A cooking competition show is kind of like a pop song: it’s all about having a catchy hook. Whether that’s forcing world-class chefs to create coherent dishes out of a random mystery box of ingredients or make dessert using only a cement mixer or attempt not to cry while Gordon Ramsay screams in your face.
In the case of Netflix’s The Final Table, the hook is that it’s the world’s first truly global culinary competition. Hosted by Bon Appetit editor at large (and former Next Iron Chef judge) Andrew Knowlton, each episode sees pairs of renowned chefs from across the globe tackle a different country’s national dish, and then signature ingredient, with local celebrity judges, food critics and world-famous chefs determining who gets sent home. It’s part Top Chef, part Iron Chef, and part Amazing Race.
Sort of a “culinary Olympics,” explains chef Darren MacLean, who represented Canada on the show and whose Japanese izakaya, Shokunin, in Calgary has been named one of the country’s best restaurants. And despite the fact that Canada doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a major player on the international culinary scene — we’re not exactly regular fixtures on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants1 — MacLean and his American teammate Timothy Hollingsworth, a former executive chef at The French Laundry, still managed to dominate the field.
I spoke to MacLean to get answers to some of my most burning cooking competition show questions — including “Isn’t it weird to cook in front of a stadium full of people?”2 and “Doesn’t the food get cold?”3 — along with his take on Canada’s standing in the global food scene.
TITLE: Congratulations on making it to the finals. I think it’s safe to say you did Canada proud.
DARREN MACLEAN: Thank you. I would’ve liked to have done it a little bit more proud. [Laughs.] But I’m pretty happy about it.
This really is a global competition, not just in terms of the challenges, but also your fellow competitors. What’d it mean to you to rep Canada on a global stage like this?
What’s cool about The Final Table, and what Netflix has done, it is a global competition. Canada is often ignored on the global stage – outside of hockey. [Laughs.] So the idea that we could showcase Canadian gastronomic talent was very exciting. And it was a hefty weight on my shoulders. There was no option but to go to the finale. My partner Tim and I are very good friends, and that was our goal. We said we were going to make it to the finale, and we both had reasons for doing it. And one of my big reasons was to legitimize Canada as a major food country.
That’s something I wanted to ask you about. That perceived lack of respect for Canada’s food scene. We’re still waiting on our first Michelin-starred restaurant.
We’ll never get it. Michelin will never come here. I hope it does happen. But it won’t.
Do you think that kind of outside validation is important, or should Canadians not get so hung up on that stuff?
I think that outside validation is very important. I actually think we should get really hung up on it. We should ask our government why they aren’t trying to promote culinary tourism. Our barley is used for beer around the world. Our beef is exported. Our pork is exported. It’s cheaper for me to buy Alberta lamb in New York than it is in Alberta. Our food system is designed for export. So we don’t even have a chance to use our own ingredients to the level that we could.
So, while we should be very proud of what we have here, we should drive to be acknowledged and be recognized on an international stage. If a chef got two or three Michelin stars, all of a sudden people are coming and looking at that city where that restaurant is. I don’t think we should get hung up and be insecure, but we should definitely start pushing our governments to change the way food is consumed in Canada.
Right. It’s not just the ingredients that gets exported; we end up exporting the talent, too. For a Canadian chef, if you want to get those stars, you have to go elsewhere.
And you know what? I did it myself. I wanted to travel and leave. I thought about it. I mean, I’m Canadian through and through, and I love Calgary and I love what we’re doing, and we have a new restaurant coming, but at least on The Final Table, I was able to compete and not be excluded because I was Canadian. They gave me an opportunity, and they were shown why Canada is an important culinary nation.
This show’s a little different than your usual cooking competition in that you’re competing in pairs. How did you and Tim get paired up?
Tim and I met three years ago at a culinary conference called Food on the Edge in Ireland. It’s put on by an amazing Michelin-starred chef named JP McMahon. Then he came here for Cook it Raw in Alberta and we became quite close. Tim and I have shared backgrounds. We’re both kind of blue-collar guys, our mothers are really important to us, we both worked our absolute asses off to get where we were. We had to go and take our careers into our own hands. So we just instantly clicked, and when I was approached to do the show, they asked me who would you like to partner with and I couldn’t think of anyone better than Tim.
And obviously it worked out pretty well for you both.
You know, I think going into the bottom three [early] was the biggest thing for us. We needed an experience that solidified us together as chefs. He needed to do a dish that we do in my restaurant, that helped solidify his trust in me. Because I got us in the bottom three by screwing up a sausage4 – which I shouldn’t have done. But it was a dish from Shokunin that was used to get us out.5 And after that, Tim and I just decided that we would play to each other’s strengths until the end. So in Japan, he leans on me. In France, I lean on him. In Italy, we collaborate. In India, he leans on me a bit. It was still collaborative, and we still had our input, but we each really trusted the other, and I think that’s one of the reasons we went the distance.
Was it strange at all to be cooking in front of a studio audience like this?
I have an open kitchen, so fortunately I’m used to cooking in front of people. I’ve actually gotten negative Yelp reviews from the odd swear word in my kitchen, because it is so open. [Laughs.] So no, if anything, it actually made me feel a little bit more at home.
Was there anything else you picked up from cooking on the show that you’ve been able to take with you back to Calgary?
One thing that was solidified in my mind is just how we are not dissimilar as people. We live in a divided time right now, between right and left, and nobody is in the center, just trying to come around a table and speak to one another. But on the show, you just saw that, even in our cuisine, people are similar. Dumplings are dumplings, whether they’re perogies or gyoza. Noodles are pasta or ramen. Everyone has a grilled meat or a type of barbecue or a type of bread. We’re so similar!
The main lesson that I took away from my time on the show was to really cook for myself, to trust in what I’ve cultivated.
One of the major side effects of watching this show, especially binging it, is it definitely makes you hungry. Do you have a go-to binge-watching snack?
Oh man. It’s disgusting… [Laughs.] I don’t even want to tell you. You know what I love? I love Ruffle chips, and French Onion Philly dip.6 It’s so bad, but it’s so good. And then I would also say: just come eat at Shokunin if you’re up late and you’re doing your binge. [Laughs.] Insert shameless plug.
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|1.||↑||Or even semi-regular, for that matter.|
|4.||↑||The British food critic Jay Rayner called it “the Sausage of Doom.”|
|5.||↑||They’d go on to win the ensuing cook-off.|
|6.||↑||I wonder if this is a Calgary thing, because this was also the go-to snack for two of my Calgary-born roommates in university. Or maybe it’s just a deliciousness thing.|