Canada’s Top Chef Matt Stowe Talks Cooking

The newly minted celebrity chef talks about what first inspired him to pull on an apron, his kitchen career and his life away from the spotlight

Credit: The Food Network

After winning Top Chef Canada, Matt Stowe is on top of the cooking world

Vancouver’s own Top Chef Canada champion Matt Stowe dishes on the career he never had, his first-ever culinary creation and his big dreams for Cloverdale

In case you’re wondering Top Chef Canada champ Matt Stowe did not start his cooking career as a child prodigy, toddling into the kitchen at the age of five like some culinary Mozart and whipping up double braised pineapple hoisin short ribs or Thai red curry Pacific lingcod to the wonder and joy of his adoring mother.

“The first thing I ever cooked?” he wonders, reaching for the memory. “That would have been smores on a family camping trip. I must have been seven.”

It wasn’t that he didn’t like or appreciate good food as a boy. Quite the opposite. His mother was a talented chef in her own right, introducing him to a wide range of flavours and foods at an early age.

“I mean we were eating things like curry and whole roasted duck back in the ’80s,” he recalls.

A Chef’s Calling

The idea of being a chef didn’t occur to him until he was in high school and had come to terms with the fact that he wasn’t going to be a professional athlete. Sports reporting was his fallback position — he had visions of being the next J.P. McConnell and getting paid to attend pro sports events — but then he discovered cooking under the tutelage of Guy Ethier, an inspiring teacher at Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary School in Cloverdale where he grew up. There, in the school’s “big industrial kitchen,” he discovered he had a flair for things gastronomic.

“I didn’t go into it thinking I was going to be a chef, but I’d grown up in a house where there was good food and I wanted to learn enough to survive when I was on my own,” he recalls. But Ethier saw the promise in his young student and entered him in culinary competitions where Stowe won scholarship money, developed confidence in the kitchen and eventually landed a co-op job at the Hotel Vancouver.

“It was a really good experience. I’m sure I was the youngest employee there, but I worked in all the restaurants and at all the stations in them. I decided I liked cooking, that it was interesting and fun, and that I was pretty good at it.”

At 18 he moved to New York where he attended “the Harvard of cooking schools,” the Culinary Institute of America, and also apprenticed at Lutèce, an upscale French eatery.

“That experience really catapulted me,” he says, because while his classmates were often relegated to menial tasks like peeling potatoes and scrubbing bones in the restaurants to which they were assigned, Stowe was helping prepare meals for customers with an acute understanding of the words “fine dining.” Of course, being in New York and trying to learn about food, you’d think he’d be spending all his spare time eating his way around town. But the very notion makes him laugh.

“There was no time for that, and I didn’t have the money anyway,” he says. “I was working 14 to 16 hours a day, six days a week, and making $5.15 an hour. Most of what I did on my day off was sleep, although I do remember going to the occasional movie in Times Square.”

Matt Stowe

Stowe says he enjoyed the challenge of Top Chef Canada (Images: The Food Network)

He came home and got a running start in the B.C. restaurant industry when he landed a job as executive chef at luxurious Sonora Resort in the Discovery Islands, where he developed recipes, refined his kitchen leadership skills, played an integral role in the resort achieving the coveted Relais & Châteaux designation in 2009, and wrote a cookbook, The Tastes of Sonora Resort.

It was while he was at Sonora that he was head-hunted by Cactus Club Café, where he now toils as product development chef with one of Vancouver’s other culinary superstars, Rob Feenie.

Top Chef Canada

And then came Top Chef Canada, the winning of which thrust him into the national spotlight.

“I’d watched it on television and always felt that I could do well,” he says. “I liked the competitive level and the challenges, and I wanted to see how I measured up.” In the end, he measured up pretty well, thanks in part to his wife Amber, who helped him plot strategy by researching the show’s sponsors and deducing potential challenges. “She suggested we have a doughnut recipe and sure enough, they wanted doughnuts,” he says.

“I was nervous at first,” he confesses, “but I won the first two challenges and that gave me confidence.”

The competitive environment left him unfazed; he’d been in culinary competitions as early as high school and underneath the white apron still beats the heart of a boy who had, once upon a time, dreamed of playing pro sports. “I loved the whole thing. I knew to stick with my gut when it came to the challenge, and I felt that if I was able to get to the finale, I would have the upper hand with my experience.”

Stowe’s Philosophy of Food

Like all great chefs, Stowe is something of a philosopher when it comes to food.

“Food is all about balance in terms of taste, and contrast in terms of texture or temperature. With taste, for example, you have to balance sweet and salty. And acidity is big in food; just a small amount of lemon juice or vinegar can really wake flavours up, especially in something you’ve been simmering for a long time. And we see contrast in foods we eat all the time. Think of ice cream and apple pie, hot and cold; chips and dip, soft and crunchy.”

Although he has nothing against cookbooks — indeed he’s written one himself and finds many others inspiring — he credits his own success in the kitchen to a good grounding in basic techniques: braising, steeping, searing and blanching.

“If you have a solid foundation, you can go in a lot of different directions. You understand how food reacts and the science behind it. That helps you develop confidence. And you also have to trust your own instincts and palate. Use your senses; be engaged.”

He’s made no secret of the fact that he’d like to have his own restaurant one day, but surprises when he says where it might be located. Eschewing the urban polyglot, he points instead to the bucolic Fraser Valley where he grew up.

“I like being near farms and I think Cloverdale has a lot of potential. I love the idea of opening a place where you can cook for local people, often the people who are growing your food. And there are beautiful products coming out of the valley; I like the idea of having a restaurant that could celebrate them.”

Unsurprisingly, he has a “huge arsenal” of recipes he plans to introduce when the time comes. “I have this notebook full of recipes and ideas I’ve been collecting for years.” Unfortunately, eager cooks will have to wait until the restaurant actually opens before getting their hands on any of his forthcoming creations.

Matt Stowe

Stowe plans to release a book of recipes soon (Image: Cactus Club Cafe)

Away from work he’s a family man through and through. “I love spending time with my wife and son Gavin. He’s two now and it’s so much fun; his personality changes every week and he’s always learning new words and becoming more engaging. We go to the park, we go to my parents, we cook in the backyard for friends.”

Lucky friends!

The Life of a Celebrity Chef

Stowe spends time at the gym when he can and hasn’t lost his affection for competitive sports. “I love getting out and being active. I just got back from playing in a celebrity flag football game with the Seattle Seahawks; I’m a huge football fan.”

Although he’s expressed a yen for a Cadillac Escalade SUV, he’s not a car guy. “I didn’t even have a driver’s license until I was 24,” he says.

Despite being a celebrity chef, he says his wife Amber does most of the cooking at home nowadays, although he does confess to being something of a back-seat chef. He recalls with a smile one of the first occasions she cooked for him.

“We were just dating . . . She put a pot of cold water on the stove and then put the pasta noodles into the cold water,” he says, his eyes still widening in amazement at the memory. “I jumped up and said, ‘What are you doing?’ ”

In the end, he says, getting along with your spouse in the kitchen at home is not much different from getting along with your colleagues in a restaurant.

“When you’re working with anyone it’s about being understanding and using every opportunity as a learning experience. Everyone comes with their own food memories and experiences; you can learn from them and appreciate them.”

Although he’s come a long way since mushing together smores around the campfire as a kid, Matt Stowe doesn’t look as if he’ll ever lose touch with his roots, culinary and otherwise. After all, he did choose smores as the dessert for the finale dinner he used to win Top Chef Canada.

Originally published in TVW. For daily programming updates and on-screen Entertainment news, subscribe to the free TVW e-newsletters, or purchase a subscription to the weekly magazine.