Q&A: Juno-award-winning and soulful chef Roger Mooking

The multi-talented chef on his new restaurant, Twist, and being on Chopped Canada.

“Come closer! Let’s hang out,” chef Roger Mooking says to me.

Sitting down with him is like reconnecting with an old friend, riding in the Funkmobile, going to my soul shack. He is a globally celebrated chef, stars in multiple hit shows, like Man Fire Food and Chopped Canada, and is a cookbook author. What’s more, he’s a Juno-award-winning recording artist, and a successful restaurateur. Add in that he’s a dad to four kids. Yes, four! And you’ll never miss his laugh, even in the most crowded of rooms. That’s how we knew he was close by in the hoppin’ buzz of excited festival goers at the first-ever-in-Canada Toronto Food & Wine Festival.

The culinary scene in your hometown of Edmonton seems to really be taking off. What’s hot right now?

From when I grew up to what’s happening now, it’s totally different. There is a restaurant that just got on enRoute’s Top 10. Darn, I can’t remember the name of it, but was really good.

Do you mean enRoute’s 2015 Edmonton nominee Rostizado?

Yeah! Corso 32 is also an excellent Italian restaurant. There is a scene that has really changed a lot there. My brother and parents still live there and they tell me they’re finding new restaurants all the time. There’s great access to farmers and producers there too.

You just opened Twist at the Toronto Pearson International Airport. What do you want people to know about it?

What I love about it is that it’s a huge challenge. When I want to order [something] for my restaurant, I call up my guy and it shows up at my back door that day sometimes. At the airport, we have to go through security clearances, my suppliers have to be approved by CSIS, I have to have the same driver delivering on the same schedule, it takes four months to bring in one local supplier--it’s a bit of a monster for the scale of a small airport restaurant.

Featuring local stuff like Pingue prosciutto from Niagara and Monforte cheeses from Stratford was a feat unto itself, but I was dedicated to bringing in boutique suppliers. Then we had the challenge of training the cooks. Airport food is, you know, pre-cooked food that’s reheated. Now, we’re teaching the cooks how to cook from scratch. The trick is doing all of this while the average customer has a 20-minute dining experience because they have to get to their gate for their flight. So, for me, it was a dedication to making fresh food from scratch so you can have healthy and delicious options, while still making our food accessible and affordable to airport guests. It’s been a difficult, but awesome, process.

Who do you look up to in the food world?

You know, I look up to my colleagues, my friends. I’ve never really coveted chefs like that, but their techniques. I look up more to Bruce Lee; he’s fascinating and the dedication to his craft is inspiring.

What’s your favourite part of being on Chopped Canada?

I love that I learn a new respect for the challenge every year. Each new season comes and I think, “Wow! It seems even harder than last year.”

This year, I judged some Chopped in America, they do it a bit differently but it’s a really hard challenge.

What’s the most impressive or surprising dish a Chopped Canada contestant put in front of you? What left a lasting impression?

In the first season, a woman from Vancouver made a dessert. I don’t even remember what the basket ingredients were, but I dream of this dessert. It was this fritter with a spun chocolate sugar and glaze with a creme anglaise. She made so much in 30 minutes, but it was a delight. I usually only take one or two bites of every plate because we eat so much in that one day of shooting, but I licked that plate!

If you had to create a Chopped basket for your buddy Chuck Hughes, what would you put in it?

Oh, I’ll give him a friendly basket! He loves lobster and seafood and has an obsession with pineapples, so I’ll choose lobster and pineapple. He has a tattoo of a lemon meringue pie, so I’ll throw one of those in. And then, maybe Szechuan peppercorns. Throw in a little something that’s not totally familiar.

What’s your favourite thing about being a chef?

I love the immediacy. If I was an astrophysicist, I’d have to sit down and do all this work and then I go back and forth and don’t see my idea come to fruition for years. I can come up with an idea, and in ten minutes, I can be sharing it with people and we can enjoy it together. And I like to eat, so it’s a no-brainer. It’s such a good way to gain a new experience through flavour, even in the comfort of your own home. I love that about it, it’s so dynamic. And I love the discipline of practice; it’s a moving meditation.

What are your top three dishes?

I really love curry crab and dumplings from Tobago, Vietnamese pho, and dim sum.

[We did some digging to find the chef that left a lasting impression on Chef Roger Mooking. He confirmed our discovery of the couscous fritters with grapefruit salad, made by our friend Shelley Robinson of Kamloops, B.C. as the plate that made him commit to more time on the treadmill.]