Almost Famous Chef Competition and Win Dinner at Lee Restaurant!

25 Jan

S. Pellegrino almost famous chef competition

Last year, Jenny and I were invited to the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition’s Canada regionals in Toronto. The event brought together culinary students from schools all across the country, all vying for the chance to represent Canada at the Almost Famous Chef Competition final in Napa Valley, California. We loved the chance to see some of Canada’s next generation of chefs showing off their skills under pressure, and we were amazed by the dishes they produced for judging.

This year marks the 10th S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition, and the Canadian regionals are coming up next Monday, January 30. We’ll have a rundown of all the action after the event. But in the meantime, we had the chance to chat with Cole Nicholson, a culinary student at George Brown College who’ll take part in the competition.

We were also given a great prize to give to one of our lucky readers: a $150 gift certificate to chef Susur Lee’s Toronto restaurant, Lee. Keep reading to find out how you can win. But first, check out my interview with Cole Nicholson.

Cole Nicholson George Brown

How long have you been cooking?
I’ve been cooking for about three years now. I started working in a restaurant when I was 17 years old and I took the culinary management program at George Brown when I finished high school. I’m usually one of the youngest people in the kitchen, if not the youngest, so it makes it kind of fun and a lot more people are open to teaching me new things.

What first inspired you to get involved in the kitchen?
The high school that I went to was originally a trades high school when it was opened; it had professional auto shops, carpentry labs and a full production kitchen. Part of the curriculum was to take a trade class. I decided to take cooking because nothing else really interested me and I thought it would be a good life skill to have. I ended up taking it all through high school and I really learned a lot. In my grade 11 year, the school got a new cooking teacher. He was completely different from any other teacher at the school – he was only 27 years old and this was his first teaching job. He was fresh out of the industry and was up on modern cooking techniques and styles. He made me realize that cooking could be cool. He changed a standard cooking class into something so much more; we learned how to make fresh tomato sauce, veal jus, homemade pasta and ravioli, even butchery. If not for him, I would have chosen a completely different career.

Why did you choose the culinary arts program at George Brown? How have the curriculum, instructors and interactions with others in Toronto’s food community helped you expand your skills in the kitchen?
When I first started researching culinary schools, George Brown really stood out to me because of the number of people that have graduated there and gone on to be successful. Almost every great kitchen in Toronto has someone that went there and I thought it was a great way to make connections. The teachers are amazing. Every one of them knows a lot and they are passionate about teaching. Many of them have great connections and are open to helping you with your career.

What cuisines and/or ingredients are you most passionate about?
I just got back from working and living in Italy for four months as part of my Italian program at George Brown. I worked in a great restaurant called Il Baluardo in the Piedmonte region of northern Italy. It was extreme culture shock at first, but being back home I miss everything about Italy. They have an amazing respect for food and ingredients and their lives revolve around their daily meals. I learned so much while in Italy and I came back to Canada with a lot of passion for Italian food and culture.

How would you define your cooking style? 
I don’t really think I am old enough or experienced enough to really have my own “style” of cooking yet. I love to learn new techniques and try to figure out new ways of preparing something. My favourite styles to learn from are chefs who use a lot of old school techniques and flavours in their cooking, but done in a modern way to get the most out of their product.

What current food trends are you most excited about?
The trend that excites me most right now is chefs having relations with farmers and purveyors and really promoting them in their restaurants and on their menus. I think this all really started with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry, but many other great chefs around the world and in Toronto have gone on to do the same.

How are you preparing for the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition?
I was first notified that I would be competing in the competition by my teacher back when I was in Italy. I was notified in October and had to have my menu submitted in November. I had no way of practicing while in Italy, so I did a lot of research on seasonal products of Canada at the time of the competition. I put a menu together using seasonal products that I find interesting and challenging to work with. I was a little homesick at the time, so my dish is pretty Canadian. When I got back to Canada a few weeks ago, I started practicing at the school and the dish came together. I’ve been practicing two or three days a week and refining the dish.

Have you heard much about previous years’ competitions to get a sense of what to expect and what’s worked for the competing chefs?
I had not really heard much about it until the student from George Brown (Jean-François Daigle) won the Canadian regional competition last year. His coach, who is now my coach, was one of my culinary instructors last year and I expressed interest to him in competing this year. One of the students in my program, Brian Cheng, competed two years ago and once he found out I would be competing he gave me a lot of helpful advice. He told me a lot of basic considerations to take into account when preparing the menu: proteins that I shouldn’t use, things the judges look for.

What are you hoping to do with your career once you’ve graduated from George Brown?
I really want to work in the U.S. I think that they have a lot to offer and I could learn a lot working there. Chefs there are combining some amazing skills and techniques with great products to produce some of the best food in the world. I have a list of places that I want to work at: The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Le Bernardin in New York City and Alinea in Chicago.

What chef would you most love to cook with?
If I could cook a meal with any chef, it would be Thomas Keller. I had the opportunity to meet him and hear him speak when he was in Toronto a few years ago. He completely changed my outlook on food. His whole approach to food and respect for ingredients and people is something to learn from. The French Laundry cookbook is like my bible, not for the recipes necessarily, but for the philosophy and wisdom. I had the opportunity to eat at his restaurant Per Se in New York City last year and it was a life changing experience. I knew after that meal what I wanted to do with my life.


For a chance at this great prize, here’s what you need to do:

Click here to leave a comment, telling us about your top food experience. It could be a great restaurant meal you had, a food adventure like taking a cooking class in a foreign country, something amazing you cooked in your own kitchen, or a food memory from your childhood. The possibilities are endless. Whatever your favorite food experience is, we want to hear about it.

We’ll take all the comments we’ve received by 11:59 p.m. this Sunday, January 29, assign each a random number, and then choose a winner at random using

**You don’t have to live in Toronto to win, but the prize includes the restaurant gift certificate only (no travel expenses, etc), which means a winner from outside of the Greater Toronto Area must plan to be visiting Toronto in the near future to use the gift certificate.


29 Responses to “Almost Famous Chef Competition and Win Dinner at Lee Restaurant!”

  1. Lanny January 25, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    one of the best food experiences was at jimbaran bay in bali… the freshest seafood, amazing sides, all prepared and served beachside for a whopping total of $6. most amazing meal.

    jenny- it’s been ages. hope all is well. big fan and loyal reader!

  2. Anita DesRosiers January 25, 2012 at 7:58 pm #

    On a cruise from Los Angeles to Sydney we stopped in Bora Bora. We were taken by an outrigger canoe, accompanied by a native ukele player to a private motu (island). We were then led into the turquoise waters of the warm ocean to a large floating ice bar, where we were served caviar and champagne. We believed at this moment that we had seen and felt heaven.

  3. Karen Mwachikobe January 25, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    It is safe to say that very few outstanding culinary experiences are witnessed in Whitehorse Yukon (though Dijon mustard did break onto the scene in the past decade) but through random happenstance and the magic that only happens north of 60 I had the most simple yet overwhelming food experience perhaps of my life !!!! I was the basement dweller of an unemployed German inventor (this is a typical beginning for most Yukon stories ..) who had spent the minus 40’s building himself a self propelled ultra light air worthy(ish) machine. When Spring hit he disappeared for days at a time mumbling something about last years’ forest fires and inviting me to sleep in his bed while he was gone … (Not). He would arrive back secretly in the evening (hiding his ultra light in the
    root cellar) and would burn his clothes in the fire pit. I was sworn to secrecy and ignored the fact that Frenchmen with scales and berets arrived at our house at all hours and left with bags of what I assumed were Interpol worthy. Berets in Whitehorse are like sealskin coats at the Dufferin Grove Organic Market – (suspect). I finally felt that I needed to break the silence since my suspicions were giving me night sweats and I confronted Peter (not his real name) regarding the illegal activities. I was told all would be revealed the next morning. I woke up to coffee brewing and we met in the kitchen. On the table was a plate with over three pounds of fresh morel mushrooms and Peter granted me the offering of choosing as many morels as I wished to be fried up into some scrambled eggs. I had never tasted a morel before, not to mention a freshly picked one (actually I chose four) and the taste of them is something that is burned into my inner sanctum pleasure sensors. I didn’t realize their worth at the time, but Peter explained to me that every year the French morel buyers come to the Yukon and it is a downright mushroom war for the pickers that know where to find them. Peter’s ultra light had scored him enough morels to keep him in moose meat and brandy for a whole year and I have never eaten a fresh morel since – though I dream of the day. This is a true story.

  4. LFK January 26, 2012 at 10:58 am #

    Europe was my playground during my 12th summer. My mom and ! traveled to Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Hungary. Every new country offered strange new tastes and smells -some welcome, some notsomuch. While in Vienna my ‘job’ was to walk a block down the street every morning to purchase a loaf of fresh from the oven rye bread. I looked forward to using my limited German to ask for one of the still-warm bundles, Then practically running I hugged it like a doll all the way back to the flat inhaling it’s heavenly scent. The ritual was to slather the freshly cut slice (OK slab, really) with fresh salted butter, cool from the icebox but easily spreadable on the sturdy bread, Then snap the metal seal and twist the glass lid off the home made strawberry jam with big chunks of pure sweetness. You must use a spoon and make sure the red preserves reach the edges and cover the entire surface.Then with mouth wide open you raise the piece of edible art to your face, inhale then bite straight into it. All at once your mouth experiences the glorious explosion of flavour, texture, and the irresistible contrast between sweet and salty. Front teeth press through the dense, chewable center of the bread as butter and jam squish through the gaps and stick to the roof of your mouth while eye teeth and molars crunch through the stubborn, crispy crust, reluctant to separate and yield to pressure.
    I have not experienced that unforgettable taste, full sensory and tactile sensation since. It’s one of my favourite memories, food or otherwise.

  5. Angie January 26, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    My favourite food experience was taking cooking lessons at Umberto Menghi’s Villa Delia in Tuscany. Learned how to make fabulous osso buco and risotto.

  6. Simon January 26, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    I remember as far back as taking home ec class and making pretzels. I was so proud of myself I went home and made some at home for my mom… they didn’t turn out as good at home though :p

  7. Hari D. January 26, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    I remember each and every time my mother makes cabbage rolls. She has to age the cabbage so it’s always such a long process and we always have to wait for the right time of year. They are the most delicious things I have ever eaten and my favourite food by far!

  8. Tina Pietrangelo January 26, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    Growing up in an Italian family every special occasion seems to feel like your best meal ever, until the next one. Drawing from years of wonderful memories, aromas coming from the kitchen and sharing around the table, brought me to a time and place last year when my husband and I traveled to Italy. One of our stops in our travels was Sorrento where I think I had the best meal ever. We asked a friend our ours who is from that area where he would recommend we eat while in Sorrento to have an authentic experience. He recommended a restaurant that one has to experience and is one I will never forget. Asking the locals where Da Gennaro’s was, we were told to go down towards la Marina Grande (which is the smallest of the marinas). At dusk one evening we made our way (walking) down towards the marina which was an experience in itself. When we turned the last mountain corner before us was the most quaint fishing village which had two restaurants. We were seated at an outside table (on the beach) and next to what I’m sure was the fishing boat that catches all of their delicious fish. We told our waiter (who turned out to be the owner) that a friend from Toronto recommended his restaurant. Gennaro told us that he would prepare our dishes and took away the menus. Dish after amazing seafood dish came out with explanations on how each plate was prepared. Imagine the fresh catch of the day (or the hour), fresh Sorrento lemons that resemble grapefruits, fresh herbs, the air of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the spectacular view of the Bay of Naples and the sounds of the sea all around you. My senses were reeling and can to this day place myself there and conjure up the image. It was the most surreal moment I have ever had and I felt as if all of the stories, food experiences and heritage all came home that evening in a small fishing village in Sorrento.

  9. Amy January 26, 2012 at 1:54 pm #

    The best food experience I had was when I traveled to Asia with my mom and we went to Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and China.. I got to try all the foods from each culture and they were all sooo delicious. I want to go back again next year!

  10. Farrah January 26, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

    My favourite food experience (or one of them!) also took place in Italy.
    We went for a meal in Sienna at a local resto that we read about in a guide that we’d bought in a used bookshop. The meal we had was off a menu that changed every day, made with local ingredients including Chianti. It was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had. If I’m in that part of the world again, I will definitely go back to that spot and hope to find the same resto with new dishes to try.

  11. Cindy January 26, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    I went to Mexico with my kids this past fall and stayed at the Gourmet Inclusive Resort at the El Dorado Royale & Casitas. The meals there were magnificent! Every meal was amazing and there was so much attention to detail on each dish.

  12. John N. January 26, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

    I’m sorry, but no cookie beats my wife’s cooking. And I am not just saying that because she’s my wife. I have always been amazing by how great of a cook she is and why she never looked into the profession.

  13. Tracey January 26, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

    My top food experience occurred on a recent visit to the Chicago restaurant the Girl & the Goat. As you step into the restaurant you feel like an insider. Greeted with such warmth and enthusiasm made the 45 minute wait seem insignificant. Once seated among the non-stop action, gracious servers delivered food that can only be described as a symphony for your mouth. A menu of small plates filled with gutsy combinations for meat and seafood lovers alike. Start with the hiramasa crudo topped with crisp pork belly and a chili aioli and let the party begin. The Girl & the Goat is the whole package.

  14. Klara Young-Chin January 27, 2012 at 10:13 am #

    In my opinion the top restaurant in the Niagara region (Port Dalhousie, St.Catharines) is Treadwell Farm-to-Table Cuisine. I have had the pleasure of dining at this place a number of times since it opened a few years ago. The quality and taste of the food is exquisite. The freshness and creativity is beyond expectation. The service is top notch, friendly, genuine and not ostentatious.
    The owner is chef Stephen Treadwell and his son James, who is one of Canada’s top sommeliers, and actually travels the world to find those special wines which don’t always appear at our local stores.
    I live in the Niagara region and happy to have this gem close to us.

  15. Colleen C January 27, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    I would have to say that my best food experience ever was our honeymoon in Sicily. We travelled with a company called Contessa Vacations. They offer an all inclusive stay in Sicily, which includes visits to Wineries, a Riccotta farm, various restaurants experiences AND a cooking class every evening with a chef to learn about local dishes. The chef took note of our likes and dislikes and he crafted daily dinners, which we helped to create, from ingredients purchased at the market that day. I have never eaten fresher, more flavourful food! It was amazing!

  16. Alyssa Hodder January 27, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    My top food experience wasn’t at a pricey restaurant; it was hiking the Inca Trail in Peru. There we were, on a steep and remote trail high in the mountains, and we still sat down to three hot, fresh-cooked meals every day! Talk about dining with atmosphere…. The porters had to carry everything on their backs—from eggs and produce to pots and pans—while we hikers were struggling just to get ourselves up the trail in the high altitude. I was most impressed with the calibre of the food provided, and knowing how hard everyone had worked for it made it all the more special.

  17. Natalie January 27, 2012 at 3:18 pm #

    My top food experience I can remember is a gnocchi dish I had at a little restaurant in Rome. My sisters and I had been backpacking through Europe for a couple of weeks and hadn’t treated ourselves to any “good” food in order to save money, but once we got to Rome we decided to go to a nice restaurant to treat ourselves. There I had the best gnocchi I’ve ever had in my life – I remember wiping every single drop of sauce off my plate. I hope I can remember where that place is if I ever get to go back one day!

  18. G January 27, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    My favourite food experience is and always has been Sunday dinner with my family. I come from an English family so it’s always Sunday roast with yorkshire pudding and all the trimmings. To this day it is my favourite meal and I still eat it often. Every time I eat it, it brings back memories of my youth.

  19. Ang January 27, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

    My top food experience was the day after my wedding at Peller Estate in Niagara on the Lake. It was one of the best meals I have ever eaten. But considering that it was the day after my wedding, I will never have a better experience. I may eat a better meal, but there won’t be a better overall experience.

  20. Sasha January 27, 2012 at 10:07 pm #

    Having New England lobster rolls for the first time in Gloucester, MA.

  21. Jody January 28, 2012 at 12:05 am #

    My favourite childhood food memory is eating my Grandmother’s melt-in-your-mouth shortbread cookies.

  22. Nicole January 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

    As a vegetarian in a medium sized Ontario city, I am used to having two veg restaurants and a few standard items on menus in any other restaurant. My favourite food experience was driving from Seattle to LA with another vegetarian friend and being overwhelmed by the number of vegetarian restaurants in Washington, Oregon and California. There were so many options that every meal was exciting and almost overwhelming in a way. Am definitely looking forward to returning one day…

  23. Eoin January 28, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    My favorite food experience is my mother’s shepherd’s pie growing up in Ireland, with queen cakes for dessert. Delicious!!

  24. Brooke Smith January 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    One of the best meals I ever had was at Beckta in Ottawa. I had the best roast beef ever with horseradish. And I don’t even like horseradish! But it was delicious. Also, it was a free meal from my husband’s boss at the time. And, to top it off, we saw Diana Krall in the restaurant. No Elvis, though.

  25. Denise M. January 29, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    My favourite dinner is fresh mozzarella over sliced tomato (the perfect dish for the lazy cook). I love it with basil and a splash of white wine vinegar and olive oil. It’s best in late summer when local heirloom tomatoes are in season. So good!

  26. Margaret Imecs January 29, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    The first time I cooked I was only 12 years old. I learned by watching my grandma preparing dinner every day. She made it look very easy with her technique and love for cooking. I think it is about passion, when you have passion for something it is no longer a chore, it is fun.

  27. pronosher January 29, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

    One of my favourite food experiences was the tasting menu at Tapas Molecular Bar in Tokyo’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel

  28. jg January 29, 2012 at 9:46 pm #

    Ok ok! You twisted my arm. I love beautiful food but that wasn’t always the case.The summer of my seventh birthday was sort of the height of my nutritional recalcitrance–I lived and died for french fries with ketchup. My mother booked a three week trip for her and me to spend with my aunt Rachel at her rented home in the South of France. The French are very serious about food, and needless to say, Rachel was not pleased with my incapacity to try anything new. She refused to make me french fries, let alone purchase “les tomates empoisonnées” (poisoned tomatoes), also known as ketchup. The super-lush agricultural region in the south of france is known colloquially as “le midi”, it produces some of the most beautiful produce in the world. My aunt Rachel would beg me to give up my “poisoned tomatoes” for just one bite of a “tomate de midi”. I was distraught as she tugged me from market to market every day teaching me about organically grown fruits and vegetables, and wildly caught fish. She insisted on how important it was to buy everything in small quantities, just for the day. It was exhausting, and miserable. All I wanted to do was play at the beach and eat some french fries for goodness sake! I lived off of baguette and butter for as long as I could, but three weeks is a really long time in kid time, and she wore me down. By the start of the second week I had completely fallen in love with fresh midi tomatoes and cucumbers. By the third week the men in the market were calling me “la petite canadienne” and the fish monger was setting sole aside just for me. That sole, pan-seared with a dab of the delicious normand butter, remains the best thing I have ever eaten to this day.


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