Ottawa Magazine catches up with Rene Rodriguez, formerly of Navarra restaurant and 2014 winner of Top Chef Canada, about his new role with Dish catering.
This week, Rodriguez makes his official debut at the annual Parkdale Food Centre gala on June 1. (Tickets still available!)
How did you end up at DISH?
Erin gave me a shout about a month ago. She asked if we could we meet for coffee and I said absolutely. We talked for about half an hour, she asked me what my plans were. I told her I was actually thinking of moving to Toronto. But I said ‘if you have a job for me, maybe we could talk.’
She wanted me to be the chef at Dish. And I said, I’ve never done catering before, so I’ll probably have to learn as I go. But I said ok, let’s give it a shot.
So, I showed up for work one day and I liked it right away. I mean, it’s a different kind of adrenaline rush. It’s challenging but it’s fun, it allows me to be creative. You always have to be ready for the unexpected. Depending on the day, the weather, and the setting that you’re in. It’s pretty cool. I’m liking it quite a bit.
Is there anything that you miss about being in a restaurant?
I think it’s a nice change right now for me to step back and look at another way of working with food. As long as we rely on good product — and Erin always buys amazing products that are supporting organic stuff, and local farmers, which I really like. I miss the rush that you would have at a restaurant, but catering is another kind of rush.
This is your first time doing an event with the Parkdale Food Centre. On June 1st, what can people expect?
I’m thinking I’m going to do a signature dish, something I’ve always done. A pig cheek, that we confit very slowly. We’ll do something very fresh and seasonal to go with it. I’m going to work with fresh green peas, some pickled rhubarb as well to go with it, some micro cilantro, and that’s it. Keep it simple, you know? I want people to see that good food is not that complicated. You can use four ingredients and use them well and people will be amazed.
The pig cheek was on the menu at Navarra for nine years, since we opened. We never took it off. I figured this would be like an introduction to my way of cooking at DISH, and Erin loved that idea.
When you closed Navarra, in the public post that you shared to Facebook, you said that you were going to focus on devotion to your craft, and finding out what your path as a chef would be — right now, what does that path look like to you?
It’s been almost three months since I closed. I wasn’t really focusing on food that much anymore, I was just running the operations. I was getting tired, and almost burnt out. I said I need to close the restaurant, I need to take a month off just to decompress and spend time with my family, and regain my passion. Because sometimes all of that just gets lost in translation when you’re just running around.
So I closed. And I decided to take two weeks just to read about food, just immerse myself in some cookbooks that I had. Just read and read. All of a sudden I thought, ‘yeah I’m ready again to do something.’ I was thinking maybe I’d go to Toronto and work there. But why would I want to leave when I’ve been in Ottawa for about 19 years? I figured, no let’s wait and see, and then Erin called me and now I’m here.
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Had you and Erin worked together before?
Erin and I have known each other for about twelve years. Interestingly enough, she was going to hire me about 12 years ago as her chef (she had just opened Dish). I ended up working at the Black Cat. We crossed paths here and there working at different functions and stuff like that, and then all of a sudden all this time after she decided to call me.
Not many people know this. I was on Beat Bobby Flay. It’s already aired on the Foodnetwork in the USA. So yes, I did beat Bobby Flay. That’s something new other than Top Chef, you know? It’s something I’m excited about.
Are you able to tell me what you cooked?
Yes — to go against Bobby Flay I did a good version of huevos rancheros. Which most people don’t get right.
So do you see more TV in your future?
I think so. Erin’s very supportive of that too. I think the next step for me would be to create at Dish and work with her, and then have the possibility of applying for Iron Chef, in the next year or so.
What do you like about those competitions?
There’s a thrill when it comes to doing TV. It’s not just being on TV for the sake of being on TV, it’s being on TV for the sake of showing people that you love food, and how much you really love working with food. And when you do that, you almost forget that you’re in front of the camera. You know that if you put 100% you’re going to get 100% back. I’ve never done it for fame, I’ve done it because I wanted to prove to myself that I’m able to cook, and to get recognition from people who really know food. The exposure is good, but I’d be happy doing that anywhere.
Do you see another restaurant in your future?
I don’t necessarily know if I see another restaurant. But if I do something, I will do something with Erin. She’s open to any kind of ideas, and I know that Erin would be a good person to work with in the sense that I could concentrate on the food and she could do the operations — she’s great at that. I would do something like a nice ten-seat tasting bar. Something easy to run where I could do my food. Something interesting. Almost like a lab. That would be something that would excite me. I don’t want to fall into any fads.
The event with the PFC has been called your “coming out” party with Dish. So does that mean you’ll be the face of Dish?
I think I’ll be the face of Dish, but I respect Erin a lot. I want to work with her, but I want Dish to be the Dish it’s always been. It’s about Erin. And now, it is a bit about the food that I create a well. We’re just going to try to bring those elements together. Dish has always been known for great catering, with great products. And now that I’m working there, I’m realizing why it’s so good. Everything Erin uses is number one — cheeses, meats, produce — everything is hand-picked and the best you can get. So, I think I can make Dish a little more exciting when it comes to flavours, and maybe a little edgier.
What is your favourite thing to cook right now?
There are so many things. I would definitely have to say, I’m getting into mastering octopus. It’s such a difficult thing to tackle well. That it could be chewy or rubbery or grainy — so I’m playing with different ways of cooking it at home. The next octopus dish that I develop, I want it to be perfect. And once I get that, I will put it on the menu on Dish.
You also mentioned that you were keen to back into the culinary scene because there was lots going on in Ottawa for the sesquicentennial — are you doing anything in particular with Dish?
We’re doing a lot of events with Dish. Knowing Erin, she’s always jumping at great opportunities.
As for me personally, nothing, really. I’m happy to be here in Ottawa for this time. You know, I’m glad I didn’t go to Toronto, and I think I made the right decision to stay here.
That’s always nice to hear — about people wanting to stay in Ottawa, I mean.
Yeah, I mean you could easily give up and say ‘I’m done with this city’ and move on, but you have to keep fighting every day. Like in soccer for example, if somebody tackles you and you bruise your knee you get up and you keep playing. You know that if you keep getting up you’re going to get better, and you’re going to become stronger, too. The next time that somebody tackles you it’s going to be nothing, because you know what it’s like to get up and keep fighting.
So, I won’t give up— especially when it comes to cooking. I love cooking. I get up every day and I think about food.