Hayden Johnston has a lot of culinary experience under his belt at only 30-years-old, and now he can add a spot in the four of Top Chef Canada to that list. We sat down with Top Chef Canada Season 7 contestant Hayden Johnston to get the scoop on the competition going into the final four, his love for Thunder Bay and the culinary destinations he’d like to visit.
You’re very passionate about your hometown of Thunder Bay. How did the city shape you as a chef?
Growing up in Thunder Bay, you spend a lot of time outside, not necessarily foraging per se, but fishing and hunting. There’s a lot of time gathering with friends and family because it’s a smaller town. It’s close-knit, so we spend a lot of time eating and barbecuing [together].
Were there any hometown dishes that you brought to Toronto with you that people didn’t understand, or that it took them a while to warm up to?
There’s one in particular and I actually cooked it for my first episode — the Shoreline Lunch. That’s something we run as a feature at [Richmond Station] all the time. It’s basically battered and fried fish with roasted potatoes. Maybe there’s a pierogi or two, a can of beans, and whatever else is in the cooler. We would do a more refined version of it. At first, people didn’t get the concept, but now there are diners who come to the restaurant asking when we’re doing Shoreline Lunch next. That’s something that I grew up cooking and eating back home, definitely with friends and family, and something we’ve translated into a more mainstream dish in Toronto.
Is there one item specific to Thunder Bay that you really enjoy eating, like Persians or Finnish pancakes at The Hoito?
My dream is to take over the Hoito. I want to be the chef, cook breakfast and lunch, and be done. It’s just so Thunder Bay. There are so many ingredients, dishes, and techniques that are uniquely “Thunder Bay.” The Persian is a good example of that. We have a large Finnish population, so Finnish pancakes are definitely something, even if you’re not from Thunder Bay. You drive through and everybody goes to the Hoito.
Sometimes I feel awkward throwing that city so much love. People always ask, “What’s so good about Thunder Bay?” For me, it’s home. My family and friends are still there, and I always say that if I have the right opportunity to go back, I totally would.
Get the recipe: Thunder Bay Persian Rolls
What was your favourite challenge so far during this season of Top Chef Canada?
My favorite challenge was the Quickfire where we got to cook with a family member. Seeing my mom’s bright, smiling face was the best part of filming the whole season. Even better than my Elimination Challenge win. You’re in a stressful environment for so long that seeing a friendly face that you know is on your team is pretty nice.
Which dish are you most proud of so far this season?
I’m most proud of my fermented beef plate that I won the Nordic challenge with. It was very representative of the food that I like to eat and cook, with fresh, clean flavors that are big, bold and acidic.
Do you have a list of culinary destinations that you’d like to visit if you win Top Chef Canada?
If there was one area I could focus on, it would be the Southern US. Not barbecue necessarily, but the Sean Brock style of seasonal cooking. I spent two weeks staging at Husk years ago. I like to see the history of food and [learn about] a group of people that have something that’s specific to them. Finding those little niches is really fun. There’s a place in Tennessee called Blackberry Farm that does a lot of [farm to table cuisine]. At the restaurant, we cook a ton of vegetables, so [visiting] Southern California, Napa or Yountville where it’s vegetable-focused would be really neat.
I’m more ingredient or technique-focused. I went to Husk to learn how to cook rice and beans. I really wanted to learn how to pick vegetables from a garden, so I staged two weeks with Dan Barber at Blue Hill in New York. When I want to learn something, I go and find the person who does it best.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Watch Hayden on the finale of Top Chef Canada on Monday, May 20 at 10 P.M. E/P.