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Recipe for success

The man they call Chef Rob is making his mark as a celebrity chef

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It's a tough job but some chef has to do it.

This year, Canada Beef has partnered with Air Canada Vacations and Karisma Hotels to present the Canadian Beef Culinary Series along Mexico's Mayan Riviera. Since January and continuing until December, a dozen different Canadian chefs will take turns spending seven days each at one of three, five-star resorts near Playa del Carmen.

Their assignment, should they choose to accept it: prepare guests' meals featuring quality, prime-AAA Canadian beef.

The list of celebrity chefs chosen for the busman's holiday includes Montreal's Antonio Park, Ottawa's Louis Charest, Calgary's Paul Rogalski and -- drum roll, please -- Winnipeg's Robert Thomas.

Thomas is an independent chef specializing in private dinners, cocktail parties and corporate functions. Last November, Chef Rob, as he is known to his clients, was catching up on paperwork when he received an email from a representative of Canada Beef. The message was vague, Thomas recalls; something about an interesting opportunity in Mexico and give us a call for more information.

Thomas reached for his cellphone and punched in the number he was sent. The person on the other end said, "Yeah, we're doing this thing and we've hand-picked 12 chefs from across the country to go. And you're one of them."

The first question out of Thomas's mouth was, "Why me?" The answer: "We've done our research."

So a few months later, while his epicurean amigos back home were still dealing with frozen pipes and metre-high snow windrows, Thomas was dishing out delicacies like chocolate-braised short ribs and spice-rubbed beef carpaccio at beachside barbecues. That is, when he wasn't soaking up the sun or frolicking in the surf.

"I've been on the receiving end of a lot of great opportunities during my career but just like opportunities are given, they can be taken away twice as fast," says Thomas, 37, the first Canuck chef ever invited to participate in the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival in Iowa (population: 16.9 million pigs).

"So whenever you get the chance to do something like (Mexico) you take it as a blessing and say thank you very much."

Thomas grew up in North Kildonan. He was a picky eater when he was a kid -- he still turns his nose up at grapefruit and don't get him started on pizza crust -- so his mother Irene, a native of Aruba, began inviting him into the kitchen to get an up-close look at what she was putting in his lunch bag.

After a brief stint busing tables at the late, great Royal Fork Buffet, Thomas, then 18, dropped a resumé off at Moxie's Grill & Bar. His first day on the job there proved memorable -- for all the wrong reasons.

"I almost got fired an hour in; I had no idea what I was doing," he says with a laugh. "Right off they put me on pans, at a station with 10 burners. Orders were coming in one after another and there was no way I could keep up... I was sinking miserably."

Thankfully, Thomas's manager pulled his newest employee aside and told him, "Rob, you're not doing so good. I'm going to move you over to an easier station and how's about we start over from scratch?"

Thomas thanked his boss. Then he made a pledge that in six months' time he would be one of the chain's best cooks.

And did Thomas keep that promise?

"I don't take well to failure," he says, taking a sip of his berry-hibiscus iced tea. "Six months later, yes, I was one of their best cooks."

Thomas took his formal training at Red River College. But when he is quizzed about whom or what has influenced him since he aced his final exams 15 years ago, he rolls his eyes as if to remark, "Where do I begin?"

"The thing is I draw from a lot of different places. I grew up on Caribbean food and Caribbean flavours; my mom made most of the meals at home but my dad, who was born in Trinidad, knows how to cook, too," says Thomas, citing a Caribbean pumpkin bisque with crab succotash and potato crisp as one of his latest creations.

"I've also travelled a ton, and whenever I've gone to places like South Africa or South America, I've always managed to talk my way into the kitchen of whatever place I'm eating at to ask questions about what was in a particular sauce or why somebody used a specific spice."

The last restaurant Thomas worked at on a full-time basis was Mammy's, on Provencher Boulevard. When that locale shut its doors in 2009, he had a decision to make: catch on at another establishment or strike out on his own.

After making up his mind to go into business for himself, Thomas realized quickly he would have to don more hats than his toque blanche.

"Suddenly, I was the manager, the accountant and the salesman, too. And that's sort of how this whole, Chef Rob-brand grew," he says, noting his mother is the only person he can think of who still calls him Robert.

"After dessert was served, I'd emerge from the kitchen to shake hands and kiss babies. I didn't want people only to know my company; I wanted them to get to know me, Chef Rob, too."

Lately, it's all Thomas can do to fix himself a sandwich some days. (As it turns out, he's not a big fan of bread crust, either) He is the resident chef for City-TV's Breakfast Television, he hosts his own radio show, The Main Ingredient, on CJOB and next month, not long after he puts the finishing touches on a pop-up event involving yoga and a backyard pool, he is jetting off to Maine to guest-cook for a restaurant owner he met when he was in Florida last February for the South Beach Food and Wine Festival.

Have pan, will travel: not long ago, a man in Toronto flew Thomas to that city on a day's notice to prepare an engagement dinner featuring cinnamon-roasted duck breast, seared scallops on a saffron-cauliflower cloud and "green eggs & ham" (pork belly/poached egg/green onion hollandaise) for him and his fiancée.

Thomas, who is as comfortable in a canary-yellow Ivory Coast soccer T-shirt as he is in his white chef's smock, tries not to get too starry-eyed when he is summoned to cook for stars such as Lauryn Hill, Wynton Marsalis and Robert Plant. The only question he poses to his employers -- aside from "Did you enjoy your entrée?" -- is "Will you sign a plate for my collection?"

Acts have been known to go one better than that; when Thomas prepared the pre- and post-concert meals for U.S. hip-hop band the Roots last June, group members raised a toast "to Chef Rob," then instructed him to change into his street duds because, "Tonight, you're partying with the Roots."

At the end of the day, it is still in the back of Thomas's mind to open his own restaurant, one day.

"But for now it's tough because I've become a little bit selfish," he admits, mentioning that one of his goals in the coming months will be to put the finishing touches on his first cookbook. (Here's hoping when the tome hits store shelves it will include a recipe for its author's exquisite, bourbon-chili sauce.)

"I really love travelling and, so far, I've been lucky enough to be able to incorporate that into my work. Most of my friends are attached to kitchens but for now the only thing I'm attached to is food."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2014 D11


Updated on Saturday, June 14, 2014 at 8:12 PM CDT: Corrects typo in headline.

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