Putting his best work on the competition table is not new for chef John Waller.
Neither is doing so after going in with an unknown set of ingredients – the high-pressure ‘black box’-style of chef showdowns.
Earlier this year the Oak Bay Bistro chef won the Cookoff for a Cause, a fundraiser for Jeneece Place, under similar conditions.
Waller, 42, will be faced with that type of challenge again next month in Vancouver, as he contests the Hot Competition, otherwise known as the B.C. Chefs Association championships.
“You open up the box and go to it,” he said of the format. “You get 30 minutes. The clock starts, they give you a box and it’s okay, you have to create a dish based on the ingredients inside. It’s pretty stressful that way. You start cooking and there’s no turning back.”
A veteran chef who received his red seal at the tender age of 21, Waller honed his chops working with some of the best in the business in Toronto, including Mark McEwan of Food Network fame.
Waller was doing competitions before such shows as Iron Chef became mainstream television, but admitted he hadn’t done much in recent years. While he ‘performed’ for 60 spectators in the Cookoff for a Cause, doing so in front of an audience of 1,000 or more people at the Vancouver Convention centre will be a different story.
“I think you’re always a bit nervous, because (you don’t know what you’re up against), but it’s a good nervous,” he said. “It’s a bit of a different set of skills compared to the other competition. You use what you’ve done in the past, you use your experience.”
Waller, assisted by Bistro pastry chef Emily Phillips, qualified for the provincials with a second-place finish in the Vancouver Island chef-of-the-year competition.
Creating a pre-arranged and vetted meal featuring parsley root and ricotta agnolotti, with roasted cauliflower and toasted pistachios, Waller finished behind chef Ryan Reed from the Westin Bear Mountain Resort and Spa.
Reed and assistant Jenny Jones earned the nod from the chef judges as well as the People’s Choice award from diners who paid to sample the chefs’ work last month at Camosun College’s Hubert Hall.
The event attracted chefs from such kitchens as the Fairmont Empress Hotel, Chateau Victoria, and Monkey Tree Pub. Even Saanich South MLA Lana Popham competed.
Competition chair Terry Lockhart Rust said the prestige of winning the title is growing among area chefs.
“I think chefs are very competitive, and they love competing against each other,” he said. “It’s just like being on the basketball court or the hockey ice. The trash talking goes on.”
Waller said chef competitions are giving the public a better sense of what is involved in preparing fine dining meals, as well as teaching them to be open to trying things in their own kitchens.
“I think it’s entertainment,” he said. I think it’s becoming a bit more of a valid trade. I think it’s kind of helped to make it more in the spotlight.”