It comes as no surprise to Saskatoon foodies that the latest season of Top Chef Canada on Food Network Canada featured two Saskatoon-based chefs.
Both Nathan Guggenheimer and Jesse Zuber are chefs and partners in Grassroots Restaurant Group. Along with Top Chef Canada season one winner Chef Dale Mackay and restaurateur Christopher Cho, Grassroots blazed onto the Saskatoon culinary scene with the opening of Ayden Kitchen & Bar almost five years ago.
With two out of the 11 chefs on the show from Saskatchewan, why are the Prairies so strongly represented this season? “Nathan and Jesse perfectly fit this season’s theme of the next generation of top Canadian talents. Saskatchewan, and Saskatoon specifically, has really evolved on the restaurant scene and I think that has a direct line back to Dale Mackay winning Top Chef Canada in 2011,” says Eric Abboud, Top Chef Canada’s showrunner for Insight Production Company.
Filmed in Toronto, the competitors taped every day and during the challenges they had limited access to cell phones and outside influences. A typical day could go from 4 a.m. to midnight. While neither chef made it to the Top Chef Canada finals, Jesse and Nathan were both memorable competitors.
Nathan Guggenheimer, Sticks and Stones and Avenue
During the competition Nathan was Executive Chef at Saskatoon’s popular Korean and Japanese-influenced restaurant Sticks and Stones. He is now at helm of Grassroots’ latest venture, the Regina restaurant Avenue, which features classics such as Beef Wellington and Rotisserie Chicken.
Nathan’s stint on the show was a roller coaster to say the least. He was eliminated in Episode 2 after the farm challenge, but returned in Episode 4 during “restaurant wars” and continued to compete for another three episodes. Nathan’s natural and authentic personality endeared him to Top Chef Canada’s judges and audience — and even led to his own hashtag #bringbacknate.
“Nathan wears is heart on his sleeve and his expressive eyes helped convey his true passion for food to the audience. He was a competitor we can all relate to,” says Eric.
Nathan shocked the judges and producers by withdrawing himself from the competition during Episode 7 and enabling Chef JP Miron from Quebec to continue on. Nathan admits: “I was struggling to handle the pressure and grasp everything that was going on in my head. Long days of filming and living in a hotel could be isolating.”
What were Nathan’s favourite dishes that he cooked on the show? Korean Braised Short Ribs with Kimchi called Kalbi Jjim (featured on the Sticks and Stone menu) and warm Chicken Ballotine with Foie Gras, Apricots and Chicken Skin were definite highlights.
Jesse Zuber, Little Grouse on the Prairie
A Vancouver native, Jesse is Executive Chef at Little Grouse on the Prairie. While his on-screen presence was cool and collected, in person Jesse is charismatic and visibly passionate about modern Italian cuisine, dining “Alla Famiglia” and his beautiful 36-seat restaurant. Interestingly, Jesse studied math and bioengineering at UBC before he realized his culinary leanings.
Jesse describes his elimination in Episode 5 as “an unfortunate mix of circumstances including choosing salmon for a hockey rink challenge, a double elimination and Newfoundland Chef Ross Larkin holding special immunity. In a lot of ways, it was the nature of that challenge.”
What was Jesse’s favourite meal on the show? The Mexican feast in Episode 3 was a true highpoint as he thrived on interpreting the Veracruz region with a Mexican Seafood Paella and Citrus Seafood Salad.
Jesse’s highlights of the Top Chef Canada experience include working with one of his culinary role models (“fair” head judge Chef Mark McEwan) and new friendships with Toronto-based culinary stars, Matthew Sullivan and Elia Herrera.
Keen viewers will notice patterns throughout the show, including simple pasta dishes almost-never winning over the judges and sophisticated raw food (such as ceviche) doing well. Hence, Jesse’s frustration about the judges’ thoughts on his salmon tartare during the hockey rink challenge!
In the end, both Jesse and Nathan agree on the intensity and competitiveness of Top Chef Canada. Even with hindsight being 20/20, both chefs agree they would do the whole thing again. Jesse and Nathan really appreciated seeing the inner workings of a large television production and establishing new friendships in the culinary world.
Eric concludes: “Jesse and Nathan are both incredibly talented professional chefs. With such a high level of cooking on Top Chef Canada, the margin for error was razor-thin. It was terrific to have them both on the show representing Saskatchewan.”
To watch Season 6 of Food Network Canada’s Top Chef Canada visit: foodnetwork.ca/shows/top-chef-canada/video/
Little Grouse on the Prairie
167 3rd Avenue South
Sticks and Stones
226 2nd Avenue South
By Elizabeth Ireland