*This post contains spoilers about the Top Chef Canada season four finale.*
After 10 episodes and 20 challenges, Rene Rodriguez became Canada’s ascending culinary star.
Rene is the chef and owner of Navarra restaurant in Ottawa, ON. His Mexican and Basque heritage inspires his cooking and he received his culinary education at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa. Food Network Canada (FNC) chatted with Rene to talk about what inspires his cooking, which guest judge gave him his most valuable lesson and what he wants to do next.
Rene pictured with his son and wife (on his right) celebrating his big win
FNC: So tell us about your finale menu, what inspired it and how did you prepare for it?
Rene: What really inspired me to create that menu was to trace back to my heritage. You know having a Mexican and Spanish background, I really need to take a step back and look at who I am as a person, as a chef and as a cook. This was what I was going to create for my final menu. It all came together.
Rene’s first course: steak tartare with blue corn tortillas
Rene’s second course: coriander-crusted tuna with mushroom ragout and pickled chayote
Rene’s third course: a roasted poblano bisque with pomegranate seeds and toasted walnuts (top right) and Oaxacan lamb black mole garnished with fried mealworms
Rene’s fourth course: dark chocolate mousse with berries and frozen lemon curd
FNC: Which challenge was the hardest for you (aside from the finale)?
Rene: I think that the hardest challenge for me was the one before the finale where we had to do molecular gastronomy [Episode 9: The Science of Food]. There was only one spot left for one of us to make it to the finale. So you know it was Vittorio, Jesse and myself, and I was really nervous and we all wanted to be in the finals. This challenge was hard and really stressful for me.
FNC: Did you have a lot of experience using molecular gastronomy?
Rene: I have experience with molecular gastronomy, but when you deal with that kind of cuisine, you never know what’s in store depending on the type of dish. For me, it’s not a (ground) that I’m really familiar with. I do molecular gastronomy, but it’s not my forte, so I had to do something overly creative, and cool, a lot of elements of surprise to impress the judges. It paid off in the end.
FNC: There were many guest judges this season. What were the most valuable lessons you learned from them?
Rene: I think if we go back to episode number six, Restaurant Wars, we had Chef Morimoto as one of the judges. He gave me a word of advice, which was don’t try to over exceed yourself — sometimes less is more. You need to stay focused on what you’re doing. That’s really great advice. When dealing with food most of the time the ingredients make it taste good so don’t try to do too many things at once.
Chef Morimoto signing Rene’s knife in episode six
FNC: How did you prepare for coming on Top Chef Canada? Describe that process.
Rene: Before I sent in my application, I watched season three. I thought this show is a cool thing. I’m a huge fan of Danny Smiles [season three runner up]. I can relate to his style. Then I really wanted to submit my application and I get picked to do season four. Danny was a bit of an inspiration for me.
Danny Smiles was a guest judge in episode eight
FNC: Did you have a chance to talk to him when he was a guest judge in for the school lunch challenge in episode eight?
Rene: I did have a chance to talk to him a bit. He was down to earth, super nice. I was very happy, I finally got to meet someone who was part of season 3.
FNC: Which fellow competitors inspired and impressed you and why?
Rene: I think the chef that impressed me the most with their food, I would say was Vittorio. We’re friends now, after the show. I really like Rich, his approach to Aboriginal food, his passion, his roots and his heritage. I would say the two of them I think were the most impressive.
Rich and Rene teamed up in episode five’s quickfire challenge
FNC: Now that you’re a Top Chef, what are you plans for the future? How do you see your career changing or moving forward?
Rene: I’d like to take a few days to relax if time will allow it! Things are going to be really busy for me, being Top Chef. Eventually, I would like to do a trip across Canada – buy a motorcycle and just do a trip. And maybe have my own TV show eventually.
FNC: What cities would you look forward to seeing across Canada and trying their food?
Rene: I’ve never been to Calgary so I’d like to go there. I’ve never been to Vancouver. I’ve never been to Tofino. So it would be a long motorcycle ride. But those are places I’d like to see in this country. With a motorcycle you can stop anywhere, you can do your own thing. You’re not constrained to any timetable and you can just be yourself. So, eventually I’d like to do that.
FNC: Can you describe a few of tattoos from your food travels?
Rene: I’m a huge believer in Slow Food. Slow Food started in Rome, Italy and every time I go there I get inspired by all the agriculture, all the farming. Everything is super fresh and super clean. The food tastes so good. The food there is grown on farms 10 minutes, 20 minutes outside of the city. To me, having that connection with Slow Food, being passionate about food, being a chef, I always come back from Rome with a little tattoo. Whether it’s writing in Italian or Latin, or a part of a building in Rome. That reminds me of Slow Food and why I chose to become a chef.
Rene’s tattoos on display as he plates dishes in episode six
FNC: Which chef would be your dream to cook with (dead or alive)?
Rene: I really, really like Morimoto. He’s the ultimate chef, he’s the Iron Chef. Eventually if I get a chance to cook with him or maybe do a challenge with him, that would be amazing.
FNC: Can you give home cooks some simple cooking tips that can make a difference in their meals?
Rene: I would advise to really, really think about what they want to eat that day. What is it that you’re craving, that you really want to eat? That’s what you should buy and cook. Don’t make pasta if you want to eat steak! I And just enjoy it. Put some good music on, cook — have fun, have a glass of wine. If you’re not enjoying it, the outcome is not going to be good. So you have to enjoy it and connect with what you are doing.
And always, always try to support your local farmers whenever possible. Fresh is always best.
Congratulations to Rene on his big win! We can’t wait to see what he does next!