Ottawa restaurant Navarra has gone on the map as one of the country’s best eateries. Chef Rene Rodriguez, Navarra’s owner and culinary brain, was recently acclaimed as Canada’s Top Chef. Rodriguez, who was born in Canada’s capital but lived in Mexico between the ages of five and 17, explains that he derives his cooking inspiration from “anything that involves some type of art,” for instance the open markets in Mexico or architecture and food in Barcelona. Travel is certainly one influence, but music is also important to Rodriguez, who “always” has something on in the background while cooking; auditory favorites include Rush, Supertramp and U2.
During his upbringing in Mexico, Rodriguez tells me, he explored a new palate. The food there was always fresh and he especially loved the slow-cooked Bolognese pasta his mother made, a classic dish that is still a favourite though it doesn’t hail from Mexico. When he returned to Canada in 1990, Rodriguez knew he wanted to pursue a career as a chef. He started working in restaurants as a dishwasher and prep cook to save for Le Cordon Bleu. During our chat, it quickly becomes apparent that Rodriguez is, through-and-through, an artistic type. He tells me that if he weren’t a chef, he would have liked to have studied architecture, another creative and hands-on field.
In the kitchen, Rodriguez’s favourite things to work with are fresh tuna, wild salmon, scallops and spot prawns. “I love raw preparations” like ceviche and tartare. He explains that this method of serving really brings out the taste. I ask Rodriguez what made him such a stellar contender on Top Chef Canada’s Season 4. He believes the fact he was “exposed to good food as a kid in Mexico” helped, and that the show inspired him “to reconnect with [his] background in terms of Mexican food.” Before, his cooking was more geographically disparate and on the show he realized the powerful influence of his roots on his culinary creations. Then Rodriguez tells me something that surprises me: the timeline on Top Chef is “pretty much the same” as the typical restaurant kitchen schedule. It seems like the pace is much quicker on TV, but realizing the extent to which these chefs speed along in the kitchen gives me a lot of respect for the profession. Chefs are given two hours: “it’s not that much different from working in a restaurant…you need to get things done in the least amount of time.”
The best cooking advice Rodriguez could give is that “whenever you want to… entertain people you need to cook for them something that you crave to eat that day.” It’s not all about impressing your guests; it’s also about being inspired. He also suggests you taste your food throughout the cooking process to “develop your palate.” In fact, he cites forgetting to take tastes as the most common mistakes among amateur or new chefs: “some young cooks don’t taste their food as they go. They’re just assembling food and putting things together,” laments Rodriguez. If I could cook like Rene Rodriguez, I’d take tastes too.
Originally published on cuative.com. Photos Retrieved from Rene Rodriguez.