When he returns to Sooke this weekend, Top Chef Canada winner Carl Heinrich won't have to dodge questions about the outcome of the Food Network competition.
The 27-year-old is finally free to indulge in a proper homecoming, replete with celebrations with friends and family and a visit to his old high school.
"It was the hardest secret I've ever had to keep," Heinrich said Tuesday after his victory was revealed on national TV Monday night. Top Chef judges made their verdict when filming of the show's second season wrapped in August, and Heinrich had been sitting on the secret ever since.
Speaking from Toronto, Heinrich said he'd told a select few people, including his girlfriend and his business partner, who were required to sign "pretty serious" confidentiality agreements. The chef's parents, however, chose to wait until the finale to find out the verdict.
In the 90-minute episode, Heinrich put his expert technique and generous use of simple, fresh ingredients on full display, concocting a smoked trout salad, a roasted elk loin, an orange and fennel sorbet and a peach cobbler.
The win netted Heinrich a $30,000 kitchen and a $100,000 cash prize, which he'll sink into a new restaurant he's opening in Toronto.
Top Chef Canada is Food Network's top-rated program. The 13-week series began with 16 chefs from across Canada, including two others from Vancouver Island: Kunal Ghose of Victoria, co-owner of Red Fish Blue Fish on Wharf Street; and Joel Aubie, head chef at Shelter restaurant in Tofino.
A graduate of Edward Milne Community School's culinary arts program, Heinrich said his experiences growing up on the Island inspired him to want to become a chef. Before he entered high school, he began preparing meals for his family, which taught him how to be creative with limited resources.
"We never really had luxurious ingredients or we didn't go the supermarket every night. We went shopping once every week or once every two weeks and we got the ingredients that we needed. It wasn't like I grew up learning how to make foie gras and truffles. We grew up with ground beef and frozen chicken breasts. We made it work."
At 15, Heinrich started working as a dishwasher at Mom's CafÃ©, a diner in Sooke.
Initially, he liked working in the kitchen because it afforded him the means to buy a "flat-screen TV and a serious stereo."
But as he moved up in rank, first from dish boy to prep cook and eventually to line cook, Heinrich discovered that the job held deeper meaning.
"I got better at it and more passionate about it," he recalled. "At the time, I was like, 'I'm pretty good at this.' "
During his final year at Edward Milne he had a co-op placement at Camille's in Bastion Square. But it was his first-place finish in a student cooking competition that solidified his desire to become a master chef.
"I won that competition and I was like, 'OK, let's make a go at this.' And so I did."
The summer before venturing off to study at Stratford Chef School, a prestigious private culinary college in Ontario, Heinrich worked at the restaurant at Sooke Harbour House. His superiors harped on the value of using fresh, local ingredients - a mantra the young cuisinier didn't adopt until years later, after working in top-rung establishments in New York, Monaco, Vancouver and, ultimately, Toronto.
"They really stand by the 100-mile diet and by the philosophy of farm-to-table cooking," he said of the mentality at Sooke Harbour House. "They wouldn't use lemons in their dishes because [lemons don't grow] on Vancouver Island."
His return home will give Heinrich the opportunity to thank family, friends and teachers for their encouragement. It will also give fans a chance to party with the newly minted celebrity.
On Saturday, Heinrich will join supporters for an open-house celebration at the Victoria Executive Centre between 5: 30 and 8 p.m.
From there, he'll move to Buffy's Pub in Sooke for the after-party, set for 9 p.m.
On Sunday, Heinrich will deliver the keynote address at EMCS's grad ceremony, an appearance organized long before his Top Chef win was announced.
"Everybody is just jubilant about it," said Pia Carroll, a culinary arts teacher at EMCS and one of Heinrich's early mentors.
"He's just had an amazing start in his life and we're just thrilled for him because he's a really fabulous human being," she said, adding that her star pupil often stayed after class to help clean up and volunteered his services for out of school events.
Though he hasn't finalized his speech, Heinrich said he plans to impart lessons he's gleaned from being the kid from Sooke who made it big in the restaurant world.
"Even coming from a small town, you can plug away at big things.
"Keep your goals high, keep your standards high and follow your dreams."
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