If the thought of a smoked mussel waffle makes you recoil, Michael Varga wants you to know it's really not that bad.
It was good enough to earn thumbs up from professional chefs Michael Smith, Eden Grinshpan and Susur Lee, and paired with two other hastily prepared dishes, the unexpected waffle helped Varga win a recent episode of Chopped Canada — and a $10,000 prize.
Varga, a Port Moody resident and Vancouver firefighter, is no stranger to cooking. He grew up helping his self-taught chef father in the kitchen, always guided by one simple rule: You know the dish is done when it just tastes right.
But the challenge on Chopped Canada is to whip up a dish in only 20 to 30 minutes; Varga had prepared for the show with "practice baskets" his wife had brought home but, still, it was a difficult day.
"It was so stressful," Varga recalled, leaving him exhausted by the end of the 14-hour day of filming.
When he opened the first basket — containing smoked mussels, spicy pickled beans, banana muffin mix and key limes — Varga eyed the waffle maker and took a leap.
The batter spilled grotesquely over the sides, prompting the judges to question exactly what Varga was thinking, but he soldiered on and managed to surprise the top chef panel (though one criticized the end result, saying the key lime vinaigrette had made the waffle slightly soggy).
The main dish basket included duck tenderloin, tongue-of-fire beans, habanero salsa and apple juice; 30 minutes later, Varga presented the judges with Moroccan-spiced duck, a last-minute flatbread and a hummus swiftly improvised when his beans remained undercooked.
The plate was a rather brownish-grey affair but the judges declared it a complex, "beautiful dish" — as long as their eyes were closed.
Varga's dessert of mocha ice cream with a homemade cookie (a risky move considering he had only a vague notion of the correct cookie proportions) and a sauce of pureed Hot Lips candies and raspberries clinched him the win.
Since the win (the episode aired on Dec. 10 and is on foodnetwork.ca) Varga's friends and family have been requesting he re-make many of the winning dishes.
"Oddly enough, people keep asking for the mussel waffle," he said.
Varga plans to take his family on a holiday with the winnings and donate the rest to the Light the Nights charity.