But Roger Mooking, no slouch in the kitchen himself, isn’t so quick to play up the trend. “I don’t know, man,” he laughs. “A lot of chefs will say that. I think people are attached to the primal instinct driven by the need for food and the media has helped to project that.”
Mooking’s a better authority than most to comment on those pop-culture parallels. The the former executive chef and co-owner of Kultura and Nyood, two of Toronto’s most high end, see-and-be-seen restaurants that have attracted such A-listers as actors Vince Vaughn and Ethan Hawke. Besides being in demand on U.S. programs like The Today Show and Good Morning America, the native Trinidadian and former Edmontonian is also the host of such cooking TV programs as Man Fire Food, Heat Seekers and Everyday Exotic, which he says has an international viewership. And with the 2011 release of Everyday Exotic’s companion cookbook, Mooking is also a bona fide author.
Despite exposure on TV, radio and in such pages as the Globe and Mail and Toronto Life, Mooking continues to be mystified by all the attention, regardless of where he is on the planet.
“I was in Dubai to do a project not too long ago,” says Mooking. “I was in the airport ... people were gathering around and taking pictures of me! And I said to myself, ‘oh, man! I thought I was off the hook here!”’
Not a chance. Viewers worldwide have easily warmed to the 39-year-old’s personality and approach in the kitchen. With his “Let’s do it!” mantra and the odd raspy guffaw, he addresses each step with an energetic effervescence, whether it be prepping a brined caraway pork tenderloin or adding some zest to meatloaf leftovers.
According to Mooking, even as a kid he wanted to be a chef, which makes sense since he was always surrounded by good food. Both his father and grandfather were restaurant owners. Though, when Mooking’s family came to Edmonton in 1979, the city wasn’t exactly a hot spot for international cuisine.
“We brought a lot of Trinidad traditions with us when we came to Edmonton, when I was five, but back then you couldn’t find many of the ingredients,” recalls Mooking.
But Mooking’s mom, also a natural in the kitchen, wanted to learn new techniques from existing cultures in Edmonton. “I came home from school one day and there’s some baba with arthritis, who could barely stand up, in our kitchen teaching my mom how to make perogies and holubtsi [cabbage rolls].”
At 16, he was professionally introduced to the culinary arts while working at an Albert’s Family Restaurant in Abbottsfield Mall, saving his cash to fuel his other passion: music. Influenced by his father’s extensive record collection, which spanned genres from calypso to folk, Mooking began to collect vinyl and rent recording equipment to try his hand at mixing and busting rhymes. He adopted the handle MC Mystic and joined some school friends to form the Maximum Definitive, one of the city’s first rap groups.
Combining their affinity for empowering lyrics with riffs from soul and jazz standards à la Grandmaster Flash, it wasn’t long before the Maximum Definitive garnered a local following and started winning music competitions. One battle of the bands prize involved sharing a bill with local punk vanguards SNFU. While it didn’t seem auspicious at the time, he can laugh about it now. “The audience almost stoned us!” exclaims Mooking. “They were throwing bottles at us!”
“There wasn’t a lot of hip-hop back then, and they were a bit of a novelty,” recalls Mike Ross, Edmonton Sun music columnist and editor at gigcity.ca. “They did very well with their own brand of self-promotion. But they had a fun, stylish approach to rap, almost like Will Smith back when he was The Fresh Prince.”
Within a few years, the Maximum Definitive received national attention when it won a MuchMusic Video Award in 1993 and received a Juno nomination on the strength of its independently-produced “Jungle Man” single. At the MuchMusic awards ceremonies in Toronto, Mooking performed with Chin Injeti and Ivana Santilli, members of an upstart R&B act called Bass is Base. They’d met a few months earlier and after the performance, they collaborated and Mooking became a part of the group.
“I had a two-week ticket and I never went back,” says Mooking, who was barely in his 20s at the time.
Arousing plenty of curiosity in Toronto’s club scene via its independent release, First Impressions for the Bottom Jigglers, Bass is Base was soon signed by A&M Records and won a Juno award in 1994. Its sophomore album, Memories of the Soul Shack Survivors, yielded a national hit, “I Cry.”
During the recording of what would have been their third album, the group decided to go their separate ways.
Mooking, dejected by the turn of events, went back to his infatuation with cooking and enrolled at the George Brown College in the Culinary Management Program. He apprenticed at the posh Epic Restaurant in the Fairmont Royal York Hotel and, by 2003, he was given the opening chef’s job at a new restaurant called Barrio Lounge. As fate would have it, the location was only a few blocks away from the studios of Food Network Canada and many of its executives would frequent Mooking’s eatery.
“These executives would show up about three times a week and I got to know them after a little while by their first names, but I didn’t know who they were,” recalls Mooking. “A year later they told me they were from the Food Network, and pitched me some shows. We didn’t knock anything out of the park in terms of ideas and those conversations eventually died down.”
After opening his first restaurant, Kultura, in 2006, he ran into those same executives in his dining room. After renewed acquaintances and a couple auditions, Mooking began hosting Everyday Exotic in 2008 with the premise of converting a run-of-the-mill meal into gourmet fare.
Since then, Mooking’s been bouncing from project to project regardless of medium. But the happily-married father of three young children still has one more item on his bucket list.
“I’d like to do voiceovers for cartoons,” says Mooking — if South Park ever brought back the chef, he’d be the first in line to dub the voice. “That’s a show that can have a real chef!”