A stainless steel battleground, the kitchen stadium is a fixture of The Iron Chef, the television show where culinary masters face off, hoping to burnish their golden reputations as celebrity chefs. Outside of the glow of that limelight, there is another world of cooking competitions, a world the public isn't really privy to, where food writers aren't on the RSVP list and it takes more than Antonio Sabato Jr.'s palate to pick a winner. This is the world of chef Luis Clavel.
Sitting in the sunny beiges of Cafe 101, there is nothing exceptional about the space. It looks exactly like you would expect a restaurant in a Holiday Inn to look. Chef Clavel strolls across the dining room, looking more executive than chef in his suit jacket, just as likely to have his BlackBerry in hand as he is, well, a blackberry. Eighteen months ago he swooped into the Holiday Inn Harbourview intent on reinventing what it is to eat at a family hotel. "The food that we do here is not what you'd think out of a Holiday Inn hotel," says Clavel.
The modern Canadian cuisine offered at Cafe 101 reflects Clavel's passion for Nova Scotia. Influenced by years of living in Central America, cooking in local kitchens that include McKelvie's, Salty's, Elements and even a short stint working under celebrity chef Grant Achatz at Chicago's prestigious Alinea, there is at once an accessibility and worldliness to each item.
"My goal was to be an executive chef at a hotel," he says. So like a young knight might prove himself by slaying dragons and swinging swords on a battlefield, Clavel grabbed his knives and started chopping away at the competition. "I didn't want to come out of college and then all of a sudden be cooking on a line for 15 or 20 years. I needed to build up my resume, so I said well, what's a better way than to start competing?"
Plucking a chef's knife out of a block isn't exactly pulling Excalibur out of a stone, but if wielded right it certainly gets results. "You win, you get a medal, you get a trophy, but as a young chef you can kind of 'make it' in a market where it used to be people were much older."
After only a handful of years, at the age of 31, he has reached his goal. He also has six competitive trophies, including the 2008 Atlantic Provinces Competing Chef of the Year award. Last year he came in second in the Canadian Culinary Federation's National Chefs Challenge, and for the past two years the Nova Scotia Chefs and Cooks Association has named Clavel Chef of the Year.
What he doesn't have is instant name recognition outside of the culinary world. And while competitions will keep his star shining professionally, for now he is one of the best kept secrets in Halifax's restaurant scene, hidden behind the preconceived notions that the words "holiday" and "inn" seem to conjure.
"It's not about whether [you're] a TV chef, a restaurant chef or a hotel chef," he says, with a shrug. "It's just about being a good chef. As long as I feel happy with myself and the food I present, that's my thing."
His passion for local ingredients and Nova Scotian flavours is evident in the food at Cafe 101. The simply titled "seafood" dish has local salmon and scallops, along with Thai prawns, served with orzo, fennel and roasted red pepper in a delicately spicy yellow curry broth. The seafood has all been lovingly cooked, with a crispy sear on the flaky, buttery-rich salmon and a golden caramelization on the tender scallops. This is not the "kids eat for free!" Holiday Inn I remember from my youth. In a competition, this place would win hands down. And I bet Antonio Sabato Jr. would agree.
Holiday Inn Harbourview,
101 Wyse Road, Dartmouth,