When Whistler chef Jorge Muñoz Santos took to the stage to cook for some of the biggest names on the Canadian culinary landscape this week, he could rest easy knowing there was a familiar face cheering him on from the wings.
Santos, the 28-year-old wunderkind who heads the Spanish-inspired Bar Oso, was vying for a chance to represent Canada on the world stage at San Pellegrino's annual Young Chef competition, which brought together 10 of the country's most promising chefs under 30. Fortunately for the Madrid native, he wasn't alone, as Araxi sous chef Yoann Therer, who started working in James Walt's kitchen only two months after Santos in 2011, was also selected to take part in the semi-finals at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario.
"It was perfect," Santos said of having his friend and former co-worker competing beside him. "We were glad to be together. It would've been really hard for us being one person in the show with a lot of different chefs you don't know. At least we were having fun."
And while neither chef advanced to the next round, the chance to rub shoulders with some of Canada's brightest culinary stars proved to be the experience of a lifetime.
"It was the first time I ever sent an application to any competition, and it's pretty much the biggest competition in Canada," said the 26-year-old Therer. "I enjoyed every single second of it. Everything was awesome. I still can't believe I (was named) one of top 10 chefs in Canada under 30 years old. It's quite an achievement."
Both chefs called the experience of cooking their signature dish in front of some of Canada's top chefs — with only six hours of prep and cook time to boot — "intense." Santos' dish, a wild-scallop crudo topped with shallots, capers and micro greens in an orange and black-olive dressing, was inspired by the abundance of seafood found in B.C.'s waters.
Therer, meanwhile, plated a venison loin and braised venison shank ricotta ravioli alongside roasted carrot and parsnip, a parsnip foam and sunchoke puree, topped with a cherry chutney and black truffles, a dish he called "a literal interpretation of working at Araxi for the last five years."
And while any dinner service at Araxi is bound to come with a certain level of stress, Therer said it couldn't compare to the pressure cooker of the competition.
"Everything was ready, everything got on the plate, but I literally plated my dish in a minute. It was so stressful, I was shaking," he recalled. "I was looking at the other (chefs) plating... and they were shaking and I thought, 'Hmm, I don't think I'll ever do that.' But I did."
Both young chefs have made great strides over the past half-decade, with Santos being plucked from the Araxi kitchen to helm its sister restaurant last fall, and Therer moving up to sous chef, with plans to one day open his own restaurant. They both credited James Beard Award-winner Walt for helping them get to where they are today.
"My mentor, James Walt, I'm not going to say he taught me everything, but he taught me a lot. He definitely taught me a lot," Santos said with a laugh. "He's a great chef and he knows a lot about cooking and a lot about food... It's great to have him behind us."
Santos can expect his star to rise even higher as Bar Oso continues to earn widespread acclaim from critics and diners alike. The tapas bar, which opened for lunch service last month, is a way for Santos to bring the taste of his native Spain to the mountains while capitalizing on the bounty of quality ingredient's B.C. has to offer.
"I'm trying to show the people here in Canada about Spanish cuisine and the way we eat, which is completely different. Like shared plates; in Canada, they're not that typical," he said. "But it looks like people are enjoying it."
For more information on the Young Chef global competition, visit www.sanpellegrino.com/us/en/spellegrino-young-chef-2016-980.