Alex Hicks couldn’t be happier about her win on Wall of Chefs, a new culinary competition for home chefs which began airing in February.
It’s a different concept than other shows that pit aspiring cooks against each other, with weekly eliminations. In this Food Network Canada series, each episode stands alone, with four home cooks facing three challenges. The judges they face, or ‘wall’ of 12 Canadian culinary icons, declare a $10,000 winner at the end of the episode.
The whole process unfolded at rapid speed, says Hicks, with the taping of the show in Toronto taking one day last September, and only a short break for the contestants to catch their breath in between the three challenges.
Hicks, a server at The Keg in St. Catharines, comes from a family who loves to cook.
“I’ve been working around food all my life,” she says. For those who remember The Little Red Rooster, on Mary Street near Mississagua Street, that was where she got her start at a young age.
Growing up in Niagara, in the midst of a hospitality industry with great restaurants and chefs, she developed a passion for cooking, for family, friends and neighbours, and of course her husband Neil Wachs, “my biggest fan.”
She’s a social person, and loves nothing better than to have people over for dinner. “It’s what I most look forward to on my days off, cooking all day and having people over whenever we can.”
Now, of course, with the shutdown of the hospitality industry due to the Covid-19 virus, and physical distancing, there is no work, and no socializing after work. These days, she’s hanging out at home with Wachs, who for now is the sole recipient of the meals Hicks loves to prepare.
When the show aired for the first time Monday, March 23, her planned viewing party had to be put on hold, but at least she could and she could finally share the news of her win with family and friends.
“It was something I had to keep to myself. That was tough, keeping it under wraps for six months. I was so proud, it was hard not to share it,” says Hicks.
As she watched it with her husband, and a few others connected by video, “I was sitting on the floor, wearing the Wall of Chefs apron, balling my eyes out.” It was an emotional release for her to finally see the program, and put the worry about it behind her.
“It was a great experience, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it was hard to be an actor for six hours,” she says, admitting to being concerned about how she would come across. “I hoped I could do it justice and make the town proud of me.”
But she was pleased by what she saw. “I felt the biggest thing was that I was myself. We were told the idea was about showing off our talent, not about sabotaging us or making us look bad. They did a really good job of editing.”
The feedback she has received reinforced that, with friends and family telling her “you were exactly what you are in real life, joking a little and always smiling. That was the biggest compliment.”
Each episode follows the same format, with the first challenge called a “crowd-pleaser.” Chefs can cook the dish their family and friends most enjoy. HIcks’ choice was butter-basted scallops, with a balsamic reduction, minty mushy peas and charred asparagus.
Of the 12 chefs from the ‘wall,’ four are chosen to taste each challenge, and the contestant with the least successful dish is sent home. The chefs were complimentary about her dish, and she was chosen to move on to the next round.
The second test is for the remaining three to make a dish using three ingredients in one chef’s fridge, which was a challenge for Hicks.
The ingredients were brie cheese, garlic, and rapini — a leafy green with a bitter taste, which she had never cooked or even tasted.
“The rapini was my nightmare. I might address it at another time to get over my fears,” she says. “I’ve been talking to friends and family about recreating all my dishes for them. It would be fun to serve them all together, and attack the rapini.”
She suffered a bit of a setback with her sautéed rapini and garlic, but the chefs loved the rest of her dish — perfectly-cooked tenderloin, jus, and melted brie on top — sending her to the final round, which was even more of a challenge.
The two remaining contestants had to cook something that was representative of one chef’s signature dishes, and in this case it was a dessert. Hicks says she almost never makes dessert. “It’s not my strong suit. I’m really not into desserts. But I wanted to do something with Niagara peaches.”
She drew on a similar dessert she has made, involving cooked apples and puff pastry, which her husband and family love, and substituted cooked peaches. The professional chefs commented on the difficulty of working with peaches, with the moisture in them possibly turning the puff pastry mushy. She served it on a caramel sauce, with a topping of maple and orange-flavoured whipped cream, and they had to admit it was perfect. It was ultimately the dessert, combined with the success of her other two dishes, that won her the $10,000 prize. “I got so lucky. I felt the Niagara peach gods were on my side.”
Being able to adjust, and think on the fly, was also helpful, she adds.
The experience of remaining calm, with all the chaos of the film crew going on around her, “just didn’t feel real. And you have these great chefs in front of you. It seems so incredible, and you’re under so much pressure, there are so many elements going on, but the stress kind of disappears. You’re just concentrating on timing, and making sure everything is working as it should.”
She felt most present, most in the moment, during the judgement, when the cooks are standing in front of the chefs to hear their critique of the dishes, she says.
But during the cooking, “you’re trying to stay composed and focus on the plate, not the judgement. You’re just focusing on getting the job done and making it presentable.”
HIcks has her sights set next on the opportunity to host a viewing party, when this period of self-isolation and physical distancing comes to an end —the weather will be warmer and it could be a barbecue, she says.
When a normal work life resumes, she says she would like to work with one of the many great local chefs, to learn from them, and culinary school could also be in her future. The prize money helps make that “a huge possibility.”
She’s checked off one of the items on her bucket list with her appearance on the Food Network, to which she is addicted, but the ultimate goal for most chefs is to host a cooking show, and Hicks is no exception.
Her success on the Wall of Chefs has boosted her confidence, and was a big first step on that journey.
With episodes every Monday evening, the season ends on April 6. The season, including Hicks’ Duelling Desserts contest, is available on Cogeco on Demand.