City Bites

Knives out! Ottawa’s Jonathan Korecki goes head-to-head against best in all-star Top Chef

It’s back! After a three-year hiatus, the Food Network has announced an all-stars season of Top Chef Canada. With the program set to air Sunday, April 2 at 10pm ET, local viewers will be cheering for bandana-clad Jonathan Korecki, a fan favourite and 3rd-place finisher on Season 2 in 2012.

With a $100,000 prize on the line, Korecki (formerly of E18hteen and Sidedoor) faces stiff competition from 11 fellow chefs who came up just short on one of the first four seasons. The chef, who has been travelling and consulting since stepping away from E18hteen and Sidedoor last August, sat down with City Bites Insider at I Deal Coffee, which just happens to serve his favourite coffee in the city.

We asked the chef what it was really like behind the scenes at Top Chef Canada — and to tell us about his future plans.

If you win the $100,000, what will you do with the money?

That’s easy. Go travel for another six months — I pretty much travelled from August to December with a few breaks. There’s always more to learn. You’re so busy when you’re at a restaurant that you can’t pick up and go nearly enough.

Why do Top Chef Canada a second time? Do you feel you have something to prove?

Why do it a second time — other than masochism, you mean? I think that even if you’d won the first time around, you’d want to go back to prove yourself. You always look back and think about what you could have done better.

You filmed in October. Is it hard to keep the secret for so long?

Yes!

Did Top Chef Canada open doors for you?

It opens up a lot of doors. It also shows you how much you, as a chef, can impact people’s lives. Whether it’s educating them about different kinds of food or cooking techniques or just generally inspiring them to eat better. It was amazing to talk to so many people who came to my restaurant after watching Top Chef Canada — they wanted to talk about food and eating better.

That happened a lot?

It did. I remember being in a grocery store one time and a guy walked up to me and he said, ‘I’m here buying this stuff and cooking it because I watched your show. I never cooked for my family before and now it’s something I want to do.’ You want the show to be entertainment, obviously, but it’s also so great to educate and inspire people to want to cook.

How well do you get to know your competitors?

This is TV, so there’s a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ while the crew get things ready. Because it’s so intense, you tend to bond very quickly with your fellow competitors — in some ways it feels a bit like summer camp where you’re spending every waking hour together. I still keep in touch with a bunch of chefs from Season 2 [which was filmed in late 2011], including Carl [Heinrich, the winner of Season 2], as well as Trevor [Bird], Trista [Sheen], and Jimmy [Stewart].

What was it like stepping back onto the set for Season 5?

It was really weird. We didn’t know it was an all-star series and we had no idea who we were competing against until we arrived. It was great to see a bunch of chefs from Season 2 — we’re spread across the country, so it’s not like we’ve all seen each other too much since we competed in the 2012 season.

 

Does having done this before make it more or less stressful going into the competition?

Top Chef Canada is like an extreme sport — especially at this level of competition. You know what it was like the first time around, but that really doesn’t help you.

What stressed you out the most?

Definitely the QuickFire Challenges, when you have to produce a dish in under 20 minutes. It’s very fast cooking that doesn’t fully express what you, as a chef, are capable of or how you like to cook. So it’s very stressful. Also there’s no margin for error.

What makes this all-star series stand out for you?

The high, high level of your competitors. … There is no bad food; what you make might just not be as good as your competitors on that day.

Pitch it to Ottawa readers. Why watch Top Chef Canada this time around?

It is just an amazing competition — the highest level of food competition Food Network has ever put on. The production values are incredible and the challenges are really exciting — more diverse and extreme than anything in the earlier seasons.

Are you looking forward to being a household face again?

I did find that kind of weird the first time around. I even started wearing baseball caps and hoodies for a while. I’d be walking down the street and people would roll down their car windows and yell, ‘You should have won!’ Even as a C-list Canadian celebrity, it feels kind of strange to be recognized when you’re just hanging out.

You left E18hteen and Sidedoor in August. Why the decision to step away when you’re at the top of your game? What have you been up to?

I left in August and spent the next four months travelling, including in Europe and Thailand. I just really needed to step away and refocus. My parents had a few health issues recently and it made me realize that I wanted to spend more time around the people I love and the people who are really important to me. A chef’s lifestyle is not healthy in so many ways, and I realized that I just couldn’t continue at that pace.

So you’ve had some time off to relax and think. What next?

Good question! My plans are still up in the air at this point. I’ve been back in Ottawa since January and have been doing some consulting with different restaurants on everything from menus to cost analysis. I’ve also been exploring the possibility of working closer to home, which is Caledon [northwest of Toronto].

Any possibility of you opening your own restaurant in Ottawa?

I’m always open to the possibility! I need to find the right fit for me. Ottawa has been such a big part of my life for so many years. There is so much community involvement here and the chefs are really into that. It has been an amazing part of my time here.