"We used to go to the Atwater Market quite often,"…
Conestoga College culinary arts graduate Wallace Wong is vying for bragging rights–and a $100,000 prize–as a competitor on this season’s Top Chef Canada. Airing beginning April 1, a victory on the television show would be a delicious accompaniment to Wong’s previous Chopped Canada Season 2 win.
The Mississauga-born Wong, 29, is a fierce competitor, which includes competitive bodybuilding, but he was something of an academic juggernaut too; it speaks to his dedication and is indicative of his drive–a quality necessary for being a chef and for winning Top Chef.
Not only did he complete a business degree at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2012, but after his first year Wong started the culinary program at Conestoga, graduating with Honours from the Cook I apprenticeship program. Cooking, he says, quickly overtook his interest in business.
“After my first year at Laurier, I found myself reading my cookbooks and watching the Food Network more so than my businesses texts,” says Wong.
He describes himself as a cook who looks to clock out after a long day with some chicken wings or a bowl of Korean pork bone soup and a bit of Netflix. But that’s after working hard; his drive to win and competitive spirit–the spirit necessary to fend off the slings and arrows of outrageous television culinary fortune–were obvious early: he entered Skills Ontario competitions during high school and when he got to Conestoga College. “I told myself I wanted to do it at the College level because I wanted to win.”
“I think I have an advantage in that I’m not a regimented cook, following the same recipes and techniques all the time. I think that gives me the fluidity and dynamic to quickly adapt.”— Wallace Wong
Wong represented the College and won gold locally and a bronze at the national level. He was coached by Conestoga culinary instructor Philippe Saraiva and former instructor Paul Torrance during that period. “It was one of the first things I told Chef Saraiva I wanted to do when I enrolled at Conestoga.”
Saraiva calls him hard-working and dedicated–qualities, along with some luck, that he’ll need on Top Chef.
“Wallace is a very motivated person and is always optimistic,” according to Saraiva. “He recognizes that hard work pays off and his love of food and discipline make him a perfect candidate for the show.”
In his career, Wong says he has a very clear idea of what he wants to do and has been methodical about pursuing it. He works at Kappa Foods in Newmarket, does some consulting and is building his personal brand, Six Pack Chef. “I have long term goals for that, three years, five years. That kind of thing,” he notes. As for the bodybuilding, he says, “I can’t represent a brand called Six Pack Chef and not be fit.”
The College’s culinary environment, according to Wong, gave him freedom and trust in order to support his goals, whether it was exploring ideas or preparing for competition. He shares that experience with other, younger, chefs. “Wallace has been a perfect ambassador of the program coming back to speak to students about his journey,” Saraiva says.
It was the appearance of the first U.S. Top Chef shows that got Wong on to the idea that he’d like to compete on a television reality show that challenges both culinary skills and the sometimes tense human interactions and dynamics between contestants. “I was blown away when I saw that first Top Chef. It was the first real competition I saw after Iron Chef, and it was for chefs we hadn’t seen. When the Canadian version came on, I thought amazing! I started thinking that I could do it.”
Unlike many chefs, Wong hasn’t cooked in restaurants for extended periods of time at any point in his career. He refers to his jobs and stagiaires as “sprints” here and there. It should be pointed out, however, that those sprints include time at Noma, Alinea, Langdon Hall (when the restaurant made the “Pellegrino Top 100” list), Atelier and Momofuku Shoto Toronto.
“A chef I look up to is Brandon Olsen (Le Banane, Toronto and recent Iron Chef Canada competitor). He’s very creative and brings a unique style to his cooking. He can do Bocuse d’Or competitions as well as stuff with no limits. It’s both restraint, and he can also show a lot of creativity.”
While he’s cooked in Redzepi’s, Achatz’s and Chang’s restaurants and worked alongside Jonathan Gushue at Langdon Hall, part of Wong’s motivation for competing on Top Chef is to show that traditional restaurant chefs aren’t the only ones who can handle the heat, he says. “This is something I want to prove.”
In order to do that, he’s marshaling both his personal philosophy and the culinary techniques he’s mastered. “I think I have an advantage in that I’m not a regimented cook, following the same recipes and techniques all the time. I think that gives me the fluidity and dynamic to quickly adapt.”
Wong recognizes the impact that winning Top Chef could have for him–adding quickly that he also acknowledges what the financial impact of collecting $100,000 would mean. “I’d look forward to a headline that says ‘Top Chef Season 7 Winner Doesn’t Even Own A Restaurant!’ The money is a lot, especially for an entrepreneur trying to grow and currently living at a less comfortable range than he’d like to be,” he adds cagily.
But money aside, at the end of the day, or the episode, Wong says cooking for him is about stories–and accepting and reveling candidly in his own idiosyncrasies as he hones his craft.
“For me, food has always been about telling stories and family. It’s about memories, but it’s also enjoyment, and one of things I really enjoy–and I have no idea why–is picking meat out of crabs. I mean, I just really enjoy that. It’s a weird thing,” he says with a laugh.
Perhaps a crab dish will be thrown at the Top Chef contestants–and that would suit Wong just fine.
[Banner photo/WREats: Conestoga student Wong demonstrating at Kitchener Market in 2011.]