She speaks softly, and carries a big knife. Chef Connie DeSousa of Calgary's Charcut, a finalist on the first season of Top Chef Canada, is known for her demure disposition, unfaltering focus and amazing ability to dissect an animal within minutes.
With Top Chef Canada Season 2 just around the corner, up! magazine checked in with DeSousa at the Fairmont Banff Springs International Festival of Wine & Food to see what she's been up to, and get her thoughts on her experience in the first season.
Did you know that you were a fan favourite when you were shooting?
No, not at all. When we were doing the show, we spent six weeks filming and it was one of the hardest things I've ever done. We're not really thinking much about anything else except trying to stay focused. We all had our eyes on the prize.
Describe your food philosophy. Has that changed?
No, and that's one of the things I'm really proud of. Throughout the entire show, I held true to my philosophy, which is really just to cook seasonally and locally, but not play around too much with the food. I think that if you have a really great ingredient, then that ingredient should shine; you shouldn't have to manipulate it too much. I love sausage, and everyone knows that from watching the show. There was one time when I almost begged judge Mark McEwan to stay on the show just to be able to show him what else I could do, that I'm not only a sausage cook.
Is there a dish from the show that sticks out in your mind?
One of the most difficult things that we did was in the episode where I was paired up with Todd and we had to cook food from a different culture. I was really hoping to get Portugal because that's my heritage. Drawing Ethiopia was very challenging. I've eaten Ethiopian food maybe two or three times before, but I've never cooked it. Winning that challenge showed a lot about our skill set.
You make a lot of sausages and do a lot of different things with meat. What tips do you have for home cooks who want to tackle that?
Don't be intimidated by food. It doesn't have to be manipulated or played with too much. Chefs use the internet daily, because it's one of the best resources they have. There are so many fun tools that you can play with at home now. KitchenAid makes so many different attachments now for their mixer.There's the pasta roller, sausage maker, and ice cream machine. If you have basic fundamentals, you're working with really good ingredients, and you have the time, then your food should turn out really well.
Suggestions for party foods?
One of the things I like to do at home is use store-bought puff pastry. I know people frown upon it, but it's so versatile and you can do anything with a little piece of pastry, some cream cheese, and some pesto or sun-dried tomato. One of the fun things I like to do is to take really well-known dishes and put a twist on them with meat.
What is your favourite city to dine in?
I was just in Newfoundland and I had no idea that it had such a vibrant Portuguese culture. We were foraging for juniper berries and uni [sea urchin] just off the side of a cliff. When you think of food destination cities, you think of Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. We really want Calgary to be the next food destination city; it's our time. We're here to make Calgary a culinary destination in Canada with all the new independently-owned restaurants and chef-driven restaurants that are popping up now. I love meat, so Calgary is really close to my heart.
Next to Calgary, where would you choose?
I really love 'underground' dining scenes like late-night dining and I haven't found that too much of that in Vancouver or Montreal, but there is quite a lot of it in Toronto. I love to go to late night tapas restaurants or pizza places and just open a bottle of wine with friends and dine at midnight.
What do you think of street food culture?
It's a true phenomenon. It's becoming the next big thing and I hope it's going to last because we opened our food truck, Alley Burger. What we try to do is to bring our food and make it more approachable to a larger group of people. We're still serving restaurant quality food on the truck. It's all hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef and pork that we're using. We're just trying to expose our food to a broader range of people and make more accessible and more affordable. The key to having a successful food truck is to make the food simple and make it more approachable so people will come. They are not going to spend $5 for a plate of food that they're going to have to wait half an hour for. It shouldn't be intricate.