Chef Nicole Gomes, Counting her chickens

After taking the top prize in Top Chef Canada: All-Stars, Calgary’s Nicole Gomes is ready to take on the world

A graduate of Vancouver’s Dubrulle French Culinary School, Nicole Gomes cooked in restaurants in France, Australia and Asia before landing in Calgary in the early 2000s to work at Catch under chef Michael Noble, and then as executive chef at Mercato. Back in 2013, she failed to make it to the final round of season three of Top Chef Canada, but Gomes came out on top of last summer’s Top Chef Canada: All-Stars, winning with a five-course meal highlighted by sea bream with fingerling potatoes, crispy capers and beurre blanc sauce. People are more likely to recognize her these days and she’s picked up a few sponsorships, but becoming a TV celebrity hasn’t changed Gomes’s daily life that much. She still divides her time between Richmond, B.C., where she grew up and where most of her family still lives, and Calgary, the home of her catering business, Nicole Gourmet, and Cluck n’ Cleaver, a fast-casual chicken place she co-owns with her sister. “My businesses run themselves so it’s not always necessary that I’m there,” says Gomes. Easy-going and affable, but also ambitious, Gomes hopes to turn Cluck n’ Cleaver into a national – perhaps even international – brand.

That’s a pheasant hunt, two hours south of Calgary, for a charity dinner to buy equipment for a neonatal unit of the Calgary Health Trust. I am familiar with a gun. My dad was a duck hunter, grouse and small birds, so naturally, I’ve been out with my dad to buy guns & ammo from Palmetto State Armory. My sister’s an elk and deer hunter. Afterwards, we all went back to a house in Turner Valley where I made dinner. Not with what they got – I had to pre-prepare – but with wild game birds from Montana. I confit-ed the legs and then brined and bacon-wrapped the breasts.

Calgary Economic Development brought me to Chicago to promote the city with a meal for 100 people. Chicago is one of my favourite U.S. cities, with a dining scene comparable to New York. They’re really fun, quirky people. Those are roasted Alberta carrots on strained yoghurt, called labneh, with a savoury granola of Alberta oats, seed and flax. We also served beef, did a skirt steak and tenderloin, and Alberta trout.

A home-style dinner at mom’s in Richmond, B.C. I do a lot of cooking at home and one of my biggest influences has been from home because she’s still teaching me. I get a lot of my Asian influence from her. She’s Shanghainese. One of the things people forget about food is that it brings people together. My mom was a single mom who had two or three jobs at any time, but always made a point to come home and have dinner with us. When they were married, my dad, who is Portuguese, was also a chef.

That’s my car, a 1991 Nissan Figaro, at the side of our building. I love driving it. I saw it on Instagram two years ago and I said, ‘I’ve got to have that car,” and I bought it from the guy right away. Her name’s Misty. She’s a right-hand-side drive imported from Japan. They only made them that one year and there are only 20,000 in the world, 300 or 400 in Canada. You can fit four people into it, believe it or not. The graffiti was painted in the 1990s by an ACAD [Alberta College of Art + Design] student.

That’s when we first opened Cluck n’ Cleaver. Back in the day, I worked at a restaurant in Calgary called Mercato, which started out as a small pasta counter at a grocery store, and we had so many regulars. They’d ask me, “What else do you cook?” I made fried chicken for them and I started getting requests, “I’m hosting a poker or a Super Bowl party….” Then my sister moved to the Kootenays and started a hobby chicken farm, and we joked for 10 years that it would be hilarious if two sisters opened a chicken joint.

My dog Truffles is the love of my life. I got her 12 years ago from the Calgary Humane Society. Look at her eyes! How could you not love her! She’s known for eating everything, absolutely everything. If there’s a container of dried lentils, she’ll eat it. She’s a real menace. She’s broken into the freezer, she’s broken into the fridge and pulled out the vegetable drawers. I don’t know how she does it. I had a game hen in the oven roasting at 350, and went out for a second to get something, and when I came back, she had eaten the whole thing—the bones, the parchment.

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Poser. #truffledog ❤️

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Foraging is another one of my loves. We went chanterelle picking in Tofino in late September for my 40th and got eight pounds of perfect chanterelles. The secret is to go somewhere mossy and boggy, and there has to have been rain the day before. We were camping in yerts at Wya Point Resort. We cooked them in butter and garlic. They’re a very delicate mushroom, so you don’t want to cook them with too many things, especially when they’re that fresh.

Chesterman Beach in Tofino is my favourite place on Vancouver Island. When I need to get away, I go there. It’s so beautiful. I have a friend who has a restaurant there called Wolf in the Fog, and I’ll fly in or get on the ferry and prep for him. I’m not in the restaurant scene anymore but sometimes I miss it.

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