Local chefs are camera-ready

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B.C. winners of Superstar Chef Challenge who grew up cooking are made for TV

Three years. Three winners. Since the first competition in 2005, every winner of the Food Network Canada's Superstar Chef Challenge has been from B.C. In 2005, Just One Bite's Dana McIntyre was the first. In 2006, Anthony Sedlak, now 24, took top spot. He now has a solid 26 episodes two seasons' worth of his about-to-air show The Main in the can (it launches Monday [October 1]) and is gearing up to shoot Season 3 early next year. Gurj Dhaliwal, 28, this year's champ, is just back from Toronto, where ideas for his show are being worked up, with a proposed early-2008 shooting date.

The Straight caught up with Dhaliwal and Sedlak to find out why local cooks come up winners so often. Dhaliwal feels that the three Vancouverites were focused and really wanted it. Sedlak figures it's the right mix of cooking, food knowledge, and personality. With both, it's obvious that cooking chops, energy, and charisma had plenty to do with it.

Both men sent in audition tapes for the 2006 contest. Dhaliwal made a lemongrass coconut crí¨me brí»lée that didn't succeed because the network thought it was too generic. After the deadline was extended to attract more "TV-personality-calibre" entries, Sedlak's girlfriend urged him to enter at the eleventh hour. He made the cut.

On his second try in 2007, Dhaliwal broke all the rules. Instead of cooking on camera, he made a batch of butter chicken (a universally popular South Asian dish), hit Robson Street, and filmed a "streeter", handing out samples to passersby. As a professional chef with 10 years' experience (CinCin, Fairmont Waterfront, Four Seasons Sydney, and Diva at the Met), he figured he didn't need to show that he could cook. His personality and enthusiasm charmed window shoppers, who ate up his food and his shtick. He was in.

For Sedlak and Dhaliwal, cooking was their first and only job. Raised in a traditional Indian family (his stay-at-home mom was "a terrific cook"), Dhaliwal recalls family gatherings when he was five or six where the women cooked together, filling the house with wonderful smells. Constantly underfoot, incessantly asking questions, he was soon put in front of a television tuned to cooking shows Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Graham Kerr, and James Barber instead of cartoons, and ate it up.

When Dhaliwal, honour student and valedictorian, opted for Vancouver Community College's cooking program and formal apprenticeship, his parents were unhappy that he hadn't followed his siblings to university. "It was difficult for Indian parents and very different for a child to pursue a trade. In India, chefs are usually lower-class and not revered," he said.

Sedlak unwittingly fell into cooking when he got a job bussing in the cafeteria at Grouse Mountain at 13 to fund a snowboard pass. Soon, as employee of the month, he was rewarded with dinner at the Grouse Nest (now the Observatory). He recalled: "It was my first formal dining experience. I didn't know what we ordered, but when the food came I'd never seen food put together like that, and it sparked my interest right then."

He quickly moved from bussing to cooking staff meals, as well as hot dogs and burgers. Next up, the bistro kitchen, and by 16, the Grouse Nest, loving the work and the camaraderie. Here he completed his four-year formal apprenticeship, including monthlong stints at VCC. At 20, he went to London, England's heralded La Trompette, a life-changing experience working 18-hour days with a tight young brigade. "I learned more in one year than all the previous years, and I was more in love with cooking than ever before," he said.

After his Superstar Chef Challenge win, Sedlak left Grouse to shoot The Main, each episode of which focuses on a single main-dish ingredient, like lamb chops. On camera, Sedlak's a natural. Except for lead-ins to commercial breaks, nothing is scripted. The toughest part? "Toning things down and simplifying my techniques," he said.

"It was really hard to come back and keep my win secret," Dhaliwal said. Prepping for a career change, he left Diva at the Met, spent time with family, dropped 31 pounds in a fitness challenge, and is starting GD Gourmet, a personal-chef/healthy-meal-delivery service in Surrey White Rock. And there'll be a cookbook before he's 30.

Dhaliwal's show is in development to see where he fits into the network. He's thinking streeters or a talk/cooking show with special guests. "I want to be a face of the network," he said.

Does his ethnicity give him an edge? "I think so because there's not anything like that on the network," Dhaliwal said. "I'm a bridge to different experiences and cuisines, and can reach a broad demographic. I'm a classically trained French chef, but facets of Indian cuisine will likely seep in."

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