A side order of fame

By any measure, Ottawa executive chef Jonathan Korecki, 28, of Sidedoor Contemporary Kitchen and Bar in the ByWard Market, says his 12-week stint as contestant on the reality TV show Top Chef Canada was as thrilling as it was stimulating. And, yes, at times more than a little stressful.

“It was memorable, rewarding, a chance of a lifetime — all those things,” Korecki says.

“I was able to cultivate friendships that I think will last a long time. It was truly incredible to see what you’re capable of doing in very different circumstances.”

Among just four finalists Monday at the close of the show’s second season on Food Network Canada, Korecki says he is thrilled to make it so far before ultimately losing to Carl Heinrich, 26, formerly of Marben Restaurant, who is now working on his restaurant opening soon in Toronto. As the chef who beat 14 other contestants, Heinrich took home $100,000 in prize money and a completely outfitted kitchen worth $30,000.

A chef for 10 years who has worked with such culinary stars as Susur Lee, Korecki has been a driving culinary force at Sidedoor since the restaurant, known for creative Asian fusion and signature tacos-with-a-twist, opened in early 2011.

“I’ve been cooking since I was 15 or 16 years old, professionally since I was 18,” Korecki says.

In the end, the final TV showdown was between Korecki, Heinrich, Trevor Bird who recently opened his own Fable restaurant in Vancouver, and David Chrystian of Victor Restaurant in Toronto. Chrystian was among three contestants who were previously eliminated, but given a chance at the last minute to cook their way back into the finale.

Here are Korecki’s parting thoughts on the life-changing experience of being on TV, and how it feels to be a celebrity:

Q: Tell us about your experience on the television show. If you had to sum it up in two or three words, what would they be?

A: I would say exciting and inspiring. Inspiring to see what you can do with the challenges given with the product that’s available, and exciting for the pace of it. Like, it was very exciting to go on different locations and do different things that really take you out of your comfort zone, and be able to work with that. It was extremely fast-paced.

Q: How was it different from what you do every day at Sidedoor?

A: Well, there’s not cameras in your face every day at Sidedoor, that’s for sure. I mean, you’re serving restaurant customers on a larger scale. At Sidedoor we’re pushing now 200-plus covers on a busy night, so it’s different in the sense that your customers have a dining experience. But on TV, it’s competition-judging food. Everything gets picked apart on every level, which is really very interesting to see. And it’s a huge honour for the people there, to have the chefs of that calibre judging us.

Q: Has being on the show changed your life?

A: I certainly get stopped on the street more often to say hello. I mean, that’s one thing that comes with it and that’s great. People are inspired about food the more I talk to them, and that’s the biggest goal we can do as chefs — to inspire people to want to eat good food.

Q: There seems to be an element of panic on the TV show, but isn’t there some of the same in a busy restaurant kitchen?

A: Yeah, you’re always running to get ready for service, that’s for sure. But there was a lot of waiting time on the show, especially for the finale when we were waiting quite a long time.

Q: What made you want to audition for reality TV?

A: Professional curiosity, I think. I had seen the shows and I was very curious to see what it would actually be like to be on the other side, to see how I’d be able to perform.

Q: What did you learn about the TV world?

A: I have a huge respect for television now, what it takes to produce a show of the calibre of Top Chef Canada. A huge amount of effort and work went into it all the way from the executive producer down to the audio guys, the photography. Everybody involved was very passionate about it and it was really inspiring to see people of that calibre all working together.

Q: And a lot happens that people never see.

A: Yeah, a lot. Like huge hours of footage that have to be compressed into a 44-minute episode, or the 90-minute finale. There’s a huge amount of work that goes into it.

Q: What about TV appeals to you?

A: It’s reaching a broader audience than we can do on a daily basis here at Sidedoor. I mean, people are watching all over Canada, right? I haven’t heard specific numbers about the ratings but I know they were getting to break last season’s records for the most-watched show on Food Network Canada, and that’s pretty exciting.

Q: Do you see yourself as a future TV chef?

A: I don’t know where the wind’s going to take me. I did enjoy it and I think it would be a lot of fun, but what it is I could do on TV I have no idea. But I sure had a lot of fun doing it. I’d leave my options open.

Q: What did you expect being on Top Chef Canada?

A: I went in with no expectations at all. I mean, obviously I didn’t want to be kicked off, that’s a given, but I honestly didn’t know what it was going to be like.

Q: What was the most gratifying part of your experience?

A: It would have to be meeting all the chefs, not just the judges but the contestants as well. I wouldn’t have had any other chance to meet all those people, or make the friendships I have now. It’s like summer camp: In summer camp you’re put together with people you don’t really know and you spend every waking minute with each other, and after summer camp is over those people become your friends for life. You spend so much time with them.

Q: What frustrated you the most?

A: It was definitely stressful. Being able to create dishes you’ve never done before and being expected to produce food of a very high calibre was, while I wouldn’t say it was frustrating, it was engaging.

Q: Has your appearance on the show affected or influenced your career?

A: Yeah, it has. It has definitely given me a lot more confidence in my professional capabilities and it’s made me want to travel more. It’s been been a dream of mine to travel the (Far East) spice route for a long time now, so that would be cool.

Q: What does the future hold for Jonathan Korecki? Does it include Ottawa?

A: It’s bright and shiny. I’m going to stay here at Sidedoor, I’m looking to travel for sure, and possible TV opportunities I’m going to leave open … The support I’ve received from people is extremely awe-inspiring. People come to the restaurant from Toronto and Montreal and everyone has been genuinely happy to be able to see the show and come in for dinner and thank me for it.

Q: So, is it true you cannot shop at a Metro store these days without being recognized?

A: Well, Metro is OK but Starbucks and Home Depot are a different story. Think about the demographics: If you’re going to Home Depot you’re likely married, young, you’re renovating your house and have kids or whatever. If I go to Home Depot on a Sunday afternoon it definitely takes awhile because the same people at Home Depot — and at Starbucks — also watch Top Chef Canada. But, not so much the people at Metro. I’m spotted now in restaurants, on the bus, walking around, all over the place. You definitely have to wear a smiling face all the time, that’s for sure.

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