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Monday 22 July 2019
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Exotic times for Mooking

Although he has been living in Canada since he was five years old, restaurateur and top chef Roger Mooking is a self professed “Trini to the bone”.

Mooking is the host and co-creator of the international television series Everyday Exotic, which is broadcast by the Food Network in Canada, The Cooking Channel in the United States and Caribbean, Food TV in New Zealand and Discovery Channel in South East Asia. He is also the co-host of Heat-Seekers, which is aired on the Food Network, a speciality channel that features top chefs.

His show, Everyday Exotic, is featured in 22 countries with 400 million viewers around the world. He has also appeared as a culinary expert and guest on many shows, including NBC’s Today Show, Good Morning America, Wendy Williams, The Marilyn Dennis Show (Resident Chef Expert), Iron Chef, Top Chef Canada, Best Thing I Ever Ate and Unique Eats.

But, Mooking, 38, a mix of Chinese and Trinidadian descent, is an unusual gourmand, as he combines his cooking with his other passion – music – and has made a symbiotic connection with unique food and music which has culminated into “Soul Food”, a music project released by Warner Music, one which he said has no parallel.

For Mooking, music and the epicurean world are seamless. One feeds the body, the other the soul; it is all food in all its various forms. His has been what he described as an incredible journey with a long, slow build, but he took it all in stride.

“These things take time. You don’t just get up one day and cook good, you know what I mean?” Mooking said with a laugh during a telephone interview from Toronto, Canada, recently.

Mooking is a third generation restaurateur who began his formal training at the George Brown Culinary Management Programme, where he earned top student honours and is now chair of the Professional Advisory Committee. He continued his training at Epic Dining Room at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel.

But how did Mooking reach where he was today?

“My grandfather came from China and ended up in Icacos. He was stranded there basically and he started to build a little life there. He worked hard, built up a little bakery, then opened a little grocery store and restaurant...you know what those Chinese people like,” he laughs.

His father and all his siblings followed suit, then opening their own restaurants. His maternal grandmother’s side of the family used to live on Lewis Street in Port-of-Spain, and although he has lived in Canada for over 30 years, Mooking said he has been back to Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean, many times.

Mooking, a father of three – and in another couple of weeks, a fourth – knew he wanted to be a chef since he was three years old.

“You know when you’re young sitting around, talking to little children, and one of my aunts came up to me one day and said to me ‘boy, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said I want to be a chef and she looked at me laughing, like a three-year-old wants to be a chef,” he recalled.

“But I knew that was part of my history ... I don’t know, I don’t know why ... there was an intense knowledge, interest of food and music.

“I grew up in Trinidad for the first five years so there is Indian, there’s Chinese, there’s African and Carib and everything is kind of mixed up. There is also the very distinct aspect of every culture that exists in Trinidad showing its vibrance much more so than any other Caribbean island.”

At five years old, Mooking’s family moved to Alberta, Canada, and it was a skin and mind numbing experience.

“When they plunked down there was snow minus 40 degrees and there were like three black people in the country at that time,’” Mooking said, laughing aloud.

“Then we started to learn about Ukrainian food, and western Canadian food and cabbage rolls ...

My mother was always very interested in different cultures through food, so she would invest time meeting old Ukrainian mothers and grandmothers and have them teach her all their local techniques.”

Mooking said meal times at home were always interesting, with doubles for lunch, roti for dinner.

“It was like that for my whole life because my father was from a Chinese background, so my mother was always shopping at China Town, so my dinner table and my meals every day would be dramatic, one time it would be a pepper sandwich, another time it was doubles, another time stir-fried Chinese food,” he recalled. When he was 18 Mooking moved to Toronto, which he said was similar to Trinidad in that it was culturally diverse and very broad based in culture. This was where he learned more about international cuisine.

“I started training with French chefs and German chefs and all those crazy, maniacal people who went to school and learn all that stuff as well. I was working French and continental bistros, fine dining, sandwich counters, catering companies and then started opening my own restaurants.“One thing I learned about food and realised at a very early age, was that there was no way I could learn everything I need to know about food in one lifetime, and that is what I find fascinating about it.”

He added, “I have a form of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) so I constantly need to be fed with new information, and food is one of those vessels that allows me to do so.”

But Mooking’s climb to becoming a top chef was not easy, especially since was he was black. “In North America, as a black person trying to come up in an industry where, if you look at the top chefs, there are not a lot of black people, so there is still that kind of stigma in the industry. You know they just don’t want you to walk through the door. Their minds don’t automatically click that this is the guy that they need to pay the most money to run this kitchen, right, so that meant I would have to work harder, faster, smarter, cleaner. My food would have to taste better,” he said.

“Instead of being upset about that I just accepted it and I made sure I was faster, cleaner, you know ... I have to work with chefs, it is what it is, I can’t get around it, I have to play that game.”

Mooking admitted that he liked to experiment with different foods, and that he never cooked the same thing for himself twice. However, in the restaurant, people expected certain recipes to stay the same.

“I can’t remember the last time I made the same thing twice,” he explained.

What is this chef’s favourite food? “People ask me a lot about what would be my last meal and I always tell them I need a Tobagonian woman to cook me crab and dumpling, that’s the real deal,” Mooking said.

Mooking believes cooking is a humble task which is not about the chef, but about the people they are feeding.

“It’s not about you or forcing your will on that person, so my first question is what is their expectation and the other is, are there any dietary restrictions? I’m not going to a vegetarian convention and cook them a dinner of oxtail, so certain things are going to come off the table. And then when I ascertain what their expectations are I give a little bit of a twist. I use things that are indigenous to an area, but give it a certain twist. It’s to be fun and playful and memorable and that’s what food is about,” he said.

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