By Daren Zomerman
Thursday, August 4, 2016
“I’ve come in at the top and I’ve come in at the bottom — it’s an adrenaline rush no matter what,” said Chartier baker Jesse Woodland with a determined look in his eye while discussing his win at the Canadian Food Championships last month. This fall, the esteemed baker will compete in the World Food Championships in Orange Beach, Alabama.
Woodland has been working with Chartier since the restaurant opened, having put his name into the hat before the hiring fair started. At that time, he was cooking at the remote Rock Lake Lodge with a small crew and a fiancé back in Edmonton.
“I was pretty cut off at the time they were doing this recruitment,” Woodland said. “I reached out to them and let them know, ‘I know you guys are looking for a chef right now, but once you guys find your chef and start hiring, I just want to make sure my name is thrown into the hat there.’”
He got the job when it opened, and it wasn’t long before he started getting ready for the competition, which took place in Edmonton from July 22-24, with support from both his brother and his cousin. On Mondays, when the restaurant was closed, the baker’s team filled the kitchen with their attempts at making the perfect seafood dish while chef Steve Brochu and owners Sylvia and Darren Cheverie provided feedback.
“I’ve worked in places where if you wanted to do something like this it was completely on your own time — they wouldn’t make any accommodation for you,” Woodland said. “To be at a place that’s willing to put that much time and effort into letting you do something that’s extracurricular … just to have somebody that lets me use them as a platform to grow in my own way, it’s so hard to come by, and it just feels great.”
As the date drew nearer, Woodland began sourcing his ingredients. The baker used the restaurants connections, getting his bacon from City Life Farms, vegetables from both the restaurant’s and his mother’s gardens. Darren made a call to his father in Nova Scotia so Woodland could have the freshest Lobster on the prairies.
Knowing how the food was sourced was important for Woodland. If the food was grown using pesticides, he wants to know about it.
“It’s cheaper to go pick something from my mom’s garden than it is to buy it, but then you know where it’s coming from, and you know you’re not putting something weird on the plate,” he said.
“To me as a cook, that’s really important. So many restaurants will just buy stuff from big, bulk, producers, and them and their staff, they either don’t know or they don’t care enough to know exactly where it comes from.”
Using his fresh ingredients, Jesse was ready for the competition. He made a lobster thermidor on a crostini, which won him first place in the seafood category, against Porta Romana’s Andrea Rossi, and home chef Doreen Prei (the same chef who beat Brochu in a Food Fight competition earlier in February).
But the practice doesn’t end here. Woodland has learned from previous competitions that he is going to have to step up his game for the World Food Championship this fall.
“I competed in a national competition called Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, and I didn’t even place top three. I won gold in the regional qualifier, didn’t place in nationals, and I know exactly why I didn’t place. It’s because I didn’t put in the time for practice like I did for the regionals. When I got to nationals I just didn’t for whatever stupid reason and I paid the price for it,” he said.
That’s not a mistake he’ll make this year. At the moment, Woodland is taking some time, waiting until the competition details are released in September. All he knows is that he is going to make his dish as Canadian as it can be.
“What that means yet, I don’t know. I know I’m not going to be able to take [garlic] scapes from my mom’s garden across an international border. So I’ve got to figure out what that means to me, and to make my food speak for the country.”
And no matter the outcome of that competition, it is definitely not going to be his last.
“I’ve learned more from competitions than I do from the same amount of time that I do at work. Hour for hour, the amount of time I spend on a competition, I’ll learn more. And that’s because I have to explore things, I have to research things, and the pressure to practice, and the pressure for not perfection, but to do your best,” Woodland said.
“It’s always present in the kitchen and at work, but when you’re competing, you know that there’s no second chance.”