When Top Chef Canada stars Erica and Josh Karbelnik visit Niagara-on-the-Lake, it is usually to reconnect with long-time friends David Watt and Leigh Atherton, owners of The Garrison House.
They love the town, the wineries and the markets, and are returning next month to see their friends. Their next visit, however, has a special purpose. They will return to The Garrison House to prepare a special dinner, one that had been arranged and cancelled during the pandemic, and is rescheduled for May. The Karbelniks will join Watt and sous-chef Braeden Mann in the restaurant kitchen, each of the four chefs preparing a course for a sold-out event.
Watt says when they learned COVID restrictions would be lifted and decided they could go ahead with the dinner next month, he first reached out to those who had booked for the event originally scheduled for October 2021, and now has a waiting list.
Erica was the winner of the 2021 season of Top Chef Canada, taking home $100,000 and a new Lexus RX Hybrid Electric SUV. She and Josh were the first married couple to compete on the popular TV show, with Josh coming in fourth, winning $5,000.
The season was planned and filmed during a pandemic, and by being in the top four, Josh was able to be Erica’s sous-chef during the final competition.
The exposure of winning Top Chef, with Josh by her side, “has definitely opened some doors for us,” she says, including a successful catering business they created when restaurants were shuttered during the pandemic.
Both winners of separate Chopped Chef shows, they had talked about applying for Top Chef, but wouldn’t have been able to take time out from their jobs if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. With neither of them good at sitting still, Erica says, they decided the time was right for the 2021 season, applied, and were accepted together.
“We decided it was as good a time as any, and said, ‘let’s do it.’”
Winning Top Chef “was definitely bitter-sweet,” says Erica.
“We’ve always been each other’s biggest support system, always there for each other, and always competitive in the kitchen. The kitchen is the kitchen, and our relationship is our relationship.”
She expected him to make it through to the end. When he was eliminated in fourth place she asked him if he was okay, and he said he was fine, she says. Since all the participants had been kept in a bubble during filming, and as one of the final four he would be her sous-chef, he told her, “let’s kick butt,’” recalls Erica.
Without that exposure and success, they also might not have pivoted to a flourishing, private in-home catering business that allows them to work together as a couple, which they enjoy, while caring for their five-month-old baby girl, says Erica.
The pandemic “pushed us in a direction that has worked for us. We needed that nudge, and made the best of the situation.”
Josh had been working up to the eight-month mark in her pregnancy, and made the decision then to stay at home with her and their baby, and build up their own business.
They had at one time wanted to open a restaurant together, and have considered returning to Niagara, but with their current catering business thriving, that would be a difficult decision to make.
“We’ve talked a lot about moving there, but a few things in our lives have changed, including having a baby and doing well with our business here. Who knows what the future will hold?”
Their journey that brought them to this point began a long time ago, when they became friends in high school in Thornhill. They didn’t date, but when Erica moved out of the country with her parents at the age of 16, the communications between them changed. Being apart, she says, “made Josh realize he had a ‘thing’ for me.” Erica was able to convince her parents to let her return to Canada, where she lived with her grandmother, to find out where their relationship would go.
“I got on a plane at 16, and we’re still together 15 years later,” she says.
Their love of cooking convinced them to attend the Niagara College culinary program together, likely one of the best decisions they’ve ever made, she says. “Niagara College is a very one-on-one experience. You know your professor, you work with local venders and go to markets, you learn about wine and beer and work with very seasoned producers.”
Watt got to know Josh during those years, when the Niagara College student worked at Zest, Watt’s restaurant in Fonthill at that time. He found Josh to be a dedicated, hard-working young man with a strong work ethic, and passionate about cooking — one of the most motivated people he’s ever met in the kitchen.
“I really admired him, and we became friends,” he says of Josh. “I’ve kept tabs on him, and he’s done well.” Erica, he adds, “is a tour de force. I admire them both.”
It’s good to see her doing so well in an industry that has traditionally been male-dominated, although that is changing, he says.
Josh came to think of his employer as a mentor, the best he could have had, and Erica got to know Watt as Josh’s boss, although they became friends and peers in later years.
They graduated in 2011, and were married five years ago, after a time spent working in Vancouver. They returned to Toronto to be married, each taking executive chef positions in separate restaurants.
After their graduation from Niagara College, Josh was working in a kitchen when he had a devastating injury while cleaning an ice cream machine.
It’s a machine that has a guard on it that has to be removed to properly clean it, explains Watt, who has another friend, Brian Morin, a chef who lost the tops of the same two fingers that Josh did, cleaning the same machine. “Josh didn’t think he would be able to continue doing what he really wanted to do,” says Watt, who connected him with Morin “to show him what can be done.”
Watt says he was proud of Josh before the accident, but was even more proud to see how he fought back.
“You work with your hands all the time, gripping a knife, mixing ingredients, everything you do, you do with your hands.” Josh proved his strength, and has demonstrated “if you really want to do something, you can do it.”
Josh says after the accident, “I thought about not working in a kitchen again, for about a week. Then I realized I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”
Learning how to use his hands differently was a struggle at first, but he has adapted to the point where it’s become second nature now. “My knife skills are the same as before, if not better,” he says.
He credits Watt as his mentor for letting him learn his skills in his early years at Zest.
“A lot of chefs have an ego, and don’t let you develop your creativity. He would send me to the market, let me choose some ingredients, and create a special. That’s very rare. At a lot of restaurants you’re expected to do the job the chef tells you to do, and nothing more.”
During the pandemic, Watt has taken on his own project, one that to some extent involves the Karbelniks, and gave them a chance to work together again.
While it’s not yet completed, Watt is working on a cookbook that includes recipes from local chefs, most paired with local wine or beer. “I started it in the middle of COVID, on the days the restaurant was closed. I needed something to do,” he says.
Chefs were asked to share recipes that could be completed by at-home chefs.
And being chefs, most of whom are “very philanthropic,” he says, they have shared about 40 recipes, which he is in the process of testing.
One of his own contributions is his mother’s 100-year-old Christmas cake, a recipe that came from his grandfather, and is a tradition in their family.
Erica and Josh have chosen to share a bourbon and peach pavlova because of their love of Niagara peaches, she says.
It isn’t intended as a coffee-table book, but rather one with “recipes that will connect home-chefs with their loved ones,” says Watt. His friend and professional photographer Mike McColl, skilled at food photos, is providing the pictures for the cookbook.
Proceeds once it is printed and available to purchase will go to local mental health initiatives.