“If you don’t like it, it means you don’t know how to cook with it.”
In this episode of the podcast, The Dialog’s reporter-editor Ladshia Jeyakanthan and I talked to Chef Boban Mathew. Starting as a dishwasher, Chef Mathew explains what challenges he faced in the beginning of his career and what made him start teaching after two decades in the cooking industry. Tune in and find out how hard can be for a non-English speaking person to identify a lettuce and why, at the end, it’s always good to listen to your wife.
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: Hey and welcome to The Dialog‘s podcast! My name is Luiz Felipe Lamussi, I’m your host for this season. And today we have not one but two special guests. Actually she is not just a guest, she is my colleague at The Dialog. Hello Ladshia!
Ladshia Jeyakantan: Hi! It’s good to be here.
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: We have here also Chef Boban Mathew! He worked two decades in the cooking industry, from dishwasher to chef! But since 2010 he is a professor of the Culinary Management Program at George Brown College. Hello, Chef!
Chef Mathew: Hello!
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: Thank you so much for coming. And me and Ladshia were talking about. You were born in India and then you came here to Canada.
Chef Mathew: That’s right!
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: And… But you didn’t study any culinary course in India.
Chef Mathew: No.
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: What did you do there?
Chef Mathew: I was a student, a full time student. Doing my BA. A BA of philosophy. And no cooking background in India.
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: Nothing? But you liked to cook there or…
Chef Mathew: No, my mom cooked. So…
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: Like a regular person that had never cooked a lot?
Chef Mathew: That’s right!
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: Oh nice, nice… And then you came here…
Chef Mathew: And then I came here and the reality struck!
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: Yeah, yeah… I know it.
Chef Mathew: Like every new immigrant does it struggle in the beginning. Then was survival of the fittest. You have to go back to school. You have to do a profession.
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: What did you start studying here?
Chef Mathew: Here I had to go back to grade 12. I decide to go back to grave 12 so I can get that base education. Then I went to work as a dishwasher. That was my first gig, my first experience in a kitchen. And I guess I was a really good dishwasher.
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: Where was that?
Chef Mathew: That was at Ascot Hotel, Etobicoke. And I also used to clean the dishing washing, you know, the switch that comes off the dish machines. That was my choose, on my over time. You can call it. So, my begins were tough and tough…
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: I can imagine that… But from dish washing to start cooking what did you do? What did you been through?
Chef Mathew: I used to wash dishes and I was really good, fast with it. So, one of my chefs, he is a German chef. He is no more but his name was Chef Herman Van Beber. So he used to watch me wash dishes running the dishes so quick.
One day he call me on the office and he asked me ” Bob…” They call me Bob because my first name is Bobben. He said ” Bob is this what you wanna to do for the rest of your life?” I said “No chef!”. “What do you want to do?” ” I said I don’t know chef!”. Like any teenager I was confused.
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: How old were you?
Chef Mathew: I think I just about a teenager. I was around 20, 21. Don’t calculate my age. Then he asked me “Do you want to cook?”. I said sure! And I had no clue what cooking was all about. He had his colleague, he was a coordinator at Humble College in the North campus. His name was chef Frank Formella. They were classmates back in Germany.
So he made a call to Frank and he said ” I’m gonna send one guy up from my hotel! So can you take him on to the culinary program?” And he game me his knife kit, he gave me an apron, he gave me a jacket and I walked into the Humble College and that how I started. I didn’t even attend orientation. I’ve seat in the class and began my journey for three years of cooking.
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: Three years studying and then you graduated and you…
Chef Mathew: I graduated and I started working back is Ascot Inn. From their, the manager of the Ascot Inn went to become the manager at the Bradgate Arms on Avenue and St Clair. So I was sent over there and started my apprenticeship.
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: And there is something I’m really curious about. How is the environment there? Is too stressful? How is to work?
Chef Mathew: Well, is a lot of stress. The back of the house, if you ever get a chance, go and visit. It is a stressful atmosphere. Those years when I started cooking in the kitchen… First of all, my English was not that great!
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: Oh, you didn’t speak English?
Chef Mathew: I spoke but very minimum. So when I actually started cooking at Ascot Inn, I didn’t know what an iceberg lettuce was. We didn’t have iceberg lettuce in India. So my chef would scream my name out: ” Bob!” Then I would be all day in the fridge. Because I know him wanted for me to get something from the fridge. But I didn’t know what… So he would say “Bob get me some iceberg lettuce”, and I said ” No problem chef” And I would run into the fridge. And I open a fridge and I stand there because I didn’t know what an iceberg lettuce looked like.
So five minutes later still in the cold he would come in to the fridge. And he asked: “What are you here for?” I said ” Chef I’m looking for iceberg lettuce”. He said ” Here, right here!” Right under my nose in that box.
So that was my struggle. Try to know the ingredients, identify the ingredients were tough for me. But Herman Van Beber, still remember him with a lot of reverence, he is the one who took me on the side and he used to take each vegetable and put it on a table and tell me the name. In those years we didn’t have a smartphone, so couldn’t take a picture. So I had to draw picture in the small diary. What it looked like and what the name was. And still today I have that diary with me.
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: Really?
Chef Mathew: Yes I do. So when I started training apprentices later on down the years I would show my diary to them. With a lot of misspelling. I had no clue how to spell broccoli. If I could read it now I would now it is a broccoli. But ah, I didn’t know how to spell out broccoli.
Ladshia Jeyakantan: I’m gonna just ask about how you got into teaching? Like where, when that happened?
Chef Mathew: My family. This is why I started teaching. I had a passion for food and I love to teach. But it was my family that came first. For me my profession was second, my family was first. And we have two kids and my kids were really small. I will see them only maybe 45 minutes a day because I would driven to school, send them of at the parking lot and they went to school. And when I come back it’s 10:30, 11 o’clock and they would be sleeping. I it was going for years and years and years. 19 years.
I as in industry for 24 years, but after I got married was 19. It’s my 28th year of my marriage. And one day I was getting depressed. Not depressed, like discourage and angry because I could not spend more time with my family. I could not spend birthday, no father’s day, mother’s day, no Christmas, no new years. Just be always working. Because specially when you are a chef, you need to be there from ten in the morning ’till it close.
So, I would like to spend more time with my family and a question came. We were having a discussion and my wife said: “Can you not do something else?” This is what really change my mind. One day my wife asked me: ” Bob, you know, when was the last time we sat together and had a dinner as a family?” And I: ” Oh, last Sunday.” So, I would seat as a family only in Sunday. Everyday I came home at 11:30, 12. That made me really think. And she asked me “Is that you wanted to do for the rest of your life? Do you want to have one family dinner?” I said I didn’t know what else to do. All I know is how to cook.
She said ” Try something else, you are better at lot of other things.” I do a lot of music, I do a lot extra-curricular things. I said I don’t know what else to do and she said ” Why not try teaching?” I said: “Teaching what?” She said ” Teaching cooking!” I said: ” Well, that’s a good thing. Maybe I try teaching cooking.”
Ladshia Jeyakantan: Ok so was your wife that…
Chef Mathew: Yes, it was my wife who trigger that. The thought.
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: It’s always the wife, right?
Chef Mathew: Yes, yes! So I went to Centennial College on Saturday and Sunday, the whole day. It was called “Elder teachers training certification.”
Ladshia Jeyakantan: I’m just interested in like, what shocked or surprise you in all of this. Like when you came to Canada was there anything that was shocking or surprising? It doesn’t need to be food, it can be culture or language or anything.
Chef Mathew: I think the weather was the biggest shock of my life. Because I come from an area where is always plus 30, 35 and 40. This is our norm. So, first time snow hit me I think I was wearing my sandals. Weather was the biggest thing that really really shocked me. And the culture! Culture was a big shock. And the food, the ingredients, everything.
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: Yeah, how did you adapt to the Canadian food?
Chef Mathew: Only by trying. Like I was really nervous to try food because I didn’t know what would taste like, or I would get sick. But I saw people eating here, so if they are not sick I won’t get sick. And slowly you start trying. Start trying and trying all different kinds of flavors. You have to know the ingredient, what it is before you start eating it.
If I see a hot dog. for example, I didn’t know what a hot dog was. I saw that somebody was selling on the side of the street. “What is this long thing? Is this a candy? They are putting in the bun.” I didn’t know! We didn’t have hot dogs and sausages in India. But I tried and I said “Hm, I love it!” For the next three months that was my lunch! Because it was cheap. You know?
So if you asked me if I love hot dogs, of course I do love hot dogs! Is nothing wrong with a hot dog. But not everyday. Now and then you know? Fast food! People always say “Don’t eat fast food!” What’s wrong with fast food? Overdoing it is wrong. Now and then have a burger or…
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: When you only eat fast food, that is bad.
Chef Mathew: Yeah! But as a chef you need to taste everything! You can’t say you don’t like it! If you don’t like it it means you don’t know how to cook with it. Right? I used to have a lot of problem with oysters. Because I was not used to eating raw oysters. First time I had this I thought I was going to throw up. Because I didn’t like the slime in my mouth, life thing going down. And later I started liking it because you slowly have to push yourself to like it.
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: And a great thing about Canada is that you have people from everywhere, different communities. So, it’s hard to find a “Canadian food” but it’s easy to find French, Indian, Brazilian and Portuguese…
Chef Mathew: Canadian food, what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you say Canadian food?
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: Poutine.
Chef Mathew: That is only a small part of Canadian food. There is a lot Canadian food like first nation food. See, I was so intrigued when I went to the First Nation Sandy Lake. We were invented for this wedding…
My whole family was there, my wife and my younger daughter. We were there for one month so the community invited us to the local wedding. My goodness I never seen so much food in my life! All prepare on premise, in the parking lot or in the area.
All the mothers come together with the grand mothers and they have a big catering happening. You know, fire and bear. A whole bunch of moose. And I see so much stuff fresh bread made it. That is Canadian food!
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: OK! We thank you so much Chef Mathew! Thanks so much for coming by! It was really really great to have you here.
Chef Mathew: Thank you! I’m so glad to be here and share my experience. I hope you guys have a wonderful day.
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: You too, thank you! Thank you Ladshia!
Ladshia Jeyakantan: Thanks, Luiz! I know I was inspired by chef Mathew. And yeah I had a good time.
Luiz Felipe Lamussi: Me too, me too! And please, if you are listening to it and have any feedback or comments, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find other episodes and Chef Mathew’s profile written by Ladshia on our website: dialognews.ca. And don’t forget to tune in your Itunes app or any other podcast apps that you use to subscribe to our podcast. Thanks and see you next time! Bye!