When you ask Chef Chris Irving about his life as a chef, he humbly describes what he does “as a job.”
Despite having an impressive career that has spanned over two decades, including major roles with Chef Gordon Ramsey, preparing meals for David and Victoria Beckham’s family, and international job offers in various locales with major names like Marriott, Yukon-born Irving takes it all back to the basics and simply enjoys the craft and the art of cooking.
As if the aforementioned experience isn’t exciting enough, Irving has recently wrapped up a competitive stint on Top Chef Canada (on The Food Network), where he faces off against other masters for the honour of being named Top Chef.
At this stage in his life, Irving said the nationally televised competition was a good next step.
“It was the right time [to segue into Top Chef],” he said, adding that the show’s format was very familiar to him, as he knows many of the past contestants and respects the high level of competition that Top Chef showcases. Irving applied to be on the show and was accepted after completing the requirements to compete.
“I knew what to expect,” Irving said. “It wasn’t really daunting, but the competition was real. These are not amateur chefs.”
Irving also said he relied on decades of training and on his confidence in his abilities, to bring something special to the competition.
“I had already mentally prepared myself for what was to come.”
Irving’s love of food and cooking really got going 22 years ago when he was an aspiring chef, in Calgary, and dreaming of his next steps in life.
“In 2001, I was presented with an opportunity to work in a professional kitchen in a West Coast town called Tofino, a place I’ve never been or heard of for that matter,” he said.
A friend of Irving’s who was working in the restaurant as a sommelier, at the time, suggested he send a résumé to work in the kitchen. Irving took the idea to his current employer and was offered strong support.
“I proposed the suggestion to my (at the time) manager, and they strongly suggested I not pass up the opportunity. Two weeks later, I packed up my life, jumped on a Greyhound and went west, to Tofino, to work at the Pointe Restaurant at The Wickaninnish Inn.”
After three years in Tofino, and seeing what fine cuisine at such a high level of execution could be, Irving began to plan his next move.
“I was hungry, and eager to learn more and more. I wanted to further my repertoire, so I used my time in Tofino to look into culinary schools in the Lower Mainland. Being from the Yukon, I was given access to grants for my education at Dubrulle, a private, internationally accredited culinary college in Vancouver. In January 2004, I packed up and moved to Vancouver and started my one-year program at Dubrulle.”
During his time in school, Irving found himself advancing quickly and capitalizing on his natural culinary skill sets. He advanced so much that he found himself volunteering his free time assisting in amateur cooking classes at the school in his downtime.
It was there he met acclaimed Vancouver Chef David Hawksworth, who offered Irving a job in his restaurant called West Restaurant (at that time), on South Granville Island.
“Without hesitation, I accepted his offer,” said Irving. “For the rest of the year, I went to school full-time in the mornings and left school to work full-time in the evenings at West.”
It was during this time that Irving began to focus his mind on French cuisine and began thinking of how he might move to France to learn. It was Hawksworth who suggested, instead, that Irving consider London, as opportunities to work in the U.K. would be better. Hawksworth helped Irving secure a position in London’s Michelin-star restaurant, Le Gavroche. Unfortunately for Irving, he arrived in London only to learn the position had been filled, out of necessity, a month earlier.
“My heart sank immediately because I had a one-way ticket to London and was banking on working immediately. Without a paid position, I didn’t have the means to support myself in a big, new, scary city overseas,” Irving said.
Luckily, Irving was in possession of a restaurant guide that was gifted to him from a friend, prior to leaving for London. Irving began looking for the best restaurant in the city, in a bid to find himself employment.
Where he ended up was at the back door of (Michelin star) Restaurant Gordon Ramsay.
“I knocked on the back door, unsure whether or not to expect Gordon himself to answer,” Irving said. “Luckily it was one of his head chefs. I explained my circumstance, showed him my visa and my knives, in hand, and told him I was ready to work. He looked me up and down, told me to wait one moment.”
Irving also said it was a bit of a nervous wait. “He returned maybe 15 or 20 minutes later, as I stood nervously outside. He handed me a paper with an address and a name and told me that the HR manager was waiting for me at the Gordon Ramsay head office, only another 15 or 20-minute walk away. I hustled to the office, met with a very lovely woman who interviewed me on the spot, and I started the next morning.”
Two years later and brimming with experience, Irving returned to Canada and began a series of successful professional jobs in Vancouver, which included helping to launch a new restaurant where he was the patron chef from 2008–2010. By the following year, he was ready to head back to Europe.
“In 2011, I did just that and cut my ties with the restaurant. I was headhunted to work on a private 60m superyacht in the south of France. I spent the remainder of the year cruising around the Mediterranean, cooking for the owners and their guests.”
Irving said the tenure ended after the passing of the yacht’s owner. His desire to stay there made him reach out to some old colleagues with the Gordon Ramsay Group, and before he knew it, he found himself back in the fold as an executive senior sous chef.
Another three years saw Irving work in every one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants and led to the development of a personal friendship with Ramsay himself.
It snowballed from there.
“I also started working directly with Gordon on multiple TV productions. It was then that Gordon and I developed a personal repertoire, and at that time he sent me to work with his close family friends, the Beckham family. I spent two years with the Beckham family in their home. As well as their country estates and travelling with them, including spending summers with them in Los Angeles,” Irving said.
In 2015, Irving had decided it was time, again, to try some greener pastures, and after discussing options with a close friend, he set his sights on Thailand—to help launch a new campaign with the Marriott Hotel Group—and worked in Bangkok while helping promote the Marriott brand. Just as quickly, Irving found himself on his way to Sydney, Australia, to do more promotional work. After a year he was on the move again, this time to Hong Kong where he finished his time with Marriott and at its flagship, JW Marriott.
By 2017, Canada and home were calling. Irving said he landed back in Calgary where he attended to family and also became the general manager at the Juniper Bistro, in neighbouring Banff.
“I spent nearly three years based in Banff,” Irving said, adding that the Yukon was always there at the back of his mind. “There was always a draw for me to come back home to the Yukon because there was property that I had a special connection to, that I knew that I wanted to inquire about.”
Irving said that the dream to build a luxury fine-dining establishment in the North has been a dream for a long time.
“After my time in Banff, I came back to Whitehorse to start my investigation and inquiry into this specific piece of property. But research doesn’t always pay the bills, so I had to rely on my love of travel and cooking to take me where I needed to go.
“So for the past few years, I have been a ‘gun for hire,’ travelling to the highest bidder, doing what I do best—cooking, teaching, training and development. Travelling when needed, but always coming home to continue following the dream of acquiring this property, to eventually building a world-class, world-renowned luxury resort.”
His recent competition on Top Chef Canada has also helped fill in that time between dreams and making those dreams a reality. And his recent TV exposure is another sharp tool, in the proverbial tool box, to help him in his quest.
“Top Chef is the way to do it,” he said, adding that the exposure is invaluable.
Irving said he feels like he is where he is meant to be and that his hard work and determination have served him well. His advice for other up-and-coming chefs is simple.
“You gotta put your work in. You gotta pay your dues.”
He added that when you have something you care about, the best course of action is to go for it and seek out what excites you.
“Find your passion and explore. Don’t be afraid to explore.”
Top Chef returns to The Food Network for its 10th season and will celebrate the impact and influence that Canadian Top Chefs have had on the country’s restaurant industry.
The show will feature chefs as they faceoff in brand-new challenges, an exciting new twist designed to shake up the competition and, for the first time ever, Top Chef Canada is going international, with a trip to one of the world’s most-exciting culinary destinations for the finale.
Top Chef Canada will air Mondays, beginning September 26 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Food Network Canada.