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Roger Mooking Gets 'Grilled' On Savour Stratford, Music And Pringles Curse

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ROGER MOOKING SAVOUR STRATFORD
Roger Mooking’s shuffles his feet just a few feet away from the Toronto Star Culinary Stage. In some respects, he looks like he’s preparing himself the same way actors psyches themselves up before an opening performance (CP). | CP

Roger Mooking shuffles his feet a few feet away from the stage at a Stratford cooking demo, much like the way an actor psyches himself up before an opening act.

It’s fitting, considering he’s about to perform in the small Ontario town well regarded for its love of live theatre. The Trinidadian-Canadian chef gingerly takes to the stage and the crowd erupts in applause much like the sharp punch of citrus Mooking loves using to enhance the flavours in his dishes.

It’s tough to say what’s more diverse once he’s on stage: the plethora of ingredients at his disposal for his cashew-chicken curry or the man’s CV, which includes part-time stints as a college executive and philanthropist. At the moment, he’s a guest speaker at Savour Stratford, an annual culinary event about a two-hour drive west of Toronto.

But there’s a good chance Canadians are more familiar with Mooking’s other endeavors: he's the host of two popular cooking shows, “Man Fire Food” and “Everyday Exotic”; a cookbook author and Juno-winning musician as a former member of R&B trio Bass is Base.

At the heart of it all, Mooking is an entertainer. That much is evident in his demonstration, constantly teasing his audience in Stratford with facts about peppers, cumin and other tasty trivia. He’s not afraid to get personal either, calling up volunteers to help him mince garlic and at one point, running out of tasting spoons because too many people have sampled his curry.

The Huffington Post Canada caught up with the Toronto-based musician-turned-chef-turned-TV-personality after his cooking demo to grill him on his immigrant influences, worldly travels and his guilty love of Pringles.

What's your take-away from Savour Stratford?
I realize there are a lot of people passionate about food. We know that because I meet a lot of them in my work but here, one guy drove from Toronto and this guy drove from Hamilton, Ont. to this festival to see what they're doing locally here and that says a lot.

But also it says something to how passionate people are to get a food adventure. So many people are working here on a volunteer basis. The whole culinary team — the seven people in the back of [the stage] — are volunteers. They just want to be around and be a part of it. You can't buy that passion, man. It's just infectious and that's why people gravitate here.

What does “Canadian” food mean to you?
Canada is a country to immigrant thanks to Pierre Elliot Trudeau and so Canadian cuisine is some of the most diverse cuisine in the world. So I'd say it's about diversity. When we came to [Edmonton], we were the only black family for hundred of miles, right? There were a lot of Ukrainian and Polish immigrants in Alberta at the time but in Edmonton specifically. My mom was always curious about food and culture. So one day I'd come home and some baba is in the kitchen teaching my mom how to make cabbage rolls or Kielbasa or pierogies from scratch.

The more I travel around the world, the more I appreciate how amazing Canada is. It really is special. You go to Thailand, you get that cuisine. All day, every day. In Canada, you can get everything, you get mish-mashes of everything — you come to Alberta and you can get a kimchi and potato stuffed pierogi. It's amazing! With a miso mayo dip. It's like four cultures in one simple dish, just like that. It's amazing, right?

What is one of the first things you crave to eat when you return home from abroad?
Pho. No matter what, I love pho. I can eat pho every single day of the year...if my wife would let me. I try it with beef, everything, tendons...I'm down for the medium bowls. The large [bowls] end up being a lot.

What’s your favourite food to make for yourself at home after a boozy night out?
I'm not a boozy man-on-the-town kind-of guy. I drink in moderation. I don't really drink like that -- one night a year, maybe. If I decided it's going to be a drunk night, everything goes bro. Whatever you put, it goes down the hatch. Whatever anyone drops on the table, dude. But you know, I'm not adverse to drinking. I'll have a cocktail, a glass of wine at dinner, I'll abide but very moderately.

If you could prepare only one last meal, what would it be?
Curry crabs and dumplings. My family's spread all over Canada. My sisters are in one place, my parents are there, I'm here. So when we get together, it's always "when are we going to do the feast?" And that's curry crab and dumplings. It's really messy and you take the table and you line it with newspaper and make the curry crab in one bowl and dumplings in another.

You get another bowl just for the shells and everyone's sucking the crab, all hands, no cutlery, no plates, everything's hands-on... Then you dump out the shells, wrap them up in the newspaper and in the garbage. I've got so many memories around curry crab and dumplings so that would be my last meal. That or dim sum.

What would be in your emergency "survival pantry"?
You need salt and pepper. You know, a lot of people think "oh, this dish isn't ready." You add a little salt and pepper to that thing, man, and all those flavours come alive. Also, that fresh citrus — lemon, lime, even passion fruit — element really opens up a lot of flavours. You can do a lot with a little ingredients like that and bring out the natural flavours.

Most unusual and delicious food you'd suggest people try?
Try Szechuan peppercorns. It adds a very unique sensation to your palette. It kind of numbs it, it tingles and makes food really come alive — not necessarily in a sweaty, spicy kind of way, but it a very dynamic way that no other ingredient can actually do.

What is the wildest thing you’ve done in a kitchen, culinary or otherwise?
This is PG, right? I don't know man... once I cooked in a kitchen that was flooded. It was the middle of restaurant service. The dining room was full of people and there was this big rainstorm flooding the kitchen and the owner went to go get knee-high boots for us. We kept cooking and serving customers in knee-high waters and no one knew.

Comes hell or high water, right?
People want their food man. They're hungry.

What would you be doing if you weren't a chef?
I make things. You know, at the end of the day, that's what I do. I make things. I'm less in the food and music business than I am in the entertainment business, right? I'd be entertaining some kind of way or creating something. I'm a creator. It's what I do, in different platforms but I just like to make things for people to enjoy, hopefully.

What is your favourite cheap food thrill?
I love Pringles, dude. Red box Pringles.

Once you pop, you can't stop?
Oh, dude. It's a curse. I'll do it like twice a year now because it's bad. I'll eat the whole box out. Red box only. Red. Box. Only.

What’s your most memorable food city?
Bangkok. Everything you put in your mouth in Bangkok is delicious. On the street for two bucks, in a high-end restaurant, middle-level restaurant, street market...everything you put in your mouth in Bangkok is going to blow your brains out. Very memorable.

What's the one Canadian restaurant you'd recommend?
Ali's Roti Shop in Parkdale (Toronto)... They make the authentic roti, like how you get it in Trinidad. Don't go to a Jamaican restaurant for roti, don't go to a Trinidadian restaurant for jerk chicken. Rule of thumb.

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