From the moment Erica Karbelnik stepped into the Top Chef Canada kitchen, she was a force to be reckoned with. The Toronto-based executive chef came in hot with the season’s first Quickfire win, and she continued to impress in a series of tough challenges throughout the entire season.
Of course, it probably helped that one of her fellow competitors was her husband, Josh Karbelnik, a chef de cuisine in Toronto. The duo supported each other through thick and thin throughout their season 9 run, and as a result, they proved to be among the best of the best. No one was really surprised when they both made it to the top 4.
Unfortunately though, Josh stumbled with the amuse bouche and appetizer during the last cook, and he was eliminated alongside fellow top 4 finalist Andrea Alridge in the finale. The good news was that Josh got to stay behind to help Erica finish her menu against Kym Nguyen (and their new sous chef Andrea).
It all led up to one of the closest calls ever on Top Chef Canada, but in the end judges Mark McEwan, Chris Nuttall-Smith, Mijune Pak and Janet Zuccarini awarded Erica $100,000, a Lexus RX Hybrid Electric SUV, and the title of Top Chef Canada.
Following Erica’s big win we caught up with the chef to get her hot take on this year’s competition, working with her husband, and what’s next for the winning couple with a baby on the way.
Chefs often say doing this show is harder than they expected, but what was the hardest part for you?
I’d say not knowing what to expect when you get there and what’s going to come your way. I’ve been a huge fan of Top Chef and Top Chef Canada for over 15 years, and I’ve watched every episode. But it doesn’t really prepare you for what it’s like when you’re actually there and how real it is. When the judges say you’ve got 30 minutes on the clock, you have 30 minutes on the clock, and you want to make the best things that you possibly can make. There’s no room for error and that puts a lot of pressure on everybody.
On the flip side of that, what was the most rewarding part—other than winning!?
It was really finding myself and finding who I am as a chef and as a person. I’m classically French, Italian trained. But going on the show, I was pulling out things from my backgrounds and cooking with a lot of Moroccan flavours, which I don’t normally do. So it’s definitely helped me find my stride in who I am as a chef.
What was it like to do all of that alongside your husband?
Honestly, it was amazing. We’re each other’s biggest support system. Being there together, this is something that both of us have always wanted to do. So to make it on the show together is a huge accomplishment. Like we never thought in a million years that would happen. It was really cool. It’s an accomplishment for us. And it’s something that we both get to look back on years down the road and have the laughs about, have some cringes about. But honestly, I loved every minute.
You two shared such a positive rapport on the series, with each other and with your competitors. Does that speak to how we’re maybe moving away from some of the negative perceptions of all kitchens being this pressure-cooker environment?
Not necessarily, I think Top Chef Canada really wants to show everybody in their best light. They do a good job in that. I had some rough times in that kitchen, and they definitely showed a few moments of weakness for me… I guess you can say not my best moments. But that’s what it is to be a chef. Nowadays, we want things to be a lot calmer in the kitchen than they once were, a lot nicer. And I guess I could say things are a little bit more sugar-coated. But at the end of the day, our kitchen is the kitchen, it’s a high-stress environment, it’s a tough industry, and you have to have a really tough backbone to be able to do this job.
Related: The Season 9 Chefs Talk Eating Local
In nine seasons, you’re the second female to win Top Chef Canada (Nicole Gomes was the first). What is it like to be a female working in the industry these days?
I’m so proud to be the second female to win Top Chef Canada. I really am. But I’m also the person that, when I walk into a kitchen, I don’t see gender, I don’t see colour, I see food. And food is what matters at the end of the day. And whether you’re male or female. It’s about if you can cook, and how you cook, and how you represent yourself. The food is what speaks for itself.
I’m extremely happy to represent women in the kitchen. We do have a hard time because of that reputation. So that makes us have to work harder. Let’s show them that there is no difference. We are just as good. We can do the exact same job. I’m currently four and a half months pregnant and I’m still working every day. Still pulling 12-hour shifts sometimes to try and kick butt in a kitchen because I don’t think that being a female should get in the way of that. It’s something to be very proud of. But it doesn’t matter whether I’m male or female. One of my favourite chefs, Dominique Crenn, [who is] one of the most respected women in the industry, says, “I am not a female Chef. I am just a Chef.”
Congrats on the pregnancy! Have you and Josh thought about what you’ll do if your kid winds up being a picky eater?
I really don’t think the kid will have a choice in the matter! I don’t think it’ll be a picky eater though, because I have to say my cravings are like left, right and center. I’ve been eating everything and anything under the sun. So I think we’ll be okay.
You watched every episode of Top Chef Canada leading up to your season, so of the former competitors who would you say is your inspiration?
Dale Mackay from Season 1 is the one who really struck my nerve to want to be on this show. And to put my best foot forward and to be that competitive person… and to go for it and just do you. He’s an extremely talented chef. He’s very accomplished. And his food was spectacular on the show. When he was on Top Chef Canada I was an apprentice, so he opened so many doors for so many chefs for us to say, “Hey, we can do that, too!”
How much did your knowledge of previous seasons help you out when it came time to plan and execute your final menu?
Watching the show previously definitely had an advantage. You do learn what the judges are looking for. But at the end of the day, when we’re doing challenges, there’s a box that we’re placed in and there’s restrictions. You have to follow guidelines on exactly what the judges are looking for in that dish. So you don’t really have free rein to kind of create whatever you want to create.
Going into the finale menu, I said it in the semifinals: “If you let me into the finals, you’ll be able to read me like an open book. Let me show you who I am in my cooking.” At the end of the day, that’s what I do every day. I want people to understand me through food. I am not always able to express myself fully in words. And a lot of people misunderstand me. So food has always been my go-to, it’s always been like my voice. But I really wanted to showcase myself in that menu. Those dishes are dishes that I would put forward over and over and over again. I’m so insanely proud of who they represented. Each dish represented something that was extremely close to my heart and really told the story of who I am and who my family is and where I come from.
Other than Josh, who else did you originally expect to go all the way to the finale?
To the honest, Galasa. From the moment Galasa started cooking, just the way he carried himself in the kitchen, the way he understood flavours. I think that dude is a force to be reckoned with. He’s going to do really great things in his future culinary career. He was definitely one that I was a little scared of.
You and Josh have been doing catering while your current gig with Elmwood Spa is on hold because of COVID. And you talked about opening up your own place if you won. Is that still the plan?
We would love to have our own restaurant, we really would. We would love to also have our own catering company. With COVID, a lot of chefs had to rethink and pivot their ideas and their future plans. Unfortunately, restaurants at the moment really have an unforeseen future and we don’t know what’s coming our way. So it’s always good to have a backup plan. That’s been our backup plan for now and it’s been working really well for us. And, as I said, we did get pregnant. So, our little sous chef has a nice college fund started. We’d like to use that money to create a stable home and a future for us and for the baby.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Competing on Top Chef Canada was awesome and I’m very happy with the outcome and to be able to do it with my husband. I’d like to thank him for being my support system there, and for helping me through the finale. And also just for being an amazing partner. There’s nobody else I would have rather have done this with.
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