Q&A: Roger Mooking Host of the Cooking Channel's "Man Fire Food"
Chef, musician and author visits Oregon for a backyard feast with Jason French of Ned Ludd
By Helen Silvis Of The Skanner News
November 20, 2012
|Roger Mooking and the smoker he built with local chef Jason French on Big Table farm in Gaston, Ore.|
A third-generation chef and restaurateur, Mooking’s cuisine draws from a rich mix of global food traditions. As a novice chef, he earned Top Student Honors at the George Brown Culinary Management Program. He went on to work at Epic Dining Room in Toronto’s world-renowned Royal York Hotel, and now is a renowned chef, food consultant, author and television host. The Skanner News spoke to Mooking on the phone Tuesday, Nov. 20.
TSN: Is it true that you are the third generation in your family to be a chef and restaurateur?
RM: Yes, it’s true. My grandfather came from China and ended up in Trinidad, in the Caribbean. There, after many years, he eventually opened a bakery and restaurant. Then he moved his restaurant to Los Angeles. My father ran that restaurant for many years, and my aunts and uncles still own and operate restaurants and catering companies. So it’s in the blood. I come by it honestly.
TSN: Did you ever think about doing anything else?
RM: Yes, for sure. When I was three years old I knew I wanted to be a chef, but when I was around 15 I started dabbling in music and that really took off. So I’ve done music professionally since I was about 15 or 16 as well. I continue in both of those endeavors.
TSN: What is your first food memory?
RM: One most definitely is standing up on a chair at the counter and learning how to make wontons with my father. I was very young, probably 3 or 4. I was always interested in the kitchen, and any opportunity I could to climb up in the kitchen and see what people are doing, or if my grandmother was cooking to check up on what she was up too. I was always there you know.
TSN: So it wasn’t just the men in your family; the women cooked too?
RM: My mom is an incredible cook and a fantastic baker and decorator of cakes, fondants, all that type of stuff. My grandmother is an amazing cook and she cooks mostly Trinidadian foods. And my dad cooks really good West Indian food as well as Chinese food. My grandfather cooks Chinese food. So I learned a lot of different things early on.
TSN: You are Canadian now though?
RM: I was born in Trinidad and when I was 5 my family moved to Canada. I do have a lot of memories of Trinidad, strangely, but also I have been back many times since. All my aunts and uncles still live in Trinidad and a lot of friends, so I keep contact –especially now with social media.
TSN: Tell us about your family’s food traditions, because you have this wonderful rich mix of cultural influences?
RM: Definitely! Well, my grandfather, like I said, was Chinese fare and he used to cook traditional Chienese fare for my father growing up. So a lot of these recipes have passed down to our household. But you know we were born and raised in Trinidad and that has a very interesting mix of traditions also. There is a large African population, a large Carib Indian population – the indigenous population; there is a large Chinese population, and a large East Indian population. So all of those food traditions are an integral part of what makes up Trinidadian cuisine. We learned a lot from Trinidad alone, but my grandfather being from China, there was a heavy influence from that. And then our family moved to Edmonton, Alberta, which has a large Ukrainian and Polish population. So my mother had made friends with an elderly Ukrainian baba, and when I walked in after school, they would be making pirogues and cabbage rolls, and kielbasa and all of this stuff. All of those come together.
TSN: What is your signature as a chef?
RM: I like to take comfort foods, whether they are Asian comfort foods or North American comfort foods, and give them a little bit of a twist. So I might take something like macaroni and cheese and give it a twist with some curry and asparagus. Or if it’s a burger, I’m going to make a lamb burger with five-spice powder. Those are the kinds of things you’ll see on my other show, “Everyday Exotic”. I do a lot of recipes for many different publications, and I think people come to me for a little bit of flair, a little bit of spice, a little bit of heat and just a little bit of an interesting, inventive twist on regular foods.
TSN: Where do you live now and do you cook at home?
RM: I live in Toronto now, and I travel quite a bit with my work, but when I am home I am the designated cook.
TSN: Do your children like to cook?
RM: I have three girls, aged 5, 4 and 1. One of them right now has a really keen interest in cooking. The youngest one right now is always up on the counter, watching everything I’m doing. So she’s really focused on it. I showed them wontons the other day, the know how to do that now. They know how to crack eggs and make an omelet. Or if I’m making pancakes and I leave out an ingredient, they will remind me, “You forgot the sugar.” So I know they are absorbing the stuff I’m showing them. If they are more interested in coloring while I’m cooking I let them color, but if they want to learn how to do something they are definitely there.
TSN: Your new show Man Fire Food is all about barbecue. So what’s the biggest thing you have ever barbecued?
RM: The biggest, I would have to say, would be a whole cow. We went to an event called Bovinova in South Carolina. This is an annual fundraiser and these are entrepreneurs and business men who do this even for charity. So they built this contraption with pulleys and 7,000 lbs of steel. It’s quite a contraption; you have to see it. So they hoist the cow onto this grate and it spins and turns. It took seven guys to hoist the cow onto this thing and it cooks for 24 hours. It’s quite a spectacle.
TSN: And the smallest?
RM: That would have to be a clam.
TSN: So you already shot your Portland show?
RM: Yes, I came to Portland. I’d already been to Seattle, and the region, but I’ve always heard that Portland was a really interesting city. When I arrived I really loved Portland and quickly decided that it is one of my favorite cities in America. We went to Ned Ludd, restaurant. The chef there Jason French and I went to Gaston, Oregon, and we built a smoker. So we had a great time, and I got to eat his food. (The episode, Backyard Barbecue, airs on December 11 and 30.)
|Roger Mooking and Jason French at Big Table farm, where they filmed an episode of Man, Fire Food that airs Dec. 11 and 30, on the Cooking Channel.|
TSN: Everyone said I had to ask you this: What about the health experts who are telling us that barbecue is bad for us and causes cancer and so on. What do you think about that?
RM: Well, I read a lot of different information from a lot of different sources and apparently everything will give you cancer. So, I do follow the latest information. But at the end of the day, I’ve got to be honest, I defer to what my grandmother told me growing up. She said, “All things in moderation at all times.”
So I’m not going to be making barbecue every single day of my life. I’m not going to be eating hot food every day of my life. I’m not going to be making Chinese food every day of my life or Caribbean food. I like to mix up everything always, whether it’s a cooking technique: steaming, grilling, boiling baking, all of the above. I mix up the vegetables, so I’m not eating broccoli every day. And let’s face it; anxiety is probably just as bad for you.
I’m really passionate about food, music and lifestyle. And life is to be enjoyed. So I will always go by what my grandmother said, “All things in moderation at all times.”
TSN: We are all thinking about Thanksgiving this week, but you don’t have that in Canada do you?
RM: We had our Thanksgiving last month, and it’s very similar food. We have the usual sweet potatoes turkey and stuffing, cranberries and so on. This year my family did a potluck and strangely nobody brought cranberry dish and nobody brought ham. But we had a couple of turkeys.
TSN: Can you give us one tip for any cook hosting a big celebration?
RM: Make a list. Make a plan, and make sure you have some dishes prepared ahead of time so you can just reheat them and keep them warm. Those last few minutes can be busy, but if you have prepared in advance you can keep it really simple.