Luc McCabe was 17 years old, sitting in a tiny, cramped room with a woman he had never met. Thousands of green beans were stacked along the walls. It was 7 a.m. For the next eight hours, his job was to shuck those beans.
It had only been a few weeks since McCabe had started at Algonquin’s culinary management program when a professor asked him to help an event at the National Arts Centre.
Now a graduate of the program and current executive chef at the NAV Centre, a conference centre in Cornwall, this was one of the most valuable learning experiences of 34-year-old McCabe’s life.
The Smith’s Falls native wears the low moments of his life like a badge of honour. He is proud of the work he’s done to get him to where he is now in life, and he strives to be a better chef every day.
But not much could prepare him to compete on the popular Food Network program Chopped Canada.
Four chefs are given four “mystery ingredients,” they must use to create a perfect dish within 30 minutes. Previous mystery ingredients have included pigs’ ears, cherry cheesecake and Catalina salad dressing. It’s a test of their individual skills as much as a competition, and many seasoned chefs cracked under the pressure.
“There’s no retakes, there’s no re-dos. It’s not fake in any way,” McCabe said.
“That timer starts, and you don’t look back.”
Mario Ramsay, a professor at Algonquin, helped him along in the journey that would eventually lead to Chopped. Ramsay offered McCabe the chance to help at the NAC.
Eight hours spent shucking beans wasn’t what he expected going into the experience, but it instilled in him a sense of respect for every person working in a kitchen, regardless of their station.
“Just cause you’re a pot-washer, doesn’t mean you’re any less important than a sous-chef,” said McCabe.
“You’re more important, in my eyes, as that pot-washer, because that’s a hard job. And that’s not a glamorous job.”
It was Ramsay, as well, that steered McCabe to apply to the over 100-year-old Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta directly out of college. He would spend four-and-a-half years at the hotel’s Fairview restaurant, immersed in the life of a cook.
By May 2004, McCabe was inducted into the Confrérie de la Chaînes des Rôtisseurs, a gastronomic society that operates around the world.
McCabe is a natural competitor, having been a star football player in high school. Vanderbilt University, located in Nashville, Tennessee, was interested in recruiting him to play at the age of 17.
“That was always my dream, and I suffered a knee injury,” McCabe said.
Culinary school was his second choice, and after a co-op program in high school gave him experience in the restaurant industry, he applied to Algonquin.
Then, during his first year, McCabe’s mother Debbie McCabe was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer.
“He talked about dropping out,” said Debbie. He wanted to have the time to take his mother to her treatments.
“It was only the two of us all those years,” she said.
The summer he graduated, McCabe packed his things and drove alone from his home in to his new life at the Fairmont Chateau.
The shock of the new – combined with missing the single mom that raised him – made him immediately regret the decision to leave home.
Debbie said she put on a brave front when he left, knowing that it would be best for Luc.
By his third week there, he knew he would stay.
“It was the best decision I’ve made in my life,” said McCabe.
McCabe wanted to use the Chopped Canada prize money to take his mother, 13 years out of treatment, on a vacation.