Canada’s “Top Chef” is Ottawa’s René Rodriguez


Photo: Dunechaser, some rights reserved.

Ottawa chef and restaurant owner René Rodriguez bested 13 other competitors from across Canada on Monday night, in the fourth annual “Top Chef Canada” contest from Canada’s Food Network.

The winner came away with a grand cash prize of $100,000 and extras like a custom kitchen installation. Unfortunately, the video content of those sites is usually unavailable for viewing in the U.S. But they do have recipes and information that can be viewed online.

Rodriguez owns and runs a restaurant called Navarra. It’s on Murray Street a short walk from the ByWard Market. The whole district hosts an interesting critical mass of restaurants where innovative chefs are busily building Ottawa’s general reputation as a major player in Canada’s foodie scene.

One of the things I most enjoy about modern food stylings is how normal international has become. Sooner or later, it seems, the best bits of regional cuisine from all around the world will show up on a plate near you. To which I say “Yum!”

Here’s more on that from this write-up by Peter Hum in the Ottawa Citizen (5/13):

While Rodriguez was born in Ottawa, he lived in Oaxaca from the ages of five to 19 after his parents returned to their homeland. Much of Rodriguez’s innovative and complex cooking at Navarra is grounded in his Mexican heritage, and on the TV show competition, Rodriguez frequently relied on Mexican dishes and ingredients.

“I was able to reconnect with my roots of who I am as a chef,” Rodriguez said. “It was one of those things where you can actually go back to your roots and cook with pride.”

Rodriguez’s multi-course meal that wowed a judge’s panel on Monday night’s program included versions of two dishes served at Navarra — a signature beef tartare appetizer; and a braised lamb shank in a traditional Mexican mole sauce with parsnip puree, topped with crispy mealworms.

Navarro location.

Navarra location.

I did not watch the contest myself. According to the CBC, Rodriguez beat two other finalists, both from Ontario: Terry Salmond, of Kitchener and Rich Francis of Six Nations.

Here’s press coverage from the home regions of the “runner up” contestants, beginning with more on Terry Salmond from Our Windsor:

Despite cooking fish and chips with quail egg, lemon ricotta tortellini, venison with black walnuts and a dessert he told the judges was “burnt onion crunch,” Salmond’s creations lost to the works of René Rodriguez, owner and chef of Ottawa’s Navarra restaurant.

Six Nations of the Grand River is a First Nation community slightly to the west of Niagara Falls which includes the descendants of  tribes that allied with the British in the Revolutionary War: Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, Onondaga and Tuscarora.

Francis says he hopes his appearance as a contest finalist on the Food Network’s most popular program will inspire others and raise the profile of aboriginal food, as detailed by the Hamilton Spectator:

“I was the very first First Nation applicant to apply and get on the show,” he says as he watches his daughter fetch Iroquois corn and quinoa for the pancake recipe. “I feel the time is right for aboriginal cuisine to be in the forefront and be recognized on a global scale.”

Francis grew up in the Northwest Territories in the Gwich’in Settlement Area, the land of his father’s roots. His mother is Haudenosaunee of the Tuscarora Nation from Six Nations. Though his first career was carpentry, he was missing the creativity and passion that he would find in cooking.

To be honest, I’m not crazy about TV reality programs or contests, but I do like that last line about the creativity and passion in cooking. On the eating side of the plate, or back in the kitchen, food inspires artistry and devotion.

Congratulations to all three and here’s to expanding our food horizons. If you’re interested in Navarra–whether or not you ever plan to eat there–here’s a video tour of the restaurant.

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