Roger Mooking’s face lights up when he talks about eggs.
“Eggs are magic food,” he exclaims. “You can do so much with an egg. It’s incredible that one little thing can do so many things.” He reels off a dozen uses, everything from frying and poaching, to binding sauces and making pasta, or soufflés. “An egg is an incredible feat of engineering; it’s a gift from God, and he packages it so simply, too. And apart from that, it tastes great.”
Ah, now there’s the crux of the matter. In Roger Mooking’s hands, just about everything tastes great. This young Trinidad-born, Toronto-based chef is blazing his way to the top, as partner/executive chef of two of the city’s trendiest restaurants, not to mention his own cooking show on the internationally syndicated Food Network.
His cuisine is a blend of Caribbean and Chinese flavours executed with French technique: “unexpected” would be a good word to describe his creations. Also, “delicious”. A visit to one of his restaurants elicits a plethora of small tasting dishes, including such thought-inducing mouthfuls as artichokes with coriander (chadon beni, to a Trini) served in miniature coalpots (a cultural wink that probably flies over the heads of most of his diners, but never mind); crisp flatbread topped with shredded lamb and feta cheese; tiger shrimp with sweet-potato angel-hair; and succulent shortribs braised with malt.
His show on Canada’s Food Network, titled Everyday Exotic, aims at demystifying “exotic” ingredients and showing viewers how to incorporate them into their everyday meals. (It’s also carried on the Cooking Channel, and as far afield as South-east Asia and Kuwait.)
The 36-year-old dynamo has numerous other balls in the air. He’s working on a cookbook, and several other projects that he prefers to keep close to his chest for the minute. He’s also an accomplished singer-songwriter, with CDs, videos and prestigious awards under his belt.
“I don’t know when he sleeps,” marvels his friend and musical collaborator Ronald Lopata. With a wife and two young children (daughters, three and two) rounding out the picture, he probably doesn’t. Or not very much.
Not that it shows. Mooking’s smile is as bright when he starts his work day at 7 am as it is at midnight, when he wraps up at Nyood (pronounced “Nude”) or Kultura, the two showcase restaurants he owns with business partner Hanif Harji.
He is animated but relaxed, as he talks of his childhood amongst a family of cooks and gourmands who loved throwing parties. Young Roger “always gravitated to where there was food”. When he was three, an aunt asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I didn’t even blink!” he exclaims gleefully. “Chef!”
Cooking is in his blood. His grandfather, a Chinese immigrant to Trinidad, had a famous bakery and restaurant – “People used to come for miles and line up for his butter bread.” Mooking’s aunts and uncles all ended up in the food business, running successful restaurants and catering companies.
When Mooking was five, his family migrated to Canada. After a short sojourn in Toronto, they settled in Edmonton, Alberta. In this stolid western province of Eastern European immigrants, the mixed-race newcomers must have stuck out like a sore thumb, but that did not dampen their Trini ebullience. Constantly surrounded by parties and family get-togethers, the teenage Mooking gravitated naturally towards food and music: he worked in restaurants and, with a couple of friends, co-founded a band, The Maximum Definitive. They played in bars, at parties and shows, and Mooking spent all his earnings on recordings.
At the height of their popularity, the band made a video and sent it to MuchMusic, the Toronto–based TV channel that was the mecca for youth-oriented music videos. “They played it like crazy,” Mooking recalls; then one day the head of the station called to invite them to perform at MuchMusic’s annual awards. Two weeks in the big city, and Mooking realized that this was where “the entire music industry” was; so he moved. He was 19.
A new band formed in 1993, Bass is Base, won a 1994 Juno award (Canada’s version of the Grammys) in the Best Soul/R&B category. In 1996, their single “I Cry” went to the Top 20, and the next couple of years saw the band opening for a number of big-name artistes like James Brown and Celine Dion.
But years of touring brought little money: “$20 in your pocket. It just didn’t make sense. I decided I was going to change my life.”
He still wanted to “create things”, but wanted to make some money while doing so. In 1999, he turned back to his first love, working 40-hour weeks in restaurants while enrolled full-time in the renowned culinary management programme at George Brown College. “I didn’t take a day off for two years straight,” he recalls. He graduated at the top of his class, worked at the posh Royal York hotel for two years, then was invited to be chef in a new restaurant, Barrio. Heads started turning; there was buzz; people started knowing who he was. Fate put him in contact with restaurant entrepreneur Hanif Harji, and the rest was history. Their first venture, Kultura, opened about six years ago; Nyood has been on the scene for about two years.
Harji is effusive in his praise of his business partner. “(Roger) is a cerebral chef, with no ego, and that was really important to me. You see it in his food; it’s really simple, good soul food. He thinks about textures and flavours. He takes what would be an ordinary dish, and makes it different.” Harji also commends Mooking’s work ethic: “He’s extremely diligent in the way he manages the kitchen. He’s a very organised individual and he’s fully aware of his responsibilities. And he just works very hard.”
Mooking attributes his drive for excellence to a very simple source – his family. “I always remember my grandfather and father telling me, ‘No matter what you do, be the best at it.”
There’s nothing to suggest that he’s doing anything else. Even as the trendy, black-clad crowds flock to the sleek, elegant interiors of Nyood and Kultura, Mooking is bubbling with new ideas and projects. “I like ideas and I like to create things,” he says. “If I can take an idea and take it to fruition, it’s a dream every day.”