It's hard to imagine a gig as a night baker for Tim Hortons would one day lead to the chance to compete on a national television reality show for the chance to earn bragging rights as a top Canadian chef.
But the route Shaun Hussey took from being an aspiring naval architect to a contestant in the Food Network series "Top Chef Canada" is far from typical. He's one of 12 chefs competing in Season 8 of the show, debuting Monday, April 13 at 11:30 p.m. Newfoundland time.
Hussey is the chef and co-owner of Chinched Restaurant and Deli, widely considered one of the top restaurants in St. John's. It's a business he started with his wife, Michelle LeBlanc.
Besides serving up fancy meals with fish, pork, beef and veggies, Chinched also sells upscale deli meats to regular customers and even other restaurants — it has developed a strong reputation for it charcuterie cuts.
"You'll see everything from pork to fish to plenty of vegetable-based dishes at the restaurant at any given time," Hussey told The Telegram.
Hussey used to be a naval architecture student at the Marine Institute, but he decided not to continue with the program and ended up working as an overnight baker for Tim Hortons.
"As I was learning to bake — because this was when they would bake everything from pretty much scratch there — I started to develop a liking for food, and within a year I was in culinary school in P.E.I."
He's worked in fine dining for over 15 years, including stops at the American Seasons in Nantucket, Mass., and Nicole’s Café on Fogo Island. Hussey and LeBlanc opened Chinched a decade ago, initially setting up shop on Queen Street before moving to their current location on Bates Hill a few years ago. In 2015, the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador named Hussey and LeBlanc their restaurateurs of the year.
He applied to be a contestant on the new season of "Top Chef Canada" with a lot of encouragement from LeBlanc and the rest of his family — Hussey said they've been telling him for years to apply.
"I always made up an excuse to the point where it was like, I'm too busy. How can I get away to do this? There's no way I can be away for X-amount of period of time to partake in this. Finally, after many years of being nagged by my wife, we decided at the 11th hour we were going to fill in the application. Just a few days later, we were on vacation in Cape Breton and got a call."
A few chefs from Newfoundland and Labrador have competed in past seasons of the show. Mallard Cottage's Todd Perrin was on board for the inaugural season and returned for Season 5, and Chris Chafe, now the executive chef with Vu Resto & Bar in St. John's, competed in Season 3. Ross Larkin, chef de cuisine at Raymonds in St. John's, was the big winner in Season 6. Hussey contacted them for advice.
"Honestly, the question I was asking was, 'Should I do this?' And the answer definitively was, 'Yes, you should take the chance. You have this opportunity — take it.'"
Hussey admits you generally cannot get this sort of exposure as a small-business owner without spending a considerable amount of money.
"First and foremost, I looked at this as a means of exposure for me, for the restaurant," he said. "All the other things (with the show), I had no idea what to expect. I was just taking it day-by-day."
Each week, contestants compete in cooking challenges judged by a group of restaurateurs, chefs and food critics. When Larkin was the big winner in 2018, the prize up for grabs was $100,000 in cash, a new $25,000 kitchen and $5,000 in cooking products.
"I think it's going to be incredibly interesting to see how it is just watching it," Hussey said regarding the show, which films in Toronto. "Being there was ... an incredible experience, and I can't wait to see how it translates into seeing it on TV. I feel like here in Newfoundland, when the opportunity arises for somebody like this, people are very gung-ho and very supportive. Everybody is super excited to see it unfold."