By Stephanie Wei
Special to The Toronto Sun
Anyone who has spent time poring over glossy food magazines or drooling over mouth-watering feasts prepared on specialty food channels knows that chefs have become the latest group to achieve celebrity status.
"I like the satisfaction of seeing people happy and enjoying their food," says Darrin Molleson, first cook at Epic Restaurant and Lounge.
While chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Emeril Lagasse have television shows, fan clubs and international recognition, many Toronto chefs also enjoy intensely loyal followers and renowned reputations. Is it all glamour in the fast-paced world of gourmet cuisine?
Not at all, argues Winlai Wong, executive chef of Monsoon, the serenely gorgeous Asian-inspired eatery in Toronto's theatre district. A graduate of the Stratford Chefs School, Wong's exceptional skills skyrocketed her to the top position of executive chef within two years of graduating -- an industry where a typical progression takes years of blood, sweat and tears.
"There's nothing glamorous about it," laughs Wong, who describes 14-hour shifts, burn marks and almost no social life.
"I think it's great that people are a lot more serious about food. But television only shows the glamorous side -- people expect that I'm drinking wine and eating cheese in the kitchen."
The reality for most newcomers to the kitchen is that their first year is spent peeling potatoes and following orders from superiors, often being paid a salary below the poverty level.
| Moonsoon restaurant
Darrin Molleson is one of these relative newcomers to the culinary arena; he graduated from Humber College's two-year culinary management diploma program in 2000. Molleson had the good fortune of having kitchen experience before gaining formal chef's training.
He is currently the first cook at Epic Restaurant and Lounge, the
main dining room at the Fairmont Royal York hotel. Awarded four diamonds by the Canadian Automobile Association, Epic features dramatic decor and fine dining with classic French flavours.
Molleson advises would-be chefs to make sure you really want to do it.
"It's a lot of fun. I like the satisfaction of seeing people happy and enjoying their food." Molleson recently won the gold medal at the Regional Commis Rotisseurs competition, a prestigious contest held by an international fine dining society. Molleson compares it to the Iron Chef television show, as competitors were given a tray of mystery ingredients, then designed and prepared a three course meal for four people within three hours.
Molleson's boss, Jean-Charles Dupoire, the chef du cuisine at Epic, describes him as a hard worker who listens well. According to Molleson, these are important characteristics for someone just starting out.
"I was surprised by the amount of work and the stress. You're under pressure from the chef, from the front of the house (maitre d', hosts and wait staff), from management and you're on a tight timeframe."
Dupoire warns that it is a very demanding career that takes a lot from your personal life. "You have to be motivated on a daily basis, you have to stay focused," he explains. Molleson's advice for junior kitchen staff is to listen before speaking to learn from more experienced chefs, and to always be very organized.
At Moonsoon restaurant, in the theatre district, executive chef Winlai Wong, second from left, and her team serve up Asian-inspired fare.
Wong loves the freedom and creativity of being able to do exactly what she wants as an executive chef. Monsoon has recently launched a catering service, which serves its own completely different culinary challenges.
The new focus has added to her duties, which include ordering from all suppliers, doing lunch service, designing new menus and tasting menus, and more paperwork than she likes.
Wong has cooking in her blood: she helped her father in the kitchen of the family's restaurant, building a foundation for her future career. While working at Wayne Gretzky's restaurant, Wong worked under a chef who mentored her and encouraged her to attend the Stratford Chefs School, one of Canada's foremost culinary schools. Wong says no other program in Ontario compares to its rigorous training.
"You start out in a class of 30 students, and two years later, only half graduate,"says Wong. "You work closely in partners -- it's intensely hands-on."
Despite her support for the Stratford program, Wong considers personality before education when hiring kitchen staff at Monsoon. She believes that if they have the right attitude, they can be moulded.
"You have to love what you're doing," Wong says. "I love being around food. I love to eat. It's about pleasing the customer. It's not about money: success comes afterward if you believe in what you do."
(Write Toronto-based freelancer Stephanie Wei at (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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