show took place in Toronto. It was a very long day. We arrived in the studio by 6am and were given a quick walk-through of the kitchen facilities, the pantry, etc. The biggest surprise was that the competition is a lot more difficult than it looks on TV. It felt like a mini Super Bowl and all of us competing wanted to do our best. My strategy was to focus on my strength and cook dishes that I like to eat which is simple and straightforward food that tastes great. It is true that you are competing to win $10,000, but most importantly three well respected Canadian chefs are judging you on the quality and taste of your dishes which is an amazing opportunity.
Q: I know you can’t tell us much about the taping because the show still hasn’t aired, but tell me a little about your style of cooking.
A: Basically, I call it pub style. It’s great food that people can easily relate to. I love small bites, tapas styles, basically anything that you can eat with your hands. It’s not fussy, and its fun for the dinner who’s able to taste 5-6 different dishes in a relaxed setting. Also my style of cooking tends to lean towards how and what I enjoy to eat: bold flavors, rustic cooking, bacon, booze, etc. With the help of the internet and social media, I’m constantly looking for new sources of inspiration and ideas that I can implement in my kitchen. One example is a recipe that we were worked for Thanksgiving that basically involved wrapping individual servings of stuffing with bacon. Another example is this twist we have on rack of lambs lollypops which involves roasted figs and pomegranate molasses. At the end of the day, these are straightforward flavors that any dinner can recognize and enjoy.
Q: Is that your vision for the food & beverage program at Nav Centre?
A: Definitely. This is my 3rd year here. I’m really excited about our new summer menu for the Jet Set Pub, which I consider our “playground”. That’s where with the help of my sous-chef Gabriel will be presenting our new dishes and offering a different approach to cooking and dining. For example, we’re in the process of adding a 12-foot communal table that was handmade locally, we’ve increased our selection of locally craft beer, and when possible, we will cook with and feature local products such as award winning cheeses that are made in Lancaster by Glengarry Cheesemaking. I’m also in the process of revamping our banquet menu with the goal of keeping it classic and compete with places in Ottawa and Montreal. I believes that there’s a desire in the community for innovation and that’s what we’re trying to offer to the public. A perfect example is our Friday night rib special. Since we started last December, we’ve seen an increase in numbers every week, which tells me people enjoy what we’re doing here at Nav Centre.
Q: How does that fit in with your participation in the Seaway Food Festival?
A: Some may be surprised to hear that there are a number of events in Cornwall that easily attract 300-400 people. I believe there’s a strong desire for fun events that promote a sense of community and bring people together. That’s why I support and participate in the Seaway Food Festival. It’s a great opportunity for diners to visit old favorites or try local restaurant for the first time. It promote local businesses, but more importantly it shows people in the community that there’s a vibrant and growing food scene right here in Cornwall. That’s why it’s exciting for us to participate in the winter edition of the Seaway Food Festival and prove that you don’t need to travel far to get amazing food prepared by talented chefs.
Q: Finally, what does a busy chef like yourself like to cook at home?
A: Well I’m what you would call a lazy chef (laughter)! When I’m at home, I like good simple BBQ.The Propeller Restaurant is located at 1950 Montreal Road in Cornwall, Ontario. Please don’t forget to visit www.SWFF.ca to view a list of participating restaurants and menus. *Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before the airing of the Chopped Canada episode entitled “Land, Sea, Air”.* [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]