The Performer: Top chef Lynn Crawford

On Iron Chef, her new restaurant and walking away from a dream job.

There are few better jobs in the culinary universe than executive chef at the Four Seasons New York. But last year, still young and at the pinnacle of her career, chef Lynn Crawford walked away from the famous kitchen.

She resurfaced this year in Toronto with a small restaurant of her own, Ruby Watchco, that presents a fixed menu each night emphasizing local ingredients. She’s also now a regular on Food Network Canada, with a series called Pitchin’ In, that sees Crawford mucking in next to the farmers and fishermen she buys her ingredients from. She spoke with Canadian Business staff writer Jordan Timm.

The Menu: Oct. 16, 2010

Ruby’s panettone panzella salad: Crispy pancetta, Brussels sprout leaves, radicchio, Slegers living greens, apple cider vinaigrette

Lemon thyme brick chicken with stroganoff sauce: Rosemary roasted parsnips & heirloom carrots, grilled broccoli with garlic butter, fingerling potatoes with Black River Dairy cheese curds & gravy

Glengarry fine cheese’s big brother: Red onion & beet marmalade, grilled country bread

Sticky toffee pudding: Coffee caramel sauce

You had an extraordinary and long career with Four Seasons. Why did you decide to step away from that in the end?
I think ultimately [the Four Seasons] was about achieving goals and surrounding yourself with really wonderful people, building teams and sharing vision, and I did that. I had a wonderful run. And everybody asks, how could you have left the Four Seasons in New York City? It was a really hard decision. This is just another chapter. I am a chef, and I’m at a pivotal moment in my career when I really just want to cook with my heart again, and have my small little restaurant. I’ve been cooking for over 25 years, right, in many different venues and styles. And this to me is like coming home.

By the time you were an executive chef, had you started to feel removed from the basics of cooking, from the actual growers and providers?
No, that’s always been really important to me. But as executive chef, in that capacity you’re not behind the stove anymore. You’re an administrator. You’re a leader, you’re a motivator, you’re the coach, you’re a mom — you’re all of that. I’ve always had a connection with local farmers and growers, and supported them as much as I could from within the hotel — on my vacation I’d go up the Hudson Valley and make goat cheese — but doing that for yourself, and making all of the choices for your own restaurant is very different.

Is there anything you miss about that job? I mean, it’s New York, it’s the Four Seasons, it’s the centre of the universe and you’re the boss.
Let’s face it, the Four Seasons is one of the best employers out there, right? Why? Cause they nurture, and they allow their employees to achieve their goals. They’re very, very supportive. They offer excellent training, and they empower their staff. And their standards are so high and so clear that really it’s about one person in 10 who will be part of that. And surrounding yourself with that one in 10, the one that’s going to go above and beyond for the guest experience, isn’t that what hospitality is supposed to be all about?

The show you’re doing now, Pitchin’ In — what attracted you to the concept?
As I say, I found that as an executive chef you become a little more distant from the food. For my next chapter, it was important to get back to the source, to the appreciation and the understanding of where your food comes from. It’s about showcasing the farmers and growers that give chefs wonderful products to work with. They’re the stars of the show, really.

What have you learned from the experience?
God, I’ve learned how to fish for lobster. I’ve learned how to haul in cranberries. I’ve learned all those physical jobs that you’ve only read about. It’s a relearning to not take food for granted. Never, ever take it for granted, and make the right decisions about where your food comes from. Support local farmers and growers, support sustainable growing practices or fishing practices. I could get very political right now.

I don’t mind, if you want to.
I just think that as people shopping for food, we have to educate ourselves. And I think that if you go and look at documentaries like Food, Inc., you’ll think twice about where you’re buying your meat, won’t you? If there are a hundred possible right choices to make, and if every person makes two, and then the next time they make three, well that’s wonderful. And cook at home. In the seven-day week, how many days in that week are you actually cooking at home, taking the time, sharing that table with your family and friends? You have to think about that, too, because food should be celebrated.

So how does one get recruited for an appearance on Iron Chef America?
I don’t know, but what a huge honour. I was approached by the Food Network. I was thrilled, and very proud of our performance. The food was so good, and so well presented visually. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t win, but we had a blast.

You chose to battle chef Bobby Flay, and peanuts were the theme ingredient you had to use in all your dishes. I’ve read that they don’t tell the chefs in advance what the theme ingredient will be, but they do give you hints. Have I got that right?
Yeah, they don’t tell you, but they give you hints. So we took the hints and looked at what it could be based on what was in season, and tried to plan our possible dishes that way. And then we practised and practised.

How do you prepare for that kind of thing?
For a month, we were practising three times a week. We would get out the stopwatches and time ourselves, because they really do only give you an hour to get everything ready. And we set up the kitchen at the Four Seasons Toronto the way they have Kitchen Stadium [where the show is filmed] set up, with the ingredients over here and the stoves over there, and all of us running around between them. And after practising a bunch, we brought other people into the kitchen to act as obstacles — because they have a dozen cameramen scattered around Kitchen Stadium. We tried to make our practice conditions as realistic as we could. And when we finally did the show, we finished before the hour was up.

It’s a cheesy question, I know, but if you had to choose a last meal, something special or a favourite dish, what would it be?
God, I don’t know. It would depend on the season. Right now I’m just looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner tonight. It’s the first Thanksgiving I’ve had off in 24 years. Heritage turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes. Really, I have simple tastes.