There’s nothing better than travelling — especially when it involves delicious food, salt-of-the-earth people, fresh air, and breathtaking scenery. I recently had the pleasure of revisiting a majestic part of Canada, Prince Edward Island, to experience an authentic slice of the east coast and attend the PEI International Shellfish Festival.
Entering its 25th year, the Charlottetown-based festival celebrates what PEI is most famous for — plump oysters, succulent lobsters and tasty clams and mussels — but, namesake aside, it goes beyond bivalves and crustaceans. The three-day festival is full of delicious tastings, celebrity chef demos, foot-stomping music, and fierce competitions.
One of the festival’s main draws is the Garland Canada International Chef Challenge, a three-day culinary competition where 12 chefs compete in a Chopped-style battle to win $10,000. I was honoured to judge this competition along with Chef Lynn Crawford and Chef La-toya Fagon. After an intense three days of critiquing and consuming 20 shellfish entrées, we announced our winner, Chef David Viana, Executive Chef/Partner at Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, New Jersey.
Following the win, I sat down with Chef David to learn more about his experience in PEI, his inspiration for creating his winning entrée, food for thought and exciting projects in the works.
Madame Marie: Congrats, Chef! How was your time in PEI and at the PEI International Shellfish Festival? What were your top three highlights (other than taking home $10,000 in the Garland International Chef Challenge, of course!)?
David Viana: PEI is such a beautiful island. I spent the entire weekend awestruck with the beautiful views and captivated by the hospitality and kindness of the people everywhere. PEI is one of those special places in the world where all the little details come together (food, people, and natural beauty) to make for a magical place.
Another highlight of PEI was the Raspberry Point oyster farm I had the privilege of visiting. The passion of the farmers and just beholding the sight of hundreds of thousands of oysters was truly special. Trying all the oysters wasn’t bad, either; each one was more delicious than the last.
Lastly, the fellow chef competitors were amazing and made the trip lastingly memorable. I truly treasure time spent with other talented and passionate people, it’s an opportunity to share experiences and to learn from one another. These are the moments that I bring back to my kitchen to inspire my food and menu.
MM: Me and my fellow judges, Chef Lynn Crawford and Chef La-toya Fagon, witnessed you compete against 11 other chefs in the Garland International Chef Challenge, and you won. Did you have a strategy during the competition? Or did you just wing it?
DV: I’ve been fortunate enough to have competed in Top Chef. Needless to say, the challenges were pretty intense and the competitors fierce. I think what I learned on Top Chef was to stay calm and to have the confidence to cook my food.
Going into the Garland Canada International Chef Challenge, I wanted to stay calm and plate the food that I make every day in my restaurant. It wasn’t until the finale that I changed my strategy. Competing against Chef Nick Chindamo all weekend, I knew he had a fine dining background and soulful approach to food. I knew that, to win, my dish in the finale not only needed to be inspired and thoughtful but also beautiful and artfully plated. Ultimately, my plan in the finale was to bring the flavor! I wanted to ensure my dish looked artful so that when it came to judging, it wouldn’t be about my style against Nick’s style… it would be: both dishes are beautiful, both chefs cooked from the heart, now which one tastes better?
MM: Your winning entrée was definitely full-on flavor. What inspired you to create it?
DV: My dish in the finale was lobster and mushrooms. Fall is my favorite time of year. In New Jersey, it is the time of year with the most abundant pantry. From figs to squashes, gooseberries to mushrooms, there’s no time of year where the ingredients inspire me more! I was homesick in the kitchen at PEI, and although I was surrounded by some of the most pristine shellfish in the world, I was fixated on the mushrooms. The mushrooms brought me back home and to fall. I knew I wanted to capture what I missed from home in my dish. Lastly, the umami of mushrooms paired with the sweetness of lobster felt like a winning combination to me.
MM: Félicitations! I loved the complex flavor profile, especially the addition of the citrus foam. What will you do with your $10,000?
DV: I’m taking a good portion of my winnings and contributing to my son Cole’s college fund. Apart from that, a vacation in January to some place tropical sounds nice.
MM: Sum up your cooking ethos in one sentence.
DV: I love feeding people.
That’s my sentence. I think sometimes aspiring chefs forget that feeding people is what we do. They’re so involved with the art of cooking that the hospitality of what we do is lost.
I was born to be a chef; it’s in my heart. Even as a child, if I made two sandwiches and one was even the slightest bit better than the other (the roll was more perfect or one had a crisper piece of lettuce) I always gave away the better sandwich. I spend my life, whether in the kitchen or at home, wanting to make people happy through food.
MM: That’s definitely the sign of a true chef. What’s your favorite ingredient to work with? And the one you loathe?
DV: My favorite ingredient to work with would have to be duck! I love duck’s crispy skin, duck confit, duck liver and hearts (I swoon). It’s an ingredient, when prepared well, shows you’re in the hands of a true craftsman. Duck can easily be chewy and fatty. It is truly an ingredient that speaks volumes of the chef preparing it.
I HATE okra! I can’t get past its slimy texture. I don’t understand why chefs cook with it. Its appeal is lost on me.
MM: When I come to Heirloom Kitchen, I won’t ask for okra! Tell me more about Heirloom Kitchen — its philosophy, the food, and your team!
DV: Heirloom Kitchen is a cooking school and restaurant in central New Jersey that focuses on elevated and interactive dining experiences.
Monday through Wednesday, Heirloom Kitchen offers public cooking classes for the community. Each of those nights has a different theme and is taught by one of the chefs from the restaurant (myself included). The cooking school is an important aspect of what we do at Heirloom… it connects us to the community (people love spending time with us in the kitchen, to get to know us personally and intimately), it generates revenue on nights where traditional restaurants (with all their food costs and employees) barely break even or sometimes close in order not to lose money. It provides balance and quality of life for our chefs and employees — cooking school nights are stress-free and an opportunity to set yourself up for the rest of the week (our chefs work a 50-hour work week at most).
Thursday through Sunday we’re a “polished not pretentious” place to have an amazing meal. We have an open kitchen concept where we invite people into our kitchen to have food and fellowship.
Ultimately, what makes Heirloom Kitchen truly special is in our team. I am lucky to work with five extremely talented chefs, among them our chef de cuisine Robert Santello, and Sean Yan, our pastry chef. It’s a collaborative culture where everyone contributes to the menu, we push to change the menu each and every week, and we push one another to constantly grow and evolve.
Our goal is to tell our stories through food. Let’s share a memory, what are we obsessing about, where did we forage this ingredient, what amazing meal led to this menu item you have in front of you as our guest. We always have something to say and something we’d like [our guests] to experience.
MM: I think I need to plan a road trip to New Jersey. Besides Heirloom Kitchen, what other projects do you have in the works?
DV: We are in the process of opening up a second Heirloom Kitchen in Philadelphia. I love Philly, its history, its food culture, and most importantly the hardworking people that make it unique and REAL. Opening in Philadelphia is something I’ve wanted for years and it feels truly special to see it happening on the horizon.
MM: If you were to dine with anyone — a famous chef or otherwise — who would it be? What would you eat/drink?
DV: I would love to dine with Jose Andres. I think he’s transcended the definition of what it is to be a chef. He’s a humanitarian, an advocate, he uses food to unite us all as a people, and I couldn’t imagine a more perfect person to talk to about life and food. He’s truly an inspiration. As far as what to eat? Tapas, of course! A nice meal of small bites that can last almost forever sounds perfect.
MM: And, last but not least, your words to live by are…?
DV: Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.