Reppin’ the East on Top Chef Canada

This Monday, the first episode of Top Chef Canada’s fourth season aired on Food Network Canada. Passable readers may recognize one East Coast chef in particular, Jesse Vergen from the Saint John Ale House. Not only is Vergen the exec chef at the Ale House, he also runs a BBQ joint, a CSA, takes care of three kids with his loving wife, and even finds time to go hunting.

Image via Jesse Vergen's Twitter feed

Image via Jesse Vergen’s Twitter feed

Passable caught up with Vergen to talk about what it was like to be on Top Chef, meeting his heroes in Toronto, and being true to himself.

How did your being on the show come to be?

It started off  a year ago, some people said, “Listen you should do this,”  but I had so much on the go, and I couldn’t get away. This time my wife, my employer, everybody was saying I should go for it. Online, someone mentioned it on Twitter and Michael Smith retweeted it, and people started calling to say I should.

What were the first few days like, leaving everything behind?

It was terrifying to walk away from it all, because you are sequestered. They take away your cell phone. There is a terrifying feeling that if there is an issue or a problem at home, or at the restaurant, I don’t have my cell phone. But for 10 odd years, I have never been able to cut myself off and walk away, so it was kind of neat to experience.

What kind of ideas did you have about shooting a show like this would be like? 

I guess I didn’t know what I was expecting. I was lucky and had shot some TV before and had worked with the crews, so I knew about the long days.  I had an understudying of what we had to deal with in terms of shooting, while others may have been a bit more of a “first timer” going through the process. So my adjustments were easier than others. At the end of the day we had to be ready to throw down at any point of the day.

What was it like having your stuff critiqued by people you admire and respect? I’m thinking of David Chang, who will be on this season and I know you admire, having eaten Momofuku-style pork buns at your establishment.

If Chang showed up at my restaurant for a meal it would be so intimidating. A lot of cooks look up to this guy, not only as a chef, but also as someone who is innovative in business. I have great respect for chefs who not only are talented but can take that talent and utilize it and be successful with it. Not everyone can run a restaurant or turn their talent into something people can enjoy.  Chang is one of those guys who thought outside the box and BOOM he is the poster boy for being a successful chef. So having him critique my food, when I know everyone in my hometown is watching, it would be horrible if he destroyed you on national tv. It would be worst to be booted off by him.

So what is it like to have your food critiqued on a national scale?

That’s the thing I thought about, is that you make it through to being on this show and then you go, “whoa, this may happen.”  I’ve worked my ass off to develop good reviews and have people enjoying my food and respect in the community, and the reality of it is that you are working with people you never worked with before, in unknown challenges, you’re putting yourself out there, and your career is on the line. The realization of that is immense. I kept in my head to be true to myself and be on there and be myself and have fun and enjoy the experience and not let negativity overcome me, because the rest of the country is watching.

But that’s the thing. You’re on television: challenges behind a line and television scripted challenges are two different beasts. They work different parts of your brain since they’re both in different realities. What was it like to meld them together?

I think you just need to be on top of your game and be true to yourself.  You don’t have control as to what they are going to edit and what they will show. At the end of the day, bring your “A” game, and be genuine. If you’re not being genuine,  the camera will pick up on it

One of the things people don’t often talk about is the fact that these shows are aired weeks if not months after shooting. And so you have to shut up about results.  What is that like?

That’s one of the difficult parts. We shot the show this summer, so you have this big secret and you’re holding on to it. You’re not supposed to have any contact with other competitors afterwards.  It’s a big crazy experience and you can’t talk about it with anyone, or have a release on what happened to you. You kinda feel sort of by yourself, so as soon as the announcement was made everything was out in the open.  It was a sigh of relief.

In the meantime, the rest of us will have to wait and see how far Jesse goes in the competition.  Check your local listings for airtimes, or watch the show on Food Network Canada’s website. You can also follow Jesse on Twitter.