In a competition that pitched the best of four seasons of Top Chef Canada, Nicole Gomes sliced and sautéed her way to the champion spot. For the Calgary-based chef-owner of the catering outfit Nicole Gourmet and co-owner of Cluck n’ Cleaver, a chef-driven, fast-casual spot specializing in fried and rotisserie chicken, the win was hard fought and earned. Eliminated only two episodes before the finale in Season 3, Nicole came back to the Top Chef Canada kitchen eager to compete. Leading up to the finale, she won five challenges – three Quickfires and two Eliminations – and faced a panel of disappointed judges twice.
We chatted with Nicole about how she prepared for All-Stars, what made this time different and what’s next after her big win.
Why did you want to return to Top Chef Canada to compete again?
It took me a long time to reply; I had to think about it. I had no clue who was going to be on, so that was a hesitation. But I knew this round would be great competition – more about the food because it’s All-Stars. And I really wanted to win. It’s not about the money – that’s a bonus, to be honest. It was about a woman winning, as all of the four past seasons have been men.
How did you prepare for competition?
The first season that I did, I prepared by actually cooking and testing dishes, but that was silly. I have so much under my belt from over 20 years of cooking experience, why would I do that? So, this time I prepared by investigating flavour profiles. I read a book I love called The Flavor Thesaurus (by Niki Segnit). You just go into the index and say, “I’m cooking with almonds today, what pairs with that?”
We’re not allowed to bring any recipes, so when you arrive, you have to write down everything you know in your head. Cooking isn’t a problem, but baking you had to memorize before you left – basic recipes: a pie dough, biscuit recipe, cookie recipe, ice cream base.
We were given a book we were allowed to use. On the first page I wrote down mantras, mistakes I’d made from season 3, things I needed to improve on. And as I was going along in the competition, mistakes I made that I wouldn’t do again. That’s the biggest thing about life, you should learn from your mistakes.
More words of wisdom from Canada’s Top Chef.
What did you learn from your own season that you brought to All-Stars?
I said to myself, “Be more quiet.” That didn’t happen. Ha!
The other thing was to cook what I know and just make it relative to the challenge. I didn’t do that in season 3. I was trying to reinvent the wheel and that was the biggest mistake. I know such a variety of cuisines and techniques that you can pretty much apply to any challenge if you’re quick on your feet.
How was it different than your first time on the show?
The level of cooking was more elevated. The food level was way higher. People really brought it. Also, the pantry was amazing, what they stocked it with. As far as the challenges, this season was more, almost, catering based. They were bigger events.
What was your favourite challenge?
For the excitement of it, the [Late Night Eats in the TTC Lower Bay station] challenge was good – and not because I won. It was a really cool set, it was a cool day. It was challenging to produce that much food for that many people walking off the train at the same time.
I really liked the retail wars challenge as well – and not because our team won. It was because it was more in my wheelhouse. Cooking is not all about restaurants. It’s about providing a service that people don’t know how to do at home.
Nicole and team celebrating their Retail Wars win.
When I started cooking, it was fancy – go out for an anniversary or birthday. It was an occasion. For most people, everyone ate at home and sat around the table and talked to each other. People now don’t do that; people don’t know how to cook. That changes the way we go out and eat. The retail challenge really solidified that. People eat out, out of necessity, not a special occasion anymore.
Which challenge pushed you the hardest and why?
The finale. You want to win. It’s you and this other dude, who is awesome. At some points, I told myself to forget it, you got this far.
I had not prepared a final menu. I was out the night before at Bar Raval with friends and I wrote a menu while they were drinking. It’s all handwritten. They were asking what I was doing and I couldn’t tell them why I was [in Toronto], so I said, “I have a big day tomorrow; I’ve got to do this menu. I’m catering something.” I’m going to frame it; it’s so full of notes.
Who was your toughest competition?
(Dustin Gallagher the Toronto-based chef whom she would battle in the finale.) It was Dusty all the way for me. I didn’t realize it until halfway through, though. He was cooking so well. He has quite a vast knowledge of a variety of cuisines.
Andrea, as far as the women, she’s quite well versed. The retail challenge, I thought for sure she’d kill that. She gives people what they want; she understands her audience.
Tell us about your finale menu, the inspiration and the story you wanted to tell the judges.
For most of the season I hadn’t cooked any Italian. It was all Asian or French. I did pain perdu and these prawn cakes and curries and carrot cake. I wasn’t holding out at all, there just wasn’t an opportunity really for me to do Italian. And that’s my specialty.
I love Italian because of how it brings a table together. Italians eat more culturally. Cooking is about bringing people together and so I decided to do something more comfort-like. I worried, is it too simple? But I know how to refine Italian.
I remember every detail of this menu. The fish dish I was a little disappointed in myself for that; I lacked finesse on plating. I was rushing it. I made a few bad calls there. I had fried celery but the basket still had capers in it and that carried over because I was rushing and I got called out at Judges’ Table.
My favourite dish on that was the carpaccio, for aesthetics and the way it ate and the quality of the beef I was able to get. The other dish on that finale menu I was quite proud of was the panna cotta; panna cotta is simple, but it’s difficult. If you don’t do it right, it’s a mess. I loved the flavour combinations of it: wild strawberry, vin cotto, the Marcona almond-bee pollen crumble. It turned out well and it surprised me; that’s where I thought I failed.
What are your plans for the future?
Cluck n’ Cleaver is my baby still. The expansion of that is happening quite quickly. I’m looking in Vancouver, and Francine (Gomes, her sister and Cleaver’s co-owner) is on the ground here in Calgary. We’ve had a lot of opportunity come our way and a lot of franchisee people are interested in us.
I hope that maybe sometime down the road when I get Cluck n’ Cleaver settled that I can open a restaurant. A restaurant would be a dream. I just want a small room, under-designed. Just good food.
I want you to be able to come and get amazing pappardelle and a curry rice bowl. A “neighbourhood” type place would make me happy; knowing the people coming in the door and they’re regulars, having a discussion about how they’re doing. That’s more where I’d be because I love talking to people about food, travels and what they’ve been up to. That’s what I want. It’s not for money; it’s purely to feed people, make them happy. I don’t think there’s anything that would make me happier.
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