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Vancouver's Matt Stowe is Top Chef Canada

Crowded viewing party at Cactus Club Cafe watches as Food Network judges crown second Vancouver chef to win coveted title
As Richard Jaffray

A mother knows.

A few days after her 15-year-old son Matt started his high cooking course at Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary School, Brenda Stowe knew her son’s other career goals — including being a sports reporter — were on the chopping block.

“He was won over by the kitchen in Cloverdale,” she said Monday night after watching Matt crowned as Top Chef Canada on the Season 3 finale.

Turns out wives also know their husband’s destiny. When Stowe unpacked his bags to begin his eight-week filming stint last August, he found a note from his wife Amber. As well as all the usual “good lucks”, she wrote that she’d had a dream that she’d be on the finale, too, with their now 19-month-old son Gavin.

And there they were, walking onto the stage to congratulate Matt as the Food Network’s cameras caught their every joy-filled emotion seconds after the announcement was made.

Watching all this unfold at a packed viewing party at the Coal Harbour Cactus Club Café were the Stowes, including his vast, extended family, Richard Jaffray, the owner of Cactus Club Cafe, where Stowe works on developing new menus, friends, wellwishers and dozens of media.

Of course, as the hour-long show unfolded and thesuspense grew among the crowd, one of the very few people in the restaurant who knew the outcome was Stowe himself. But as he kept loosenly his shirt collar under the stare of every person and camera in the room, you’d think he was just as anxious to discover the outcome.

“That was an extremely hard secret to keep,” he told the crowd, who were glad they could finally shuck their anxiety and replace it with jubilation and pride.

Stowe’s final five-course menu was a trip down memory lane. It was all about milestones in his life — real ones, not just ones he thought would impress the judges. For instance, the roasted halibut chowder was the first dish he ever cooked for Amber when they were dating. The dessert was a refined S’Mores (complete with scorched marshmallow) that harkened back to childhood camping trips.

“He says food should take you back to a memory, just the way music does,” Amber told WE Vancouver. (Finale judge Jann Arden said that if his beet salad was a song, it was “I Would Die For You.”)

As well as praising his wife, his family, Jaffray, his fellow Cactus Club employees and local fishmongers and farmers for their support, Stowe thanked the man who gave him his start — his high school culinary teacher, Guy Ethier.

“It’s because I took that course that I’m here today,” Stowe said. “I can’t thank him enough. He was a huge influence.”

WE Vancouver tracked down a very surprised Ethier, who watching from the Cactus Club’s terrace.

“I was shocked,” Ethier says of hearing Stowe give him so much credit. “For him to credit me is ironic. Matt could already cook when he started the course. It was from Matt that I learned how to roast a tomato.”

Ethier says that at the time, he was chairman of Skills Canada BC and president of the Canadian Federation of Chefs and Cooks so he knew of competitions that Matt could enter and start making a name for himself. “I opened some doors but Matt did all the work,” Ethier says.

Watching him perform in the intense pressure-cooker that is Top Chef Canada, Ethier says that the Matt he saw on the screen was the same one he saw 15 years ago in class — polite, determined to succeed and a highly technical, skilled chef. “It’s like he hasn’t aged a day,” Ethier says, shaking his head. “I think it’s something in the Stowe gene.”

Stowe credits his upbringing, too. “My dad taught us all a really strong work ethic and about staying true to the course,” Stowe says of Norman Stowe, founder of the Pace Group communications company (and Kevin Falcon’s leadership campaign manager.) Matt and his five siblings were athletic and always on the go. Their mother was always there for them, including being in the kitchen so they could enjoy a home-cooked meal. “She committed that part of her life so we could have a great childhood.”

It was Amber who pushed Matt into applying for one of the 16 spots on the show. Instead of being an armchair chef, critiquing the contestants from the comfort of his couch, she said he should enter the fray.

Also watching from the Cactus Club’s terrace was last year’s finalist, Trevor Bird, who launch his own restaurant, Fable, on West 4th off the fame he garnered as a Season 2 finalist.

“I was nervous for the guy,” Bird said of what it was like to watch Stowe on the screen and being one of the few people in the crowd to have been on the same rollercoaster ride.

Bird said winning the title would be “life-changing, incredible” for Stowe, who will be under immense pressure in the coming months as he juggles work demands, being in the media spotlight and his family.

“It’s huge,” Bird says, his own mind going back to when he watched last year’s finals at Fable. “You’re putting yourself out to a nation [and winning is] like a lightning bolt to your career.”

Also in the crowd was Vancouver chef Vikram Vij, who was a guest judge on the show.

“We’ve all been there on the other side,” Vij says of the pressure that any passionate, committed chef feels every time they’re in a busy kitchen. He enjoyed watching the contestants explore their creativity, even after they’d been thrown a “bombshell.”

And while the fame that comes with being on the show is gratifying, Vij says every winner knows the viewers’ eyes will be on someone else a year from now. In the meantime, there are hungry customers waiting for you to do your magic for them.

“For us,” Vij says, “it’s day in, day out. You cannot rest on your laurels.”

And speaking of future contestants, Vij brought along a young chef and Little Locavore blogger, Liam Lewis, who was Vij’s sous chef on a recent live-streamed cook-along from the UBC kitchen. “This kid will be the Top Chef Canada one day,” Vij said, introducing his 11-year-old protégé. Food Network take note.


Photos 1 & 2:

As Richard Jaffray, the owner of Cactus Club Cafe, nervously watches the television screen in the moments before the new Top Chef Canada is announced, contender Matt Stowe gets some welcome diversion from his toddler son Gavin and wife Amber.

Photo 3:

Richard Jaffray, owner of Cactus Club Cafe, toasts Matt Stowe, the new Top Chef Canada, and his wife Amber.

Photo 4:

The Stowe family was out in force to cheer on Matt Stowe, centre, at the Top Chef Canada finale's viewing party at the Coal Harbour Cactus Club Cafe. From left, cousin Laura, sister Leah, sister-in-law Kristina and cousin Hayly.

Photo 5:

Matt's mother Brenda Stowe, a guest and Matt's former culinary teacher Guy Ethier at the Top Chef Canada viewing party at the Coal Harbour Cactus Club Cafe.

Photo 6:

Cactus Club's service director Sebastien Le Goff pours champagne.

Photo 7:

Vikram Vij, a Top Chef Canada judge, at the finale’s viewing party with Little Locavore food blogger Liam Lewis and his daughter Shanik.

Photo 8:

CBC Early Edition host Rick Cluff and wine writer DJ Kearney at the Top Chef Canada viewing party at the Cactus Club Cafe at Canada Place.