With Chopped Canada back for a second season, chef talks cooking, making a TV show and his new Pearson restaurant
If you tune into the Food Network any Saturday night at 9 p.m. to watch Chopped Canada and see someone brandishing a cleaver with a demonic gleam in his eye and a jack-o-lantern grin lighting up his face, relax. It’s not Sweeney Todd; it’s just Roger Mooking.
The Trinidad-born, Edmonton-raised Toronto resident is arguably the hottest chef in Canada at the moment, not only for his nationwide reputation as a cook with mad skills, but for his new restaurant Twist, which has just opened at Terminal 1 of Pearson International Airport.
On this sub-zero morning, however, it’s his role a judge in the newly launched second season of Chopped Canada that’s taking the lead in Mooking’s always hyperenergetic conversation.
“You know the beauty of going into a second season with the show? You understand the beast better, you can really home in on what makes it work and then just dive into it!”
One of the many fascinating things about Mooking is the broad base of his interest; he’s likely to quote Taoist canons or evoke the military teachings of Sun Tzu to help illuminate his career.
“In The Art of War, it says you have to understand the terrain to succeed. Well, with one season under my belt, I can approach the battle more successfully.”
Outside of the practical problems of being a judge for a cooking show that tapes at all hours of the day (“You try eating pig’s knuckles with pop rocks at 6 in the morning!”) he feels the major change in his approach this season has been “the ability to more empathetic to what the contestants are going through.”
“It’s really hard for the people who are competing. They may go into it thinking that they’ve been cooking for 25 years and know just what to expect, but that’s in a controlled kitchen situation where they’re totally in charge.
Mooking’s been facing his own challenges recently as he rushed to prepare Twist for its Dec. 18 soft opening at Pearson.
“There’s a few major conundrums about operating a restaurant in an airport that you’ve got to learn how to deal with,” he says, shaking his head.
“For example, if you’re just working downtown and you suddenly decide you want to bring in some special prosciutto, you just call the guy up and it’s there for you the next day.
“But if you want to start getting deliveries at the airport, you’ve got to go through layers of security. The driver has to be vetted and trained to come at the same time every day. CSIS has to do background checks on him to make sure he’s not using your food run to smuggle in explosives. You think I’m kidding? I’m not. It took months to get all our people approved.”
And that was just one of the obstacles Mooking had to overcome.
“Airport food has a bad reputation. People think it’s old, tired stuff that’s been sitting there forever, and just gets microwaved or reheated. So I had to send out a different message.”
The way he did that was with typical Mooking bravado.
“First thing I did was rip out the freezers, all of them, except for a tiny one to hold ice cream. And then I opened up the kitchen totally. I wanted to show people that we’re doing everything fresh, from scratch.”
Another challenge involved people’s food expectations.
“I did studies and the No. 1 food people order at airports is a hamburger. OK, I see why, it’s comfort food. But that didn’t mean I had to offer a typical burger.
“I serve a lamb burger with a fennel-mint relish, no ketchup or mustard in sight. People are dubious at first, but once they taste it they’re converted.”
The words “eclectic” and “Mooking” are synonymous, although he jokingly defines his style as “culinary ADD,” but he comes by it honestly.
His Chinese grandfather came to the Caribbean and opened up a bakery, then his father ran a Chinese restaurant in the Dutch Antilles, which is where a 3-year-old Mooking had his first food memories.
“I was standing on a stool, wrapping wontons. And then, probably before I was ready, I learned how to chop up a chicken. My aunt asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said without blinking, ‘A chef!’”
Shortly after that, the family moved to Edmonton, which added more layers of complexity to the Mooking food mosaic.
“We’d have Trinidadian fish for breakfast, perogies for lunch and then for dinner, we’d have roti. I didn’t realize everybody didn’t do that. I’d go to my friend’s houses and get toast and Cheez Whiz, and I’d say, ‘What is this stuff? I’ve never seen this in my life.’”
Food was front and centre in Mooking’s life, but music wasn’t far behind. It was as a member of the Juno Award-winning group Bass is Base that he first saw Toronto.
“I was 18 and I came to Toronto with my group for the Junos. I took one look at the city and said, ‘I’m staying here.’ I phoned my mother and told her and I never went back to Edmonton.”
He began working for a variety of chefs in a variety of venues, including Epic at the Royal York and learned “how you can be smart and composed and be a leader, and get people to work for you because they like it.”
Mooking trained at George Brown College while cooking at other places and was finally offered his first solo gig.
“They were opening a new place called Barrio on Queen St. E. and they asked me if I wanted to be the chef. Just like that. It was a neighbourhood, small plates kind of place and they said, ‘You do whatever you want to do.’
“I was a kid running his first kitchen and cooking what he knew. I did the same stuff I grew up eating: dim sum in the morning, curry at lunch, stir-fry at night. A whole lot of wacky s—, but people loved it.”
He next landed on his feet with Kultura on King St. E., where he added polish to his freewheeling style, and after that he was off.
The Cooking Channel saw his telegenic possibilities and let him host Man Fire Food and Everyday Exotic, and the rest is history.
“Whenever I need inspiration, I think of Bruce Lee. He once said, ‘I’ve punched millions of times, but each time I try to make it better than the time before.’
“That’s me. You know how many times I’ve cut an onion or smashed some garlic cloves? That’s where mastery comes in, where craft enters the picture.”
And Mooking always adds his secret ingredient.
“Food has to be tasty and well made and beautiful, but it has to be fun as well.”