The Road to Becoming a Chopped Canada Champion

December 22 2017

With a strong background from the busy world of culinary catering and ever-growing knowledge and patience from teaching new students each year at Thistletown Collegiate Institute, it's no surprise that Keith Hoare was able to take home a victory on the Food Network's Chopped Canada.

Facing off against 3 other chefs, Hoare impressed in three rounds of intense judging, winning a $10,000 prize which he utilized to take his students on an educational trip through France and Spain on their March break. Since then, he has had two students of his own selected to compete on the same show.

We recently sat down with Chef Hoare about how he was able to harness his teaching experience to benefit him in the competition while finding the best flavour processes to execute in such a high-stress, low-time scenario.

Share with us how you applied your teaching methods into each of the Chopped Canada competitions.

Every day at school, we focus on international cuisine because I teach students from all over the world. To prep myself for the competition, and my students who are selected for the show, we go through multiple cookbooks. Each cookbook is from a different region from around the world. We also visit multiple markets, like Kensington Market, looking at different ingredients. I then give my students mystery box challenges to test their skills on all the different elements they might face on the show.

We especially look over lots of dessert recipes to find dishes that can be easily memorized, can be completed within the timeframe and are adaptable to whatever sort of crazy ingredient the show gives us.

Describe your flavour process for developing dishes on the spot.

You really rely on spices to bring out the full flavours of items. Normally, you'd build flavours through time and cooking methods but with a show like that, you don't necessarily have the time to do that.

I always try to find a theme with the ingredients, some commonality between them, and then I take those ingredients in that direction for flavour profiling. For example, if I had a plantain in the basket, right away I'd start thinking about Caribbean flavours.

When you first look at all of the ingredients in your basket, you start with what takes the longest to cook and then break things down, giving yourself time to think about what you're going to make with them.

For example, in the first basket, I had a rutabaga. These normally take about half an hour to cook and I only had twenty minutes. While I was cutting that up into so many pieces, I was able to then formulate a plan.

What were the biggest flavour challenges you experienced when combining the required non-traditional ingredients into your dishes?

The black box method is a great way to see chefs' creativity but then on that show, they always throw in something that's very unusual or un-palatable, something you'd never use as a chef. Again, I try to find a commonality with the ingredients and break down what the ingredient was into its lowest common denominator.

For example, I had a cherry drink powder which is colour, like a dye, and is a lot of sugar. I then paired it with a pickling liquid and some rutabaga to make something like the Middle-Eastern turnips you get with falafels. It was just a matter of taking that ingredient and breaking it down to what its core make-up was and then adapting it to the dish. 

Explain how the timed competitions impacted the cooking techniques you chose to utilize to create your dishes. What role did flavour play in your decision process?

Time is such a big factor when you're building flavours and cooking. Through braising, stewing and other methodologies, you develop flavours in your dish as they have time to meld together. In a competition like this, you don't have the luxury of time so you've got to be a lot bolder with the seasoning choices that you make.

In the first round, I used the grill which was great, the judges loved the charred flavour of the meatballs I made. In the second round, I did an olive oil poached fish and it got very criticized for lack of flavour, even though I had a ton of flavour in the oil and on the fish itself. Overall, because I didn't have the time to infuse properly in the poaching liquid, it was a little bit bland.

In a competition like that, you really need to figure out not only the spice level you want to have but also how you're going to get it done in the shortest amount of time with the most amount of flavour. If you're going after a certain kind of dish and it requires a braise, stew or something on the BBQ, you have to adapt it as well because if you don't have time to properly stew or braise it, you've got to change it up and find a quicker way to do it. Time is against you.

What was the biggest lesson you learned about yourself as a chef?

When I was on the show, I was very nervous to see how I was going to stack up. I'd been off of the line for a long time, it had been a while since I'd had the fast-paced life of my catering company and I had been teaching for about ten years.

When I had two students on the show, I was more nervous and excited for them but with a great sense of pride. Having them be selected was actually a great moment for me as well. Passing on knowledge, teaching others and sparking creativity has made my life a lot more complete than when I had my catering business. I basically discovered that I've really found my calling in teaching and it is something that still gives me a lot of purpose.

What advice would you give students looking to participate in these competitions?

Break down your longest cooking ingredient and come up with a cohesive theme. You can't just start cooking randomly, you must have a plan that's determined by what's in your basket, not a pre-existing idea you might have.