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Roger Mooking, host of Food Network's Everyday Exotic. (Geoff George/The Food Network)
Roger Mooking, host of Food Network's Everyday Exotic. (Geoff George/The Food Network)

The Interview

Being a chef 'was in my soul' Add to ...

Roger Mooking is wearing baggy low-crotched jeans, glow-in-the-dark trainers and a Perrier-bottle-green button-down when he greets me at his five-year-old Toronto restaurant, Kultura, with the cocksure swagger of a hip-hop star and the huggable, consoling warmth of a teddy bear.

Once the drummer and rapper (his moniker: MC Mystic) for nineties Toronto R&B group Bass is Base, Mr. Mooking is also executive chef and co-owner of Toronto's Queen West restaurant Nyood, and host of the Food Network's Everyday Exotic - a program that, as of late May, can also be viewed in the United States on the new Cooking Channel, where he shares space with such superstars as Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray, as well as Canadian talent David Rocco and Laura Calder. To promote Everyday Exotic's new U.S. presence, he recently toured with the Cooking Channel's travelling ice cream truck, slinging scoops to potential new fans in Knoxville, Tenn., Atlanta and Atlantic City. "Rachael wasn't showing up at that truck, but they asked me, and I was like, 'Boom! Let's do it!' " he says, busting out in an alarmingly loud torrent of laughter.

On each episode of Everyday Exotic, Mr. Mooking champions the transformative superpowers of a single "exotic" ingredient (curry powder, salt cod, daikon) to sass up dinner standards, making things like angel-hair pasta with pistachio pesto or coriander meatloaf. "It's all about mixing! I come by it honestly," he says, referring to his cultural background. His grandfather was Chinese, hailing from a village in the Guangdong province (Mr. Mooking's real last name is Moo) and eventually emigrating to Trinidad. Mr. Mooking's mother is Trinidadian, claiming African, Dutch and British ancestry. Mr. Mooking's family moved to Edmonton when he was 5. But it was even before that, he says, when he was only three years old, that he announced that he would one day become a chef. "It was in my soul," he says.

"Working in a kitchen is like working in construction - on crack," he says, erupting into another burst of laughter. "It's also like being an air fighter pilot: Your mind is firing, people are cussing at you, you're sweating. And then you come back for more the next day. There's a mania to it. There's also a self-destructive mania to creating things that don't last." But Mr. Mooking, who grew up in various family kitchens and restaurants (including his grandfather's), claims its familiarity appealed to him. "That world is just a comfort zone for me."

Mr. Mooking has thrived as much on eclecticism in things gastronomic as he has on variety in life in general. He is as fired up to talk about a recipe for curry mac and cheese as he is about his idea for a food superhero: "I want a cat woman in a tight chef's jacket and her boots would have fat, red break-dancer's laces and chef's knives coming out of them."

And a couple of years ago, he released Soul Food, an album pairing his songs with recipes for such savories as champagne oysters and corn-fed chicken. To him, creating a new song or a new dish is the same: "It's all about entertainment. You start with a blank canvas - zero sound or an empty pantry - and you take your instruments or your ingredients to create your own story."

His path to the kitchen was circuitous, but he now views his past life as the perfect boot camp for his culinary career. "It taught me how to get up at 5 a.m. and it taught me how to perform." He recalls Bass is Base opening for James Brown at Toronto's Masonic Temple. "I had an opportunity to be young and cocky - I mean, I wasn't Busta Rhymes, but girls were screaming, and I was feeling nice! You know what I mean? But then you get slapped down and have to crawl your way back up." Once Bass is Base fell apart, Mr. Mooking crawled back up by enrolling in cooking school at George Brown College.

"One thing I'm blessed with is energy," he says. "Even when I was just out of the crib, I'd leave the house in Trinidad, naked, find my way to the other side of the island, and come back home, fully clothed, with a new haircut, like, 'What's up, man? What's for lunch?' I was always on the move."

Now a married father of two young girls, he's equally kinetic in conversation. "Boom!" "let's do it!" and "let's go!" are regulars in the verbal arsenal, and he seasons his sentences with guiding principles from The Art of War ("change your terrain"), Q-Tip ("you have to be prepared for the opportunities that come your way") and Estée Lauder ("my business will close when sex goes out of business"). He leaps between different topics and philosophies, as if restlessly gobbling each like an amuse-gueule, making room for the next one. "I'm best when I'm firing on many cylinders," he says, "but I'm on to the next thing before people even get on to the last thing. It's like, I'm done. Next!"

This excitability is his trademark onscreen. On a show about making salt-cod fritters, he walks through a grocery store's produce aisle in a hoodie, picking up zucchinis destined for a side salad and pointing them like toys ("Pow! Pow!" he laughs). Later, sampling his fritters in the kitchen, he declares: "These fritters are da bomb!" But he is careful to distinguish himself from television's grab bag of culinary egotists (Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay, et al.), assuring me, "I drive a Hyundai!"

"I may be chopping onions under really expensive lights and through a really expensive lens, but I'm still chopping onions! You know what I mean?" he says, with signature Mooking laughter. And with that - Boom! - the teddy bear gives me a bear hug, before bouncing into Kultura's kitchen, hungry for what's next.

 

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