Our next Chef of the Week is no stranger in front of the camera or in the kitchen.
Allow us to introduce you to Eric Chong.
Those who recognize the name might remember Chong as the home-chef-turned-master on MasterChef Canada. The popular CTV show helped catapult his career, leading him to open R&D, which is co-owned by MasterChef Canada judge and mentor Alvin Leung, and backed by Michael Bonacini.
And while Chong has MasterChef status, those who don’t know him will be surprised to hear that he has no formal training. Before taking on the title, Chong went to school for chemical engineering to appease his family, but his passion had always been cooking. After becoming the first-ever winner of the popular show, Chong traveled extensively with Leung and worked in his Hong Kong Michelin-starred restaurant Bo Innovation to sharpen his skills.
We had the opportunity to catch up with Eric Chong to chat about how engineering has helped his cooking, what he thinks the public gets wrong about restaurant owners and head chefs, and how to inspire your own home cooking.
How did you get your start in the industry?
My first paying chef job was actually in Buca on King West. A friend of mine, who I had met during the filming of MasterChef Canada, helped set up a stage for me. I went in with absolutely no expectations of getting hired. I just wanted to learn as much as possible and experience what it truly means to be a chef. After my stage, Chef Ryan Campbell called me and ended up hiring me for the fritti station. Buca was a fantastic place to start because they have high standards and instill a great work ethic. Working there for just four months definitely helped shape the chef I am today.
How would you describe your culinary style?
I’d describe my culinary style as modern Asian. I gather inspiration from all Asian flavours and cuisines such as Cantonese, Sichuan, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, and add my own spin to it or even mix cuisines. I think it’s my engineering background that helps me develop new dishes. I accumulate a bunch of research and implement it to create something new and exciting. A lot of my dishes are influenced by my mentors’ and parents’ backgrounds. I spent a lot of time in Hong Kong with Alvin Leung so I get a lot of inspiration from there; and my dad is from Malaysia so I use a lot of Indonesian and Singaporean flavours as well.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about the restaurant industry?
I feel like a lot of people who are just getting started in the industry or even people who are not in the industry often think that restaurant owners and head chefs don’t do much work, or that they have “minions” to do all the work for them. I can’t count the amount of times where guests/fans would walk in to R&D and be surprised that I’m actually working and cooking. Head chefs need to monitor labour, food costs, constantly increase efficiency and innovate new dishes, all while still doing the day-to-day jobs and monitoring the cooks. It isn’t a cushy, laid-back job is all I’m saying!
What’s your favourite dish on your current menu and why?
Definitely our “Best Duck in the City”! This is one of R&D’s signature dishes and it’s been on the menu since day one. So much care and labour goes into this dish, and I love presenting it to customers because I get so passionate talking about it. I don’t think you can find any other duck like this in the city. The cooking process takes well over a week, from the day the duck arrives to the restaurant to being served on a guest’s plate.
To start, we get nice and big 5-6 lbs Brome Lake ducks and brine them for 24 hours. We then blanch the ducks to clean the insides, rinse off any excess brine, and tighten the skin to make it nice, smooth and presentable. Once the ducks are brined and blanched, we begin aging them for a minimum of seven days. During the aging process we brush the ducks with a maltose and vinegar solution, which helps give it the crispy skin every pekin duck should have. Once the ducks have been aged, we cook them for several hours at a very low temperature, which keeps them medium rare, tender and juicy. We then ladle the ducks with 500°F oil to colour and crisp the skin. We present the duck whole table side and then carve it and serve it with paratha flatbread, cucumber, leeks and our house made roasted garlic hoisin sauce.
What’s your go-to meal to cook at home?
My go-to meal would definitely have to be a pan-seared steak basted in brown butter, garlic and thyme. I don’t need any sides with it – just a beer and a great steak. I usually leave my cast iron pan in my heated oven while I bike to Cumbrae’s to pick up a ribeye. By the time I get home, I have a scorching hot pan ready to go.
What are three restaurants our readers need to try before they die?
- Alo (Toronto)
- Odette (Singapore)
- Otto E Mezzo Bombana (Hong Kong)
What’s one tip our readers should know to up their own game in their kitchens?
Dining out and getting inspired helps me up my own game. Every week my girlfriend and I try a new restaurant to stay up to date with Toronto’s food scene. Being exposed to new kinds of food really helps my own cooking. If you taste something you like or something new, try making it yourself at home! I also can’t stress enough how important it is to invest in a sharp knife. It just makes cooking so much easier.
How do you think Toronto (and/or Canada’s) culinary scene will evolve in the future?
I believe Toronto’s food scene has already evolved, with places like Alo elevating the scene and bringing attention back to fine dining. We do have Michelin star quality food in Toronto but without the Michelin guide here in Canada we don’t get the recognition we need. I hope to see this evolve in the coming years.
Are there any other chefs you’d like to see profiled? Let us know in the comment section or tweet us at @ViewtheVibe.