Being the best we can be

Karl Wells
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Chef determined to promote the province's cooking prowess

It may be a hangover from Confederation-era rhetoric that fostered the notion that all things associated with the mainland are better. Who knows? Whatever it was, the idea stuck on the collective psyche of Newfoundlanders and stuck hard. Chef Roary Mac Pherson is one person who's determined to change that, at least in terms of how we regard our professional cooking prowess.

"When I came back to Newfoundland (from Alberta) and saw the talent we have here, it's done nothing but drive my passion to promote this province and to promote the people in this province. I've always felt that, not all, but some chefs from this province sort of put themselves on a level below, if there's a chef from what we call 'away.' And I firmly believe that, you know what, we might not be any better, but we're just as good and a lot of us are better. Building the confidence level of our people up. That's what drives me. I want to make sure that wherever I am or wherever any chef from this province is, be it a burger joint or a four-diamond restaurant, that they're putting out the best product they can, that they're proud of what they're doing and proud of themselves."

It may be a hangover from Confederation-era rhetoric that fostered the notion that all things associated with the mainland are better. Who knows? Whatever it was, the idea stuck on the collective psyche of Newfoundlanders and stuck hard. Chef Roary Mac Pherson is one person who's determined to change that, at least in terms of how we regard our professional cooking prowess.

"When I came back to Newfoundland (from Alberta) and saw the talent we have here, it's done nothing but drive my passion to promote this province and to promote the people in this province. I've always felt that, not all, but some chefs from this province sort of put themselves on a level below, if there's a chef from what we call 'away.' And I firmly believe that, you know what, we might not be any better, but we're just as good and a lot of us are better. Building the confidence level of our people up. That's what drives me. I want to make sure that wherever I am or wherever any chef from this province is, be it a burger joint or a four-diamond restaurant, that they're putting out the best product they can, that they're proud of what they're doing and proud of themselves."

Last year, Mac Pherson and assisting chef Angie Ryan travelled to Erfurt, Germany, to compete in the World Culinary Olympics. Erfurt is in central Germany, southwest of Leipzig. Every four years, about 1,600 chefs from around the world descend on the city to compete, while another few thousand show up to watch and experience the food expo. It's five days of the toughest competition you can imagine. Mac Pherson, Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland's executive chef, came back with a bronze medal, no mean feat when you consider the competition he was up against.

No rest

Mac Pherson is not content with one laurel wreath. Now he is launching a major project to take a whole team of Newfoundland and Labrador chefs to Germany to compete in the 2012 World Culinary Olympics.

"I've had two preliminary meetings so far that I've asked chefs in the city to attend, just so they can find out what it's all about, what the commitment is going to be. Because for anybody participating in this, it's about commitment. You don't get paid for it; it's personal satisfaction. Now, the plan is to take a group of five chefs because we're going to enter as a regional team from Newfoundland and Labrador. So, there'll be five chefs competing along with the manager and also ... we're going to take support members. I'll have to take about three support members, so probably about 10 people will go because it's such a huge undertaking."

A key member of the overall delegation will be Chef Steve Watson. Watson will act as co-manager of the team. His role, alongside Mac Pherson, will be to work with members of the corporate and broader community to raise travel and accommodation funding over the next four years.

The projected cost of the endeavour is approximately $100,000 - including the cost of sending equipment and product to Germany. Watson told me this was one project he felt strongly enough about to get involved without a moment's hesitation. He said, "It'll be hard work but worth every minute of it."

Qualification

According to Mac Pherson, the World Culinary Olympics does not require that competitors be graduates of a culinary program or hold any sort of papers.

"The international rules state that anybody who does participate in the culinary olympics needs to be working in the industry. So, I don't exclude anybody. I'm not looking for a piece of paper. It's not like, OK, this person finished three years at Holland College - here's their certificate. You have to be working in the industry and be able to demonstrate skill because it's all going to come down to skill at the end of the day. Lots of people may have passion, lots of people may have the drive, but you have to have the skill to match it."

Mac Pherson will get to put his skills to the test sooner than 2012. In fact, it'll be in less than two months at the Gold Medal Plates (GMP) culinary competition in St. John's. GMP is a national endeavour to raise money for Olympic athletes for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games. GMP involves culinary competition, food for paying guests, an auction, and top line entertainment. The event takes place Nov. 12 at the St. John's Convention Centre. Mac Pherson will compete against seven of the best restaurant chefs in St. John's, all personally invited because they have been deemed to be the ultimate in culinary talent in the city.

I asked Mac Pherson how he would describe the style of his cooking, and his food.

"I would describe food by Mac Pherson as selling it like it is. I'm not a big proponent of making 15 different components on a plate ... masking the flavour of food. I like to prepare food or serve food to customers or family or friends for what it is. So if it's salt fish, the main component is going to be salt fish. It's not going to be masked by tons of lemon zest, tons of citrus, tons of whatever. The main component is going to be the fish."

Personal approach

Mac Pherson's approach to the GMP competition will be the same as with past competitions.

"I'm going to practise, not try to be too complicated. I'm going to make sure that I know what I'm doing. What I'm going to serve that night is part of my culture, this is how we serve it and it's going to be a nice, smooth, fast-flowing station. But the big thing is to practise, and to make sure that I'm showcasing the province.

"That's my goal."

The chef from Highlands on Newfoundland's west coast has followed quite a trajectory, from being the guy who fried chips and chicken fingers at St. John's Memorial Stadium in the early 1980s to winning a bronze medal at the World Culinary Olympics.

No doubt we'll all be watching and hoping for great things for Mac Pherson and Team Newfoundland and Labrador in 2012.

If you'd like more information on the provincial effort to compete at Erfurt in 2012 you can contact MacPherson at rmacpherson@fortisproperties.com or Roary.MacPherson@sheratonhotelnewfoundland.com

For information about Gold Medal Plates St. John's, happening at the St. John's Convention Centre on Nov. 12, please contact Mark McCarthy at mark@mccarthysparty.com

Organizations: Holland College, World Culinary Olympics, Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland St. John's Convention Centre

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Germany, Erfurt Alberta Leipzig St. John's Vancouver

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