Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Chef Nic Prong on Cooking in Port Credit, Social Media and Young Talent

Despite our busy schedules, my friend Nic Prong (@niccancook), executive chef at Ten Restaurant & Wine Barand I would make an effort to meet up for a wine + cheese ("w+c") night once every couple of months. Given our almost opposite schedules we found that this was the easiest way for us to catch up: Nic after service (him having w+c for dinner) and me after dinner (me having w+c for dessert). What we talk about naturally revolves around food - we would chat for hours on end about it. It's always fun, as an avid diner and food blogger, to discuss food and the city's restaurant scene with a chef because it tends to spark very interesting discussions. Having said that, I thought it would be a fun idea to do an interview w/ Nic here so that you guys can know more about him :D In the Q&A below, Nic explains his food philosophy, why he prefers being the 'big fish' in Mississauga rather than doing the 'downtown thing', and his thoughts on social media. Nic also discusses the issues surrounding young cooks and why they should stay away from watching the Food Network.

Where have you worked prior to Ten
I started off working for Mövenpick BCE Place as an apprentice when I was 14. I then went to work at Snug Harbour as a pantry cook (I worked there for 6 years). After there I took a corporate gig for Moxies which only lasted 6 months. I then came to Ten Restaurant where I have been for 8 years.

How have those experiences shaped who you are and how you cook today? 
My time at Mövenpick was my introduction into the culinary world, more specifically the European Brigade style of kitchen structure. I was a young kid surrounded by adults and it was a bit of a culture shock. Snug Harbour taught me how to deal with high volume but while there I got caught up with all the trappings of restaurant life including drugs and alcohol which in all honesty set back my culinary development. Working at Moxies taught me that I never want to work in a corporate structure restaurant. In my eyes corporations have no place in the industry. When you put profit above quality ingredients, guest fulfillment and staff development, you end up destroying the beauty of the industry.

What is your style of cooking? How and why does it appeal to you? 
I am an ingredients first cook. I try to let the ingredients create the dish with doing the least amount of manipulation possible. My classroom and inspiration is the bounty that is Canada and enjoy most highlighting the seasonality and cultural variations that surround us. I also like to be tongue in cheek (no pun intended) and have fun while doing nose to tail cooking.

Do you see any differences between diners in Mississauga and those in downtown Toronto? 
The irony is that the daytime diners of Toronto are the night time diners in Mississauga. There seems to be something lost when a commuter travels west across the 427. I find a large contingent of suburbanites like to play it safe when dining out, the penne alfredo and chicken caesar crowd which at the end of the day makes them happy so I bite my tongue and make it. That being said there still exist some loyal 'foodies' here in 'sauga.

With so many restaurants opening in downtown, do you feel 'secluded' from all the action? 
I'm often asked why I don't do the 'downtown thing' and I think it's this question that's one of the main reasons I stay put in suburbia. I fear that a lot of aspiring cooks feel that it's location that's going to hone their craft or somehow they will become instant stars. Unfortunately, more than not they find the opposite is true. There is much to be said for being the Big Fish. I may not get all the media attention but being a cook is about your relationship with your guest, not your relationship with Toronto Life or NOW Magazine. I have the opportunity to feed 300 people on any given Saturday and that's why I cook. Too many cooks or pseudo chefs are trying to get lights around their name these days and forgot that cooking is and intimate relationship between cook and diner and that's all you need.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face right now at Ten?  
When you oversee an 8,000 square foot supper club you have to be all things to all people. It's a constant balancing act between classes, filling 300 seats, feature days of the week, private events and external catering. I often feel more like an hotelier rather than a chef.

Social media plays a big part nowadays for diners. Whether it's Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, Urbanspoon etc., their feedback and reviews are almost instant. As a chef, how do you feel about the impact of social media in the restaurant industry? Good? Bad? 
I came to social media a bit late in the game but I have found it one of the greatest tools that I use in my kitchen. I love that I get to use Twitter and Instagram to highlight food and staff and promote the restaurant and share information industry wide. With shrinking advertising dollars it's a great way to bring diners through the doors. However like most things there exists a downside. As I value the opinions of all my guests equally and I use feedback of experience as a growing tool for us, I find there exists a minority who have unfairly empowered themselves to sway the industry to their ignorant views of culture. I refer to them as Paris Hilton diners. They have done nothing to earn their attention but to purchase a smart phone, take a picture and bitch in real time. It's unfortunate because I truly believe the creation of food review sites have democratized the industry and opened up a whole new way to look at food. Just spoiled by a few idiots I guess.

There seems to be a trend where young cooks can't seem to stay working at one place for long. How do you feel about that? 
I see it everyday, resumes with 10 plus kitchens on it. They just end up in the garbage. Young cooks or mercenaries think they are acquiring more skills jumping from kitchen to kitchen leeching knowledge and menu ideas from different chefs but in the end they are only hurting their futures. The number one skill you can bring to me is dedication, the only skill you can't be taught.

What advice and tips can you offer up and coming cooks? 
First, turn off the Food Network, Hell's Kitchen and Boiling Point. Watching these shows over and over will not help you or give you a reality about what is going to be expected of you. You first need to acknowledge what skills you have and what skills you're lacking then start there. You must know your basics. I see too many entrepreneurs first, cooks second these days throwing bacon on everything and making you line up for it. You need to know your standards. Can you make a loaf of bread from scratch, fillet a whole fish, not split an aioli? These are what you need to start off in kitchens. Second, lose the ego and attitude. Realize that you know nothing but if you just stop talking and start listening and taking notes you will uncover a wealth of knowledge in a short time. Third, understand the nature of the business, in that it is a business; the guest must always come first. Fourth, do not invest in expensive knives and a library of cookbooks, save your money and treat yourself to eating out at restaurants...this is where knowledge is gained. Lastly, put the bong down. If you can cut out the extra curriculars and spend your off time focused on food you’ll get further faster...stop trying to be Bourdain.

What's next for you?
Who knows, if this year has taught me nothing but security in this industry is non-existent (Nic is referring to his boss’ decision to sell Ten's sister restaurant West 50 Pourhouse & Grille, where his younger brother helmed the kitchen). At the end of the day you just have to keep cooking, getting inspired and inspire others. I have my goals and I know where I want to be in a few years but no matter where I cook I know that this is the life I love and I cannot see myself doing anything else.

Related Posts:
Ten Restaurant & Wine Bar
A Sneak Peek at Ten Restaurant's New Menu
Hunter's Wine Dinner at Ten Restaurant & Wine Bar