Meet Matthew Stowe, the new Top Chef Canada, from Cloverdale, B.C. Last week, the 31-year-old product development chef for Cactus Club Restaurants Ltd. won the coveted title, beating out 16 contestants in the show’s third season. On the eve of his televised triumph, he told The Globe and Mail why working for a chain restaurant gave him a competitive edge.
When will you be handing in your resignation?
We’ve got an exciting year coming up. It’s no time to leave. We’ve got an opening in Langley, another one in Edmonton next fall, we’ve got Toronto next spring and Saskatoon coming down the pipeline. I definitely want to open my own restaurant in the future. But right now, it’s such a cool time to be part of a big company that’s getting even bigger.
You’re a fine-dining chef. Why did you leave Sonora Resort for a chain restaurant?
Look at what happened to Dale MacKay. [The Top Chef Canada Season 1 winner opened and subsequently closed two Vancouver restaurants.] You can be an unbelievable cook, but if you don’t have the business sense, you’re not going to be around for very long. I was a good cook before I came here. My style was very creative. But it was [founder and chief executive officer] Richard [Jaffray] who has taught me about business and consistency and being able to keep your doors open at the end of the day.
Is there any friendly competition between you and Iron Chef America winner Rob Feenie in the Cactus Club test kitchen?
No, we have a pretty good working relationship. All the chefs of my generation looked up to what he accomplished with Lumière. He put fine dining on the map in Vancouver. Being able to work with him every day is really cool.
How does your wife feel about the Cactus Club hiring only pretty young women?
She was an Earls Girl back in the day. I think she’s open to it. As a company, we always hire the best people for a job.
What about the dress code – the short black skirts?
The dress and style of the serving staff – the girls and the guys – is appropriate for the venue.
How does the food you prepared on Top Chef Canada compare to what you cook here?
In the finale, I made tacos. In a previous episode, I did sliders. My time at Cactus has taught me a lot about ethnic food and slightly more casual cuisine. That’s what made me a much better, well-rounded chef when entering the competition. I definitely have the fine-dining background. But my time here has been great for some of the other styles of food that helped me win a lot of challenges.
Do you hope to put some of your Top Chef dishes on the menu?
We’re going to review some of them. We’ll put them through the testing process and see what works.
Can you point to an example of an innovative Canadian dish on the Cactus menu?
Tuna tataki. You’ve got albacore from the West Coast, some Asian influences in there and avocado and papaya, which are kind of tropical. That really exemplifies where we are as a country. We’re blending a lot of different things together to create a really great dish at the end of the day.
If you were to open your own restaurant, what kind of restaurant would it be?
I like the idea of opening a restaurant close to where I live in the Fraser Valley. There are a lot of great farmers out there and there’s a definite need for a chef-driven restaurant.
Your son is almost 2. If he wanted to become a cook one day, what advice would you give him?
I’d be all for it. Maybe 30 or 40 years ago, you wouldn’t want to see your son and daughter go into it. But now it’s a respectable career. It’s on the same level as being a doctor or a lawyer.
What’s the biggest challenge facing the Canadian restaurant industry?
Staying ahead of the curve and not copying what other countries are doing. Nordic cuisine is the hot thing right now. It was Spain a few years ago. It’s important to not chase trends, but come up with our own style and celebrate the foods we have locally.