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As a boy, Ian MacDougall (PCK ’11) remembers standing on a stool, his chin barely grazing the top of the counter, so he could help his grandmother make homemade pasta or roll out dough for gnocchi.
Now 23 years old and working as the chef de partie of the meat section at Calgary restaurant, Model Milk, MacDougall is realizing the influence those memories have had on him.
“When I was a kid, I never thought that my grandmother made me want to cook,” says MacDougall, “but later on, after she had passed away, I started to think about her and then I remembered the smells and the food – that really was the beginning for me.
“Now, every time I cook, I love it more and more.”
In September, MacDougall won the Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship competition – a prize that includes a $10,000 scholarship and a chance to intern at an international restaurant.
During the final round of competition in Vancouver, MacDougall cooked alongside seven other contestants from across Canada in an intense black box competition. His main dish of roasted squab with lobster agnolotti, nasturtium braised endive and squab jus, followed by his dessert of sea buckthorn panacotta with pears, oats and meringue, wowed the panel of high-profile judges including chefs Mark McEwan, Scott Jaeger, Kristian Eligh, Anthony Walsh and David Hawksworth.
“It was incredibly intimidating,” says MacDougall. “I think we’ve all seen Mark McEwan on TV – he can be pretty harsh sometimes. I thought he was going to hate my dish but in the end he had the best things to say about it.”
MacDougall remembers hearing words like “perfect” and “well-balanced” as the judges evaluated his dishes, with the exception of one judge who commented on the presentation of his dessert and another who found some shell in his lobster sauce.
“The other seven chefs and I all felt extremely proud to be there. We all work really hard and most of us have been doing this since we were very young. To have someone at that level say, ‘Well done!’ means so much.”
The cooking competition arena isn’t foreign to MacDougall. In 2011 he won gold for cooking at the Skills Canada National Competition under the coaching of SAIT chef instructor, Georg Windisch.
MacDougall’s experiences in competition are a real-life example of what can be seen on the Food Network any night of the week. In her study of the Food Network’s evolution, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee associate professor Tasha Oren describes the basic formula of food competitions on television as having: “a larger-than-life host, a specifically defined challenge, bombastic music, a set time limit, a panel of judges, and a cast of contestants whose back-story and biographical detail serves to heighten the stakes and fan the program’s already heated dramatic flame.”
SAIT chef instructor, Michael Allemeier, believes these cooking competitions are hugely beneficial to the industry and the young chefs who are entering the kitchen.
“A lot of competing is just preparing the mind,” says Allemeier. “You might have three equally competent competitors from a technical perspective, but who’s got the head game? Who can manage the stress and the timelines?
“Skills are irrelevant if you can’t control the mind and bring the package together in the allocated time under very specific conditions.”
If MacDougall’s career is the example, competition can definitely have a positive effect on a young chef’s career. After winning Skills Canada in 2011, MacDougall went on to practice his craft in England at such places as Michelin-starred restaurant, L’Autre Pied, and at The Five Fields, which won the BMW Square Meal award for Best UK Restaurant in 2013. In 2014 MacDougall returned to Calgary where he is now working at the award-winning Model Milk bistro.
Chef Allemeier goes so far as to say he wishes all his students would get involved with the Skills competitions in their regions. “I can’t emphasize enough the importance and benefit that students who participate in Skills have. It seems to push them so much further ahead on the curve. The ambition, the dedication, the workmanship, time organization, management – all these things are just huge advantages.”
MacDougall credits his success to the teaching and coaching he received from Allemeier and Windisch at SAIT as well as the support of Model Milk executive chef Justin Leboe and all of his colleagues at the restaurant. “Everyone was always showing interest in my progress, tasting my dishes and telling me what they thought I had to work on. I had a massive amount of support.”
Going forward MacDougall isn’t sure where he’ll land. He knows he wants to take advantage of the scholarship’s opportunity to study at an international restaurant and has been working with the Hawksworth organization to find placement.
“My network has definitely grown a lot,” says MacDougall. “I went from no one knowing me because I’m just a 23-year-old cook, to having a lot of well-known chefs sending me messages and people I know from the industry dropping by the restaurant to offer congratulations. It’s been fantastic.”
MacDougall says if there’s one piece of advice he’d give young chefs just starting out it would be: “Don’t be comfortable – make sacrifices, move to a different country, explore new worlds. It’s really hard, but you have to do it.”
Written by Alison O'Connor