The Final Table is a global culinary competition that premiered exclusively on Netflix on November 20th. While the premise of the chef’s competiting against one another remains, this show greatly differs from other cooking competitions. The show pits twenty-four great (and often already acclaimed chefs), from around the world to cook a different type of cuisine each episode. The chefs have to cook the national dishes of Brazil, France, Japan, Mexico, England, Spain, India, Italy and the U.S. Along the way they are judged by industry professionals, Michelin star Chefs and celebrities. In the end, only one chef can win a spot at the elite Final Table alongside nine culinary icons. Calgary Chef Darren Maclean from Shokunin (a restaurant notably on Canada’s 100 best list) represents Canada on the show. We spoke to him about competing among the best, finding your voice as a chef, diversity and what food means to him.
How did the Final Table opportunity present itself to you?
Actually, through social media. It was kind of crazy — I was approached over Facebook, which kind of made me think it was BS. And then it turned out to be real and I felt like a real chump so, yay social media.
How does this show differ from other cooking contest shows?
The Final Table, first of all, is on Netflix. So it’s a big major difference because it can be global. So it’s actually a global phenomenon in terms of cooking shows. It’s one of the highest budgets. It’s all-inclusive — you have people across the whole spectrum — different races, different ethnicities, different sexual orientation. It really tried to include as many incredible chefs as it could. And the other thing is real critics judge it. It’s not judged by an elite ‘yelper’ or somebody with a local blog. It is judged by legitimate food writers, celebrities, of course, to throw you the curveballs, and then the main pinnacle of the show is that there are some chefs from actual Chefs Table, chefs with Michelin stars — you’re actually being judged by the best chefs in the world. And you’re competing against the best. One of my competitors, Mark Best, was in the top 50 three times, so it’s just next level. And then the third and final point is that there are no gimmicks. I don’t have to spin a wheel to find out what my ingredient is, I don’t have to climb a ladder to get immunity, and there’s no sabotage. If you want to see what real culinary professionals are engaged in day-to-day and how they formulate their ideas — The Final Table is for you.
What’s it like being the only Chef representing Canada?
That was a tremendous amount of pressure. I kind of felt the weight of — Canada’s often overlooked as a country at many things. But you know we have amazing actors, artists, cuisine, but we’re often overlooked so for me it was really important to break that mould and really make sure that not only did I represent myself well, but I love being Canadian, I love our ethnic mosaic, that’s where I draw my culinary inspiration from, so I wanted to express that on the show. I also wanted to make other Canadian chef’s proud. I believe that Canada has some of the best chefs in the world. We certainly have the best produce in the world and we export our produce everywhere. They’re all using our ingredients in their amazing Michelin star restaurants so I would love to have the recognition come home.
Interesting, I never knew that..
Yeah, so like bere barley, for instance, I think something like 60-percent of the world’s supply of bere barley comes from Alberta.
You had to cook multiple cuisine’s on the show, what did you struggle with the most?
I really struggled with ironically, English food. Which is funny because I’ve delved so deep into it. My culinary heritage, although, I am of Scottish and Finnish descent, the people around me who helped raise me when I was a kid like my babysitters, were all either Vietnamese or Chinese. So actually my culinary heritage is very different based on who helped raise me. So it was challenging to look at something that should be really familiar to me and feel so foreign. And I also struggle with the concept of an English breakfast — it’s just not something that I would ever cook. It’s not very delicate, and it’s not very light. So it’s not the type of food I really gravitate towards or cook anyway, and so it actually made me realize my own naivety. Actually, the whole show kept making me realize how much there is for me to learn still. You couldn’t get an ego on that show. It was an incredible experience.
What’s the most rewarding part of being on the show?
The most rewarding part for me for just being immersed in diversity. I’m such a student and I’m so in love with Canada’s ethnic mosaic. For me, Canadian cuisine has to engage the migrants that live here. We’re a nation of immigrants and if we don’t acknowledge their contributions to our cuisine, we’re not doing our country justice. So for me seeing other chefs that share the same philosophy and passion for not just the food that’s around them but also the people that are around them. You know the camaraderie, the fact that we actually helped each other out during the competition because we wanted it to be an even playing field — we wanted to win by our own merits not because somebody couldn’t find an ingredient they wanted, so that was a huge takeaway for me.
What are some of the challenges you faced being on a show and cooking in that environment?
Oh, I’m a loudmouth. I’ve got a potty-mouth. I wish I were like super polite, but I am very intense. I am very driven, and eventually, you just forget the cameras are there because you become so immersed in what you’re doing. I do work in an open kitchen so that part didn’t bother me as much but the challenge was like the waiting. You’d wait for four hours and then they’d be like okay you’re going to go cook for an hour now. But you just try to fire yourself up again after being there. I think mentally it was very challenging — it was so dynamic and constantly changing — you just never got a chance to catch your breath, but I think that’s what makes for the fun of the show as well for the audience.
When did your journey in the culinary world first start?
It started when I was around thirteen-years-of-age — I say this a lot and it’ll probably be my tagline and it may be the North American cliche when it comes to single mothers, no dad, that sort of thing. It’s unfortunately overplayed in our society, but that’s the reality it was for me. Back in the day, it was a little bit different and I basically just bullshitted my way into a job I was too young for just out of necessity. And I worked at a — I won’t say the name — but I worked at the equivalent of a Denny’s. It was like a greasy spoon, flipping eggs, washing dishes, anything I could do to get hours first and then I progressed from there. And I actually hated cooking and I wanted out of it, so I became a bartender at a nightclub while I was in University but then I realized that I really had a powerful connection to food and the kitchen because of my mom. So that’s when I knew I had to get back into it.
What do you hope fans will take away from watching this show?
I really want people to see that we’re not dissimilar. I really want people to see the power of food and gathering around a table. You know it was like the UN on that show. We all brought something really powerful and amazing to the show. The competitors are indeed 23 of the finest chefs I’ve ever shared the stage with. I was blown away as a Canadian, who’s not from Toronto, not from Montreal, not from Vancouver but as somebody from Calgary, Alberta who’s striving for a higher form of cuisine, that I’m actually achieving it. And so is everyone around me and we’re all trying to find our voices because every chef struggles to find their voice and their cuisine on the plate. Not just myself and the competitors, but we were able to learn from the judges and how they struggled to find their own voice for their cuisine as well. So I’m on the right track and so was everyone else that was on the program. So I hope they see, what it takes to become a professional chef. I hope they see chefs as professionals. We are professionals that are actually trying to pursue a higher craft and I hope that people take that away from it and just see us for who we are. We’re just people with personalities that are trying to do something different.