Interview: Top Chef Masters alum, Neal Fraser

Posted by Ivy Knight, September 10, 2016


When I catch up with native Angeleno and Top Chef Masters alum, chef Neal Fraser, on Saturday afternoon, he is just recovering from a week spent cooking in the middle of the desert for Burning Man. We talked about his Toronto-born mentor, his love of Canadian whisky and his plans for the imminent Redbird and Fritzi Dogs pop-ups during TIFF next week at the Drake Properties.

NF

Neal and his partner (+ wife) Amy

You grew up in L.A. and this will be your first time in Toronto since your early teens, are you coming with any preconceived notions about this city? About Canada?

I like Canada. I was in Montreal recently in fact. I think we (L.A. and Canada) have a similar rap, that maybe we’re a bit misunderstood. People’s preconceived notion about each place is probably off by a bit. L.A. is so spread out and some people never really understand what L.A. really is.

It’s a city of transients, there’s not a lot of people who are actually from L.A., when I say I grew up here people look at me like I have two heads.

As for Toronto, it seems pretty welcoming but urban, in a good way. The people seem very accepting. There’s a restaurant across the street from Redbird called BadMaash and the owners are from Toronto, if everyone in Toronto is like them then it is definitely a great city.

HotDog

Tell me about the Fritzi Dog pop-up at The Drake Hotel, what’s your plan?

We developed the recipe for the dog ourselves, and the scaling took the most work. Going from a fifteen pound batch to a thousand pound batch was the hardest part. Some ingredients were too strong while others weren’t strong enough.

With Fritzi Dog it is all about the dog and the bun. We’re not trying to take something that’s a marginal product and make it taste good. We’re using prime cuts. For the pop-up at The Drake Hotel we’re doing the carrot dog and the pork dog. The thing that’s a little different about our dogs is that they’re not all pureed, some have more of a sausage texture. The one we’ll be serving has more of a coarse texture. For the carrot dog we cook the carrots sous vide for about two hours, and serve it with deep fried Brussels sprouts and gremolata. We’re going to make everything, the dogs and the buns, from scratch with Alex and her team.

What are your go-to hot dog toppings?

I’m more of a purist personally when it comes to hot dogs, just ketchup and mustard. But for the pork dog we’ll be serving I’m not sure what toppings, we’ll decide once we’re there.

Redbird

And for the Redbird pop-up, what’s the plan for the menu at the Drake One Fifty?

Some of our strongest Redbird dishes will make up the menu. I’m planning to do shishito peppers with crunchy quinoa, bottarga and fish sauce along with a dish of sauteed day boat scallops, orzo pearlato, chanterelle mushrooms + garlic nage. There will be a menu of six plates in all.

Being a chef in L.A. you must have cooked for many celebrities, care to share?

I had an air-dried duck dish on the menu for a long time, Sydney Poitier used to come in at least once a month and order it. Then I took it off the menu, he came in once after it was gone, and then he never came in again.

Was there a moment or dish that hit you early on and made you realize you wanted to be a chef?

French cuisine was very big in the 80’s in L.A. so that was a big influence. I was 12 or 13 and my godfather took me to Le Serre. I had lobster Americane, the meat was pulled out of the shell and put back in and it was topped with some hollandaise. It was kind of the first moment I saw food as more than just sustenance. I decided to be a chef very early on and got lucky in that I liked it and have been able to be successful at it.

Do you remember the first dish you cooked?

I remember making a lot of pastas. Pesto was kind of invented when I was in high school, Bowtie pasta with pesto was one of the first dishes I made that I was really excited about. Before that you didn’t even see fresh herbs in the market, so it was kind of a revelation.

Your mentor was Canadian, can you tell me about him?

Marc Valiani was born in Toronto and did his apprenticeship at the Windsor Arms. I worked with him at Eureka, Spago and rox. Marc was probably one of the biggest influences on my career. My second job, at Eureka, was very influential in my becoming a chef. Unfortunately, he passed away five years ago, from ALS.

He was overbearing, he was like a comic dictator, he made you go out drinking with him after work and then go pick up his dry-cleaning the next day. He really taught me how to be a man, not to say that I emulated him as a chef, he was a tyrant in the kitchen, but it was a great way to learn. We became great friends. One year for his birthday we hired a stripper dressed up as a cop and she handcuffed him to a chair and did her routine right there in the kitchen. He was one of my best friends. He taught me, and a lot of other chefs I know, how to be a good cook. You’re only as strong as the people around you, Marc taught me that at a young age.

Is he the reason you’re a fan of Canadian whisky?

I only grew an appreciation for rye in maybe the last ten years. I was never a big tequila fan, the whole mixology thing has exposed to me more. I like alcohol that stands up to other things.

Actually, Collingwood Rye was introduced to me by Marc’s nephew, he brought it in when he was working for me. Marc’s son and his nephew both worked for me at one time. I know more about American whisky than I do about Canadian.

Well maybe that is something we can rectify when you’re here. I know some people.

That would be great!

Posted in: Food + Drink

Tags: Drake One Fifty  Food  Foodie  Hot Dog  The Drake Hotel