Ross Larkin is the chef de cuisine at Raymonds, which means he’s in charge of the kitchen at the most renowned restaurant in our province, maybe even the country. If that isn’t impressive enough, this June he did something no other local chef has done to date, when he won Top Chef Canada, a TV show that pits some of the country’s best chefs against each other in a series of absurdly difficult cooking challenges. To win you need a tough skin, tougher nerves, and more mad food skills than Nan’s got baked goods.
Larkin Beat out the Best in the Country
by Embodying Newfoundland Food and Food Traditions
What made the series a pleasure to watch, was that Larkin beat out the best chefs in the country by embodying Newfoundland food and food-traditions and having the confidence to let these ingredients speak for themselves on refined, restrained dishes: in the season finale, the final showdown, he was pouring sauce from a pitcher plant over a partridge.
His cod dish sat in a sea urchin beurre blanc. His desert involved snowberries and roasted parsnip chips. It was some classy, innovative, and quintessentially Newfoundland cuisine that crowned him Best Cook in Country, 2018.
At moments during their meals, the judges didn’t even know what they were eating – particularly when served “cod sounds” (the swim bladder that keeps fish buoyant). When asked by the judges to tell them about his final trio of dishes, he simply called his menu “an ode to Newfoundland.”
Larkin’s Win Is A Lesson in
Food Sovereignty, Security, and Self-Sufficiency in NL
This pride in local bounty, and Larkin’s deep knowledge of what’s on offer on our island, and his skills in preparing it is more than a lesson in embracing local in today’s bizarrely globalized food system.
Here on our land-locked island of Newfoundland, we face a unique suite of barriers to accessing fresh, healthy, affordable store-bought food. For example, as a highly rural population, 84% of our communities do not have access to a full-service grocery store (and rely largely on limited food from convenience stores), we import 90% of our produce, and we’ve lost touch with the kinds of ways and traditions that used to make us more self-sufficient in procuring good and healthy meals ourselves, through hunting, foraging, gardening, and making preserves. Larkin’s performance on the show certainly demonstrated there’s a way back to that for us here.
“No matter where you are, and what your surroundings are, and terroir is, it’s important to be aware of what you have, more so than what you don’t have,” Larkin says.
“Newfoundland is still pretty young but it’s also old in a sense where we know our heritage and where we came from,” he says.
“The ingredients I use, and food I make, is food I grew up with. I grew up hunting with my dad, I grew up berry picking with my grandmother, or just sitting at the kitchen table with her, eating pan-fried capelin with fresh bread and mustard pickles. It’s simple food. It’s local and fresh and organic and beautiful. That’s where I’m at now, going back and remembering that and elevating it,” he says.
Larkin’s staying true to that food philosophy gets him in trouble on the show, but ultimately wins him the show, which was neat to see play out.
He says being on the show “definitely reinforced staying true to who you are and what you know, how you cook, and what you cook, and not changing that for the judges or because you’re under pressure. It takes a long time to get there; when you’re a young cook, you want to put all your techniques and all your ingredients on one plate, but you gotta practice restraint.”
He’s not wrong. Avid watchers of the Top Chef and Masterchef franchises will know the most common pitfall on any season, is that contestants trying to do too much, and serving up visually impressive, but ultimately confused and flawed dishes, that sound better on paper than they taste on the plate.
Larkin’s Journey from Washing Dishes at Greensleeves
to Running the Kitchen at Raymond’s
“My family had a restaurant on Merrymeeting Road when I was growing up, called Henry’s, and I was always helping out there, peeling potatoes, and buttering toast. I grew up in that restaurant,” Larkin says.
From there he worked around town when he was younger, starting out as a dishwasher at Greensleeves. One day, a cook didn’t show up, he offered to cook, “and I kinda fell into it from there.”
But it was just a trade that let him travel and find work, which he did all over Canada. Wanting to snowboard brought him to BC, cooking at a ski lodge.
“That was good for a while, until it wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing. So I got a job at a little French Bistro, Bistro Pastis, and I guess that was the first kitchen job I had where they really took care on the ingredients and products they were getting in, and it open my eyes to what food can be, so I started reading more about food, and learning from everyone I worked with.”
Eventually he’d end up cooking in Saskatoon, funnily enough, at a restaurant run by the inaugral Top Chef Canada winner, Dale MacKay. Larkin’s wife, Celeste Mah, is also in the food industry, as a top shelf pastry chef. While the two were working in Saskatoon, Celeste got a call, from half a country away, and it was Jeremy Charles, asking her if she’d come work at Raymonds, as their pastry chef.
“I went outside and called Jeremy right after,” Larkin said, “and asked if there were any other positions available, and he said yeah sure. So I’m here at Raymonds because my wife was offered a job, not me,” he says laughing. He started at the bottom 4 years ago, and is today the Chef du Cuisine. Anyone who’s seen the show won’t be surprise by his rush to the top.
“We Eats it All Here”
On the last episode of Top Chef, Larkin was allowed to order in any ingredients he wanted, to prepare a 3-course meal. He got what he ordered from home, and then some. On the last episode, To Larkin’s surprise, Jeremy Charles showed up to act as Larkin’s Sous Chef and Side Kick for the final round. Larkin had no idea that was in the cards.
“They told us we could order whatever we wanted to cook with in our last episode. I made two phone calls. One to my wife, and one to Jeremy. I asked them to send me whatever bounty of Newfoundland that they could, and luckily for me, Jeremy did, and he also brought himself. As soon as I saw Jeremy walk in, all my stress and worries were lifted. Lose, win, or draw, that day cooking with Jeremy was going to be a great day.”
At Larkin’s command, the duo whipped up some unpredictable fare, like an amuse bouche of moose heart tartare and whelk skewers. “We eats it all in Newfoundland,” Larkin and Charles were joking among each other on air.
And based on Larkin’s big cash-money win, so we should. He’s cooked all over the country, from helping his grandfather out as a kid in the family restaurant on Merrymeeting Road (Henry’s), to fishing lodges in Southern Ontario, ski lodges in BC, and even, funnily enough, in Saskatoon at a restaurant run by the inaugural Top Chef Canada winner, Dale MacKay. But it’s traditional Newfoundland cuisine he’s drawn to, and it’s traditional Newfoundland cuisine that wowed the who’s who of Canada’s food industry on Top Chef Canada this Summer.