Kitchener’s ‘Top Chef ‘ wears many hats

BY CASSIDY FOULDS

“Look at that.” Terry Salmond held his phone, grinning down at a video of a red cap bolete mushroom that he’d found while out foraging. He’d snapped the cap in half, revealing the quickly-oxidizing flesh on the inside. The flesh quickly shifted colours, indicating it was unfit for consumption. “That’s cool, right? The way it changes to blue like that?”

He sits in a homey little Portuguese restaurant called Nova Era in Kitchener. In front of him is a plate of four pastel de natas (a Portuguese egg tart pastry) to go and a mug of black coffee. Nova Era is one of his favourite cafés in the area, along with The Yeti Café, barely a block away. It should hardly be surprising that he’s such a foodie, since food is one of Salmond’s many passions.

Upon hearing his name, some may say that Salmond isn’t just any chef, thanks, in part, to his coming in second on Top Chef Canada’s fourth season.

“I had one woman grab me at the grocery store. She said ‘Terry!’ I turned, and I could see by the look on her face that she realized I had no idea who she was, and that I probably looked offended or weirded out,” he said. “Why would you grab someone at the grocery store? Someone you don’t know? Can you imagine grabbing someone like that? It would be such a weird moment. Especially if you didn’t know them. She apologized and explained that she saw me on Top Chef. I said, ‘Oh, OK, uh, hi?’ This is just my job, and I love my job, but I am by no means a celebrity. I’m pretty much exactly the same as I was before I was on TV, other than how much I’ve learned and matured.”

Salmond wears many hats. He is the executive chef at the Charcoal Steakhouse in Kitchener, a chef instructor at Conestoga College, a consultant and a father. He tested his culinary skills on the television show Top Chef Canada, and is a passionate professional who excels at his job. Although he doesn’t mind sharing his experience on the show, he finds that he’s lost his “normal guy” status after being in the limelight.

After Top Chef, Salmond received different offers for a variety of deals. He also did quite a few media interviews. He found, however, that most of the interviews focused heavily on his Top Chef experience. In reality, the experience on the show isn’t what’s important – Salmond’s just a great guy with a huge passion for what he does. His passion for all things culinary developed while he worked at the Marché Place in Toronto, where he started off as a line cook with no interest in becoming a chef.

“It was just a job, I only did it to make money” he said. “And I had this real douchebag boss. He just sucked. He was just like every other chef I knew at that time. Like, a loser dropout, a drug addict, an alcoholic, a douchebag, just, the list went on. It just sucked. It wasn’t something I aspired to be, and I certainly didn’t look up to the people I worked for.”

Salmond’s boss was fired and replaced, which became a game changer for the soon-to-be chef. Seeing a chef who took himself and his profession seriously gave Salmond a new outlook on the culinary world.

“He was very different from every chef I’d ever met. I mean like night and day. Every other chef I’d met had vices, and women problems, and gambling addictions and just nasty stuff,” said Salmond. “Most of them were criminals, for what it was worth. But this guy was extremely well-spoken. He spoke four or five languages. He was well-dressed. Highly intelligent.”

Salmond was able to impress this new chef by, as he said, ‘doing OK at his job.’ The next day, when he came into work, he was offered to learn the trade and become a chef. After doing that for a while, Salmond was moved to Palavrion, a pretty big restaurant in Toronto. Then he was moved to The Keg. He soon realized his skill set wasn’t as strong as he wanted it to be, especially while working somewhere so refined. So he found the highest rated Toronto restaurant he could, walked in and asked for a position.

“They weren’t hiring at the time, so I offered to work for free, and they took me up on it,” Salmond said. “By the end of the week, they fired the guy who was working next to me and they said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve got a job,’ and that was that. From then on I never even considered another route.”

Even when he applied to Top Chef Canada Salmond wasn’t overly interested in getting a spot on the show. The only reason he applied was because the winner of season three, Matthew Stowe, was a chef that he had worked with from 2004 to 2008.

“I thought, ‘Hell, if Matt could win, I could win!’” Salmond laughed. “I came in second. I didn’t win. But that was my thought process, that if Matt could make it then I could totally make it. I applied, I got on the show, and the rest is history.”

Truthfully, Salmond admitted that he wasn’t initially overly thrilled to have even gotten the spot.

“I remember thinking when they told me that I got in, ‘Oh God, no, now I actually have to do this.’ I wasn’t that excited about it. I don’t know. People had pushed me to do it, but it didn’t feel right. It felt dry. But it is very much in real competition, and they pressed that point a lot.”

Salmond said television shows aren’t nearly as glamorous as they’re made out to be, even recalling the experience to be a bit “prison-like.”

Like the rest of the contestants, Salmond was “locked up” for the first 48 hours and spent two days in his hotel room. When they were finally allowed to leave, they weren’t allowed to speak to each other. Rules were dictated to them and then they were transported in vehicles with blacked-out windows to the studio, where they were locked up again in a room with blacked-out windows.

With knives in hand, they were brought to the kitchen studio, competed in their first challenge, and realized that’s how it would be from then on. They weren’t allowed phones, music, books, pen and paper or TV. They weren’t allowed to know the last names of the other contestants, and they weren’t allowed to talk about the competition. They weren’t allowed to talk too in-depth about any events either, and could only talk to each other about each other.

“They wanted to psych you out, make you crazy so you’d do crazy, stupid stuff,” said Salmond. “Here’s the trick to it: Real chefs deal with that all the time. So they weed out the crappy chefs right away because the good chefs actually know that game. That’s life, right? At the final five, we were all thinking, ‘OK, so now the real competition starts.’”

Though Salmond didn’t win, he still takes pride in just how close he actually got. He also takes pride in the progress he’s made since dropping out of school at 18.

Salmond went back to night school at 19, which he finished, and moved to Toronto to start selling vacuum cleaners in Scarborough.

“Not the best decision, ah, career-wise,” he admitted. “Did a few other really crappy sales jobs before landing a job at Marche as a line cook.”

At the Marche, Salmond learned the ins and outs of working in the kitchen. He was able to reduce the learning curve by becoming friends with the best cook in the kitchen and finding himself determined to be better than them.

“I’d notice that someone is really good. I’d hang out with them in their station or whatever, work beside them, watch what they’re doing, copy his moves, whatever,” he said. “Eventually, I’d time him, and then I’d work to be faster than him.”

Learning in a classroom environment was something Salmond always struggled with. It was why he’d left high school at 18, and it was why he didn’t finish Conestoga College’s culinary apprenticeship training program.

“I had a teacher in Grade 7, a Mr. Stewarts or something like that, who taught me algebra. I just remember asking him questions constantly like, ‘I don’t understand this. Why does X = Y? Why? That doesn’t make any sense.’” Salmond paused, and then added, “Yeah, maybe I was sarcastic and a little annoying, but he just kept kicking me out. I remember being so mad. I wasn’t getting an olive branch of any kind. I wasn’t being helpful, I’m sure, and so it was right around that time I decided I don’t really care about school, that I’m going to put all the effort into myself. It was a selfish thing to do at the time. In the long run, it worked out – but I got lucky. I don’t think it was very smart to do. But I just remember deciding in Grade 7 that school doesn’t work for me.”

Perhaps it was a selfish thing to do. But he was right. He got lucky. Very lucky. Now, Salmond has a whole slew of anecdotes under his belt that he can share. These range from his time on Top Chef and post-Top Chef, to his long treks for mushrooms or day-long scavenging in freezing, ankle-high stream water for watercress while working at Langdon Hall, his strange and perhaps awkward experiences in finding his way into new positions and even to his interactions with other chefs.

Last February, Salmond and his wife started a business called Chow Dumpling in Kitchener with the idea that they could develop a product and community, and eventually open a full-scale restaurant. By 2045, he hopes to have eight restaurants in southern Ontario and one or two in Victoria. He’s also writing a book with a friend – and it’s not a cookbook.

Salmond has also contemplated taking another stab at Top Chef, now that he’s in the right mindset. When asked whether he may return, Salmond said:
“Yeah, actually … In fact, I just might. Yeah. But I would prepare to win.” It was the kind of response that warranted a slight laugh. But Salmond held his pokerface. He was serious. He meant business. “I was not mentally prepared to win. I went in thinking I didn’t want to lose. Even though I did lose, I did very well. It was that last mental hurdle that I didn’t have the maturity to make it over. Now, I would think I’m prepared to win, completely and totally mentally prepared to win.”

Along with humming and hawing over the idea of potentially returning to Top Chef, Salmond also has an eye on Cutthroat Kitchen, a show hosted by the ever-devious and maniacally hilarious Alton Brown, a show in which money is given to the contestants so that they can buy strange and esoteric sabotages to hinder the other contestants.

“I would literally spend every dime to screw with people just to make it fun. Cutthroat Kitchen would be fun as hell. It would be so fun to watch them question why I’m like this, and I’d just be like, ‘I dunno. Mehahaha! It’s not personal, it’s just fun for me!’”

The sheer amount of entertainment he got purely from the thought of it all should be enough cause for concern for other contestants if Salmond ever were to decide to try his hand at Cutthroat Kitchen.

As for his advice for those aspiring to work in the culinary profession? Don’t drink on work days. Don’t do hard drugs, and be aware that holidays are off the table.

“Every Easter, every Mother’s Day, every Christmas, every Valentine’s Day … Forget it, it’s not happening. I have chefs tell me they want to spend Christmas off with their families – that’s nice. Change careers. Because for the next 10 years you won’t have Christmas off, and you need to be OK with that. Your family has to be OK with that,” Salmond said, not to be harsh but to be real.
“We got into the habit of it. We would have Christmas early, Thanksgiving early, my wife and I would celebrate Valentine’s Day the week before or after. You just had to be OK with it, and you have to have people in your life who support you.

“I remember the first time I got to be home on Christmas Day, my mom cried. Ten years, and finally I came home on Christmas Day, and she just lost her shit,” he said.
Salmond reminds young cooks to be wary of the way chefs and chef lifestyles are displayed on television or Instagram. It seems all so very glamorous until the real work has to be done. He notes that young chefs can use places like Instagram and YouTube for personal branding, adding it is important to have a wide range of examples of work, and that creating your image and your portfolio will help you land the job you want.

Salmond’s Instagram handle is terrysalmond, where pictures of dishes, videos of his mushroom foraging escapades and adventures from the kitchen can be found.
His Twitter handle is @TerrySalmond.

Finally, the business he and his wife have started also has a website, which can be found at chow-dumpling.myshopify.com.

About Spoke

Spoke Online is produced weekly during the school year by Conestoga College second-year journalism print students, faculty adviser Christina Jonas and new media technologist Michael Toll.