Even by chef standards, it was a pretty aggressive game.
Sure, everyone was there for a good cause and there was a lot of respect for opposing team members, but they were playing to win.
Chefs—the good ones, especially—are highly competitive people. For a lot of Canadian cooks and front-of-house staff, hockey is a great way to hit the off switch and channel any aggression that can arise from a high-stress job. Put a bunch of them and their city's pride on a clean sheet of ice and you'll get a hockey game for the ages.
That was the logic behind the Drake Barn Burner Hockey Game: Toronto Vs. Montreal Chefs, which, as its name suggests, pitted the finest chefs of the two cities against each other on the ice at the Essroc Arena in Prince Edward County, Ontario.
"It's a really fucking cool concept," says Nick Chen-Yin, chef-owner of Smoke Signals Bar-B-Q in Toronto. "There's always been a rivalry between Toronto and Montreal within hockey, like, the Leafs versus the Canadiens."
The Toronto Maple Leafs-Montreal Canadiens rivalry is—or at least, was—one of the great sports rivalries. It taps into centuries-old economic and linguistic tensions at the heart of the Two Solitudes narrative of our country. Naturally, people also feel compelled to compare the food of Montreal and Toronto, as well.
"Everyone thinks that there's a rivalry between Toronto and Montreal restaurants but I don't think there is," says Maison Publique owner and chef Derek Dammann. "There's definitely trash-talking and chirping that goes on, but that's just normal."
Prince Edward County is neutral territory. It's a four hour drive from Montreal and two hours from Toronto. It's also home to some of the country's finest wines, which made it an ideal location for a hockey game between these culinary hubs.
In the end, the Toronto Grinders would prevail in a crushing 6-2 victory against the Montreal Mashers—a hard pill to swallow for Dammann, who was the captain of the Montreal team and took issue with some of the reinforcements that his opponents got.
"I'm not trying to make excuses but the players had to have experience in the restaurant industry and I guarantee that the retired NHL player they had on their team did not work at any restaurants in Toronto. It's fine. It just means that they were scared and had to stack it."
"You want to get everyone riled up for the big win and it's the same thing in service—you don't want to fuck it up."
The sting of defeat aside, the experience did make some similarities more apparent. "You can be a shit cook and a great hockey player, or you could be a great hockey player and a shit cook," says Dammann. "The one common thread is that you have to be two or three steps ahead of what you're doing. In the kitchen, you're always thinking of the most efficient way to do something and streamlining it."
In a lot of ways, a locker room is a foul-smelling parallel universe to the kitchen. "You want to get everyone riled up for the big win and it's the same thing in service—you don't want to fuck it up. I had to step it up. I had to do all the pep talks and stuff in the dressing room," says Dammann, whose presence was felt on the ice too, according to Jeremy Charles, Toronto Grinders' power forward and chef and owner of Raymonds in Newfoundland.
"Derek laid one guy out there," Charles recalls. "Christ, I thought he killed him, it was hilarious. What a fuckin' hit, man. I was like, 'Oh my God!' Poor bastard got smoked. He fuckin' straightened him. We were skating pretty hard—it was for keeps with that trophy."
The "poor bastard" in question was Nick Chen-Yin. "I got smoked by Derek and then during the penalty kill, I saw chef Jeremy Charles stick-check someone super, super hard. When Hayden Johnston from Richmond Station took a penalty for tripping, the Montreal guys got in a scrum with him and I just instinctively jumped over to defend Hayden and grab someone. That's where you could see the alpha rising."
Chen-Yin, who's played hockey his entire life, bears no resentment toward the Mashers, nor is he surprised that the Barn Burner tapped into the combative nature of chefs.
"We're all really competitive and I think that's indicative of being an owner or an exec chef or a chef that's at the top of the pecking order. It's high pressure, you don't want to phone it in, and you want to be Number One. Montreal brought the intensity. When we were up 4-2, I was like, 'Yo, these guys are playing for pride, they're going to fucking murder us.'"
That being said, Chen-Yin also knew that the rivalry would evaporate as soon as they got off the ice. "I do think there will be a rivalry with the hockey going forward, but on a culinary level everyone respects everyone here."
Back at the Drake Devonshire hotel, that's exactly what was going down. The chefs put allegiances and male ego aside to make a meal for those fortunate enough to afford a $110 golden bracelet for dinner and those unfortunate enough to have to rely on Community Food Centres Canada, for whom this event was as a fundraiser.
Jeremy Charles prepared a moose chili, Dammann and Marc-Alexandre Messier prepared seared boudin noir, Antonio Park made a spicy seafood soup, Chuck Hughes sent out chicken skin with lobster and caviar, and Jamie Kennedy made oxtail poutine. In the dining room, guests snapped selfies with three-time Stanley Cup winner and Toronto Grinders coach Mike Krushelnyski (a.k.a. Krusher) and seven-time Stanley Cup winner and Member of Parliament, the Honourable Ken Dryden, coach of the Montreal Mashers.
Despite the level of on- and off-ice talent, all were very receptive to being told what to do by their coaches, which is no coincidence, says Chen-Yin.
"All the chefs responded really well to coaching and I think that has roots in the kitchen. At some point in your training, you had to take direction from someone because hierarchy is so close. Our coach Krusher was great and it was almost was like, 'Yes, coach! Yes, coach!' instead of 'Yes, chef! Yes, chef!'"
For Joe Beef's David McMillan, coaching alongside the Habs legend was a childhood dream come true. "I had a poster of Ken Dryden in my room as a kid in his famous pose, and I was a goalie. My Ken Dryden book is the book I've read the most in my life. It's all dog-eared; I must have read it 900 times. Meeting him, even at 45-years-old, was a big deal."
A little puck goes a long way for these Canadian chefs. It's a way of disconnecting that doesn't involve drinking, drugs, smashing cell phones during service, or straight-up disappearing for a few days.
"Hockey's like my yoga," Jeremy Charles says. "You go out there and nothing really matters for an hour and a half. After the game, you're in the locker room, shooting the shit, and having a few beers and a few jokes. It's the best thing that Canada has to offer. A good game of hockey with some friends, you know?
"I'm not religious, but for me, hockey is the next best thing to religion. It keeps the fire burning."