When culinary celebrities like Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck grab as much of the spotlight as Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, it hardly seems a stretch to refer to chefs as today’s new pop stars.
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 executive chef is a stakeholder in Kultura and Nyood, two of Toronto’s most high-end, see-and-be-seen restaurants that have attracted such A-listers as actor Vince Vaughn. 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 of 400 million in 22 countries. And with the 2011 release of Everyday Exotic’s companion cookbook, Mooking is also a bona fide author.
Then there’s his other career as a hip-hop performer and recording artist with such acts as Bass Is Base and Maximum Definitive, which have yielded a cumulative four CDs, two Juno nominations, one win and three MuchMusic Video awards. Following up on his 2008 release Soul Food, Mooking’s second solo effort will be issued by Warner Music Canada this year.
Despite exposure on TV, radio and in such pages as the Globe and Mail and Toronto Life ─ even a passing reference stateside to one of his restaurants in supermarket tabloid The Star ─ 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,” said Mooking. “I was in the airport there and all of a sudden, people were gathering around and taking pictures of me! And I said to myself, oh, man! I thought I was off the hook here in Dubai!”
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 punctuated by a high-velocity verbal delivery, whether it be prepping a brined caraway pork tenderloin or adding some zest to meatloaf leftovers.
As for his grounded take on eclectic five-star cuisine, Mooking stated he always wanted to be a chef as far back as he can remember. In fact, he’s a third-generation chef, having watched his father work in Asian kitchens, and even recalling his Chinese grandfather go about his business running restaurants in Trinidad. Relocation to Canada in the late 1960s spelled opportunity, although Edmonton wasn’t exactly a hot spot for international cuisine at the time.
“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,” recalled 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 and all that stuff. That would be like a regular kind of thing. You would find odds and ends in the fridge and make a lot of cross-cultural meals from those.”
At 15, he was professionally introduced to the culinary arts while working at an Uncle Albert’s restaurant in Abbottsfield Mall in the city’s northeast, saving his cash to fuel his other passion: music. Influenced by his father’s Calypso records and his brother’s fondness for rap acts like Run DMC, Mooking began to collect vinyl and rent recording equipment to try his hand at mixing and busting rhymes. Hooking up with some school buddies, he adopted the handle MC Mystic and became part of Maximum Definitive, one of the city’s first rap groups.
Combining their affinity for empowering lyrics with riffs from soul and jazz standards a la Grandmaster Flash, it wasn’t long before Maximum Definitive garnered a local following and started winning music competitions. One battle of the bands prize they landed, which involved sharing a bill with local punk vanguards SNFU, didn’t seem so auspicious at the time, although Mooking can laugh about it now.
“The audience almost stoned us!” exclaimed Mooking in his trademark raspy guffaw. “It was amazing! They were throwing stuff at us! I mean, imagine being at an SNFU concert expecting a punk show and all of a sudden we come out!”
“There wasn’t a lot of hip-hop back then, and they were a bit of a novelty,” recalled Mike Ross, Edmonton Sun music columnist and editor at gigcity.ca. “They did very well with their own brand of self-promotion, and given that there wasn’t a lot of cross-pollination that we see among genres these days, it was even more unusual to see hip-hop acts sharing the bill with other alternative draws. But they had a fun, stylish approach to rap, almost like Will Smith back when he was The Fresh Prince.”
Within a few years, 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 met Chin Injeti and Ivana Santilli, members of an upstart R&B act called Bass Is Base. They struck up a friendship and invited Mooking back to Toronto for a brief collaboration.
“I had a two-week ticket and I never went back,” said Mooking, who was barely in his 20s at the time. “I figured, why would I go back to Edmonton when the centre of entertainment was here?”
Arousing plenty of curiosity in Toronto’s club scene via their independent release, First Impressions for the Bottom Jigglers, Bass Is Base was quickly snapped up by A&M. Their sophomore album, Memories of the Soul Shack Survivors, garnered national curiosity, yielded a national hit, “I Cry” and a Juno award in 1994.
But Santilli, the group’s lead vocalist, ditched the group for a solo career during recording of what would have been their third album and the group dissolved shortly after.
Mooking, dejected by the turn of events, went back to his infatuation for cooking and enrolled at the George Brown 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. 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 and staff would frequent Mooking’s eatery for lunch.
“These executives would show up at my restaurant 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,” recalled Mooking. “A year later they told me they were from the Food Network, and liked my food 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 has 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, one that would make his other cooking contemporaries balk.
“I’d like to do voiceovers for cartoons,” said Mooking, comedically mulling over possibilities of cameos on The Simpsons. “Yeah! That’s a show that can have a real chef!”