Competitive Streak: Q&A with Rahil Rathod, one of Canada’s top culinary competitors

Interview by Gregory Furgala

Last July, Rahil Rathod, sous chef at Delta Hotels, Toronto, won best veal dish and lead Team Canada to a sixth-place finish at the Global Chefs Challenge in Malaysia. Rathod and his team put in six months of preparation, tweaking menus, evaluating product and ceaselessly practicing, all in the spare moments they had from their actual jobs. À La Minute caught up with Rathod and chatted about his culinary background, how he got into competitive cooking and how it felt to represent Canada.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

À La Minute: Tell me about your professional background. How, why, and when did you start cooking?

Rahil Rathod: I grew up in Gujarat, India, and started cooking when I was young. My mother is a really good cook, and seeing her cooking made me kind of a foodie. I specialized in cooking in my third or fourth year of hospitality school because by then I knew I wanted to be a chef for life. After that, I went to Scotland for a year and then moved to the Middle East. I worked there for almost seven years, and now I’m here, calling Canada home. Leaving Gujarat really expanded the ingredients and techniques I knew.

ÀLM: Where have you worked, and how did you get involved in competitive cooking?

RR: From the start of my career, I wanted to prove myself. I went into local competitions in the United Arab Emirates, in Dubai, and after winning some local competitions, I got the chance to represent the UAE internationally. From there, I became a team captain for the junior UAE team for three years. When I came to Canada, I really wanted to start my career on strong ground, and I wanted to represent my new home.

ÀLM: Where did you start working when you came to Canada?

RR: I had to start from scratch since it’s a new country. I was a chef de cuisine in the UAE, but I told myself, “Fine, I’ll start from scratch.” So I started cooking at Ritz-Carlton, and then I moved to Delta, where I became a sous chef. I came to Delta, I spoke to [executive chef Keith Pears] on a subway ride, and I said, “You know, there’s this competition going on, and I submitted my name.” A lot of companies don’t support that type of thing, but he said, “No problem. That’s a no-brainer.” And he supported me throughout my journey.

ÀLM: How is cooking in a competition different from cooking in a restaurant?

RR: It’s very different. In a normal kitchen, you”re cooking behind a wall. You”re in your own space, with your own freedom. In a competition, you have no privacy. For me, at the Global Chefs Challenge, I had this big honour of representing the country. I also put in a lot of hard work, and I didn’t want it to go to waste. In a restaurant, you have to impress the guests. In a competition, you have to impress the judges and you have the added pressure of representing the country.

ÀLM: Is it difficult working under that kind of pressure?

RR: I’m a pretty well-seasoned competitor. I’ve competed in almost 40 international competitions, and that’s obviously given me a lot of chances to learn from my mistakes, so I can handle that kind of pressure pretty well, as long as have the chance to prepare.

ÀLM: What did you do to prepare for this competition?

RR: We formed a team of people who all helped on different aspects. We had a team photographer, Owais Rafique, who took pictures as we went because there were things we wanted to replicate every time, so we needed a lot of pictures of everything. Chef Pears was our team manager, and he found suppliers, got product for us, talked to people at fundraisers — all that stuff. Viktoriia Avtomonova coordinated everything, and Gaurav [Rajput], Gilbert [Roy] and Jay [Bhatt] worked alongside me and Kevin [Navjeet Singh Masuta]. Most of us didn’t have a day off for six months. We’d work for five days for the company, then spend two days working toward the competition.

ÀLM: How did you feel going into this competition? Did you prepare enough?

RR: I think we had enough time to prepare, and we did pretty well. But there are other big countries that work five days a week just to prepare for this competition. It’s hard to compete against people who make this their full-time job.

ÀLM: Aside from winning, what were you hoping to accomplish in this competition?

RR: I think it’s the journey that matters. It’s good to make friends, to make connections, to learn something new in a different country. That’s the best thing you can get out of competition. I might have a skill set another guy doesn’t have, and he might have something I don’t have, so I learn from him and he learns from me. Winning is important as well, but it’s the icing on the cake.

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ÀLM: Your veal dish won best meat dish. How’d that come together?

RR: I had to use veal osso bucco, veal tongue and veal loin, and I had to somehow infuse Canadian ingredients and culture into it, but I still wanted it to be taste like veal. We went veal loin, Perigord black truffles, braised cabbage and squash that was flavoured with honey produced by Niagara College. The veal tongue was cooked for four hours with a classic Perigord-red wine jus. We also had this amazing “Truffalo” cheese that’s buffalo milk and truffle. Fifth Town is 40 km out of Toronto and only makes 40 wheels per year. It’s such a good cheese.

ÀLM: How did it feel getting feedback on that dish?

RR: They started going on and on, and they were asking about each and every component: “How’d you do that? How does that cheese taste like that? How does that honey taste like that?” I was thinking I had done everything wrong, but then they said, “That was one of the best dishes in the whole competition today.”

It made me really happy because we had quite a few struggles going to Malaysia. We had trouble getting product, and we had to buy some equipment there, which was difficult. Plus, we  didn’t speak the language, so a translator would have to come out, you know? But our hard work paid off.

ÀLM: Do you think you’ll go to Russia for the next Global Chefs Challenge.

RR: I’d like to compete, but I don’t know for sure. It’s in two years; who knows what’ll happen?

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