Young chef to be first-ever Canadian at Outback cook off
Published Sunday, September 18, 2011 7:19AM EDT
At just 20 years old, Kingston, Ont. chef Luke Hayes-Alexander will be the first ever Canadian to attend a world-renowned Cook Off in the Australian Outback.
After an entire adolescence spent as an executive chef in the kitchen, "fun" is not a word Hayes-Alexander uses often. But as he packs and prepares to step out of his comfort zone for the 12-day culinary trip to Sydney, Australia, he's ready for some excitement.
The Blinman Hotel Camp Oven Cook Off is a two-day outdoor cooking competition in the Outback that draws more than 500 chefs from all over the world.
"I'm incredibly excited. I mean, it's one thing to read books and cookbooks and travel books – which is incredible – but it's quite another to actually experience it yourself firsthand. I'm giddy about it," he said in a phone interview from Kingston.
But he'll be leaving his trademark fedora, dress shirts and ties at home. The highlight of the trip will be roughin' it outdoors with hundreds of other foodies.
"I don't get to have a lot of fun," he said. "I think that will be fun."
He'll drive through the Outback for a day and a half, crammed in the back of a Land Rover, to a small mining town called Blinman where tones of rocks and gravel will transform the area into a giant "creek bed" kitchen.
Flour and lamb
The competition has two categories. The first is flour. Competitors can make whatever they want, but it must be flour-based.
On the second day Hayes-Alexander says they'll be working with a leg of lamb. He's used to lamb. But the cooking methods are completely foreign to Hayes-Alexander.
"It's astounding to think this is just an oven in the ground. It really is just this bare bones oven in the ground," he said. "I mean, I'm used to a stove."
He doesn't know yet what he'll make himself, but has heard that the results are totally diverse.
"Thankfully you're allowed to bring other ingredients to make it your own, but there are so many different cultures represented – Yemeni, Italian, French – and this is all happening in this little town where 500 chefs converge."
In Sydney, he'll also get a behind-the-scenes – er, cutting board – look at some of Australia's hottest kitchens. Leading up the Cook Off, he'll spend 10 days staging with some of the country's top chefs, and eating award-winning meals.
"Even to eat dinner at one of these restaurants is something I've never been exposed to, never mind being able to do a couple little tasks in their kitchens," he said.
Luke, the chef
Australian food critic Franz Scheurer arranged Hayes-Alexander's itinerary.
The two became acquainted online after Scheurer read about Luke's Gastronomy! in the Financial Times.
They followed each other on Twitter, and soon began emailing recipes and even local ingredients back and forth.
"For example, I would mail these little fennel candies that I made. He just loved those," he said. "And then he might mail back some ingredients I can't get here, like grains of paradise, or black limes – these flavourful ingredients I just adore."
At Luke's Gastronomy! in Kingston, Ont., the young chef is used to creating elaborate dishes such as crisp smoked pork belly pizza, or "cosmic duck", a deconstructed plate of leg confit, "pulled" breast, caramelized onion pain perdu, tomato, duck comet, and marshmallow.
He even named a dish after Scheurer's Twitter handle – the "Blues Junkie Goat" – a deconstructed plate of goat, yogurt, coffee, chilis, spices, pomegranate, dates, almonds and carrots.
‘We just had to make the time'
In November, Scheurer and his wife made the trek to Kingston to try the young chef's cooking for themselves.
They were wildly impressed, and insisted the young talent make his own trip to Australia.
But he was always too busy. At just 20 years old, the young man has been an adult for almost his whole life. In the kitchen, his cuisine is reviewed in magazines and newspapers around the world.
This will be his first trip out of the country – out into the real world.
His last vacation was 8 or 9 years ago – not since he was 11 or 12 has he taken more than a few days off.
But he doesn't regret his choices.
"We just kept saying ‘At some point, at some point'…up until now, because I'm the only person in the kitchen, there's so much work to do, there's never really been a point we could just take off," he said.
"But this is so important we just had to make the time."