Interview By Anne Marie Moro
Photo credits: FrancesLitman.com and Kevin Light Photography
The ‘Flavour of Chocolate Small Plates & Chef Competition’ is an evening of exquisite food, silent auction and entertainment in support of Soroptimist International of Victoria Westshore (SIVW). Funds raised go towards improving the lives of girls, women, and their children locally and globally.
Last year, seven talented chefs served up a diverse array of savoury, small plates each featuring chocolate in this annual culinary competition held at the Songhees Wellness Centre. Specially paired spirits accompanied the chefs’ creations and the lucky attendees voted for their favourite dish and libation. The grand finale—an incredible chocolate dessert.
We catch up with last year’s ‘Flavour of Chocolate’ competition winner, Toivo Heyduck, who won the first annual competition in 2015 as well!
Q: Toivo, why did you decide to become a chef? What’s the story behind that?
A: Well, cooking for me is a passion. I believe that it kind of chose me. During high school, when I was looking into future considerations, I was all geared up to be an engineer. But while working in kitchens to make money, I realized, I realized, “Hey, this is actually what I love to do!”
So, I dropped out of school and seriously pursued working in local restaurants in Toronto under great chefs like Massimo Capra and Didier Leroy. I worked three jobs a week, doing breakfast in one place, lunch in another and dinner in still another. That’s how I learned how to cook! After a few years, I had an opportunity to come out West. I took it and I haven’t looked back since. So, that’s kind of how I became a chef.
Q: How old were you when you first started cooking?
A: I’ve been cooking since I was very young. My grandmother always used to say to me, “Toivo, you’re either going to be a Chef or an Actor.” Growing up, I was always trying to help out my mother. She was a single mom, so I thought it would be nice to make her breakfast in bed when I could, and do little things like putting the coffee on. I loved cooking on the open fire at the cottage in Ontario, taking care of pork chops on the grill, doing the sausage shuffle and other things like that. I think that’s where I got my passion from. I think it’s that kind of [experience] that developed my passion early. I mean everyone can be a chef if they want to; but because I really loved it and I was passionate about it, [my cooking career] kind of found me!
Q: Do you have a favourite cuisine?
A: That’s a very tough question for me. I’m very open to trying out new things. I’m a purest in some sense. I like really good Italian food; keep it simple, keep it delicious. Some fusion works, but then some fusion [dishes] can be a little off putting at times.
When it comes to my favourite cuisine though, I just really like a more local cuisine: local fish from the sea, whatever they have to offer. It’s not necessary to buy the best products from Italy and bringing them over and start using them here. We have wonderful olive oils closer to home so I can do Italian food with local products.
I should mention though, that I love pizza, any kind of pizza. [laughing] If I had a last meal, it would be pizza!
Q: You can never go wrong with Italian! I understand that you just spent some time in Singapore. Any interesting food discoveries there?
A: Yeah, Singapore, oh, it’s wonderful! I mean there’s such a wide array of flavours going on all the time with all those Indian, Malay and Chinese influences. Any day of the week, you can get food from around the world. The abundance of seafood and shellfish there is wonderful. I like the hawker stands best. They sell street food. Very modest food. Singapore has lots of extravagant Michelin star restaurants, of course, but my favourite
Cooking for me is a passion.
I believe that it kind of chose me.
While working in kitchens to make
money, I realized, “Hey, this is
actually what I love to do!”
food was from the hawker stands. That’s where I would get simple curries. Not so simple though because the flavours build up in the broth all day. At the end of the day, they just serve something with a little bit of rice and that’s all you need. Their chili crab is wonderful; they do it with a ketchup sauce, right, and it just comes out so amazing. And deep-fried steamed buns. A very simple, delicious cuisine, but very well thought out and very thoughtful.
Q: So, the Singapore cuisine is a successful blend of various Asian cuisines?
A: Yes. Singapore’s national dish is what they call ‘Chicken Rice’. The chicken is poached and then the rice is cooked with the poaching liquid. Everyone judges the flavour on the rice. The chicken is delicious as well and some people put various toppings on it, a little less here and there. But the big thing in Singapore is: where is the best ‘Chicken Rice’? It looks so simple, but it’s so delicious with such complex flavour. It’s like making a boiled chicken essentially, but it’s a boiled-down broth that the rice goes into after to cook. That’s what makes it so good.
Q: Have you noticed any new food trends recently?
A: People are becoming a lot more health conscious about what they are putting into their bodies and realizing that a big difference it makes on their health and their overall well being, whether it be mental or physical. I’m seeing more fermented products right now. Kombucha(1) is very popular as a probiotic to settle your stomach. Many fermented foods are coming back big time, like sauerkraut, that’s been around for centuries. I’ve talked with people about fermented foods and they say it has made a huge difference in their lives.
Chilies and different types of spices are always trending, but I find right now more people are moving into hot spices. And then, of course, there are all those hot challenges: “Can you eat this one chip? It’s got over 2,500 Scoville Heat Units (SHU) in it!”.
Q: Have you had a cooking situation recently that kind of got out a hand?
A: Yeah, it’s funny you should ask that because I did actually. This past holiday, I was back in Ontario visiting my family. Normally, we do a deep-fried turkey along with a smoked turkey. But, oh my gosh, it was so cold that the oil froze and we couldn’t get the shed open to get to the deep fryer. So, I’m sitting there with this turkey and I’m thinking of things I could do with this bird. Then, I remembered Singapore. So, I decided: “OK guys, I’m going to make ‘Chicken Rice’ with a turkey!”
I built a broth up with onions, carrots, celery, some tamari. I even had some ginger paste with me that I brought back from Singapore. Then, I put the turkey legs in first to build up the flavour, broke down the turkey, took the breasts off, broke the bones down, put them in the broth and let that simmer for an hour. Then, I poached the breasts in that broth and after I took them out, I made a savoury topping with a little Anaheim peppers, some green onion and a little tamari, a bit of chili oil. It kind of saved the day, if you know what I mean.
Q: Fantastic! I’ve never had boiled turkey. How did that taste?
A: It was lovely. Very moist. I mean, you can clearly over boil it, but I was watching it. And the left-over broth made [the base] for a lovely turkey soup.
Q: You’ve been the ‘People’s Choice Award’ winner twice at the ‘Flavour of Chocolate’ gala: once in 2015 and then again in 2017. I assume you’re motivated to come back again this year?
A: If all goes according to plan and I’m able to participate, for sure I will be taking part in the ‘Flavour of Chocolate’ event.
Q: Is there one thing about you that people would find surprising?
A: I’m a pretty big gentleman, so from a distance I could be seen as intimidating. But truthfully, I’m a very nice person, very easy to talk to. I try to be very humble with my life you know. I try to help people, be generous when I can and just be who I am. I don’t change just because you close a door. I don’t put a different face on for [different] people.
Q: In closing, would you have a tip for all of us everyday cooks out here on the West Shore?
A: I’m asked for advice often—even from my sister—and the best advice I could give is that you taste your food and adjust the seasoning accordingly. Make sure your food is seasoned. So, continue to follow recipes; but taste along the way to make sure it’s up to your seasoning [preferences] and seasoned to your taste. Make it the way you like it, not the way you think other people would like it. Then, if other people enjoy it, then you know you’ve got something special going on. That would be my tip: taste your food and season it. Simple, but important.
(1) Kombucha is a variety of fermented, lightly effervescent sweetened black or green tea drink. – Wikipedia