Chef Christine Cushing on her hot new TV series, Confucius Was a Foodie

Plus some of her favourite Thornhill food finds

Christine Cushing’s life changed forever in 1998. The Athens-born chef had picked up a side gig hawking kitchen equipment at the Good Food Festival at the CNE. The job was simple: show off the appliances by prepping an orange loaf in front of a somewhat disinterested audience. The perennial gabber effortlessly struck up conversations with the audience, pulling them into her demonstration. A year later, she’d be pulling in television audiences with the same ease.

Unbeknownst to Cushing, a television producer was in the audience that day. “They [the producers] had auditioned a ton of hosts for Dish It Out, but they weren’t sold on any of them,” says Cushing, who was hand selected to try out for a new show that would air on Life network.

Despite coming ill-prepared for the audition (she had zero on-air training and was under dressed compared to her gussied up competition), the perky brunette with the Marilyn mole scored the role.

Mark Johnston, the executive producer that plucked Cushing off that CNE stage, later told her, “When you started doing your audition, 15 seconds into it everyone in the control room said, ‘That’s the one!’ ” and so kicked off a 15-year on-air career.

Cushing’s credits include hosting live TV (Christine Cushing Live), helming the cooking portion of Marilyn Denis’s talk show (which she still does) and suffering through comically terrible dishes in Fearless in the Kitchen. When boiled down, Fearless in the Kitchen was a mash-up of Kitchen Nightmares and Canada’s Worst Driver. Almost inexcusably awful home cooks make their signature dish for Cushing (like salsa-drowned eggplant or plastic spoon steamed eggs), and then an ever-patient Cushing gives them a cooking crash course.

For Cushing’s newest endeavour, she is (for once!) not reprising the role of cooking instructor. In Confucius Was a Foodie, Cushing plays the role of student who learns from master chefs (Yunqiang Qu, Jon Zhang and Yi Yang), all recent North American immigrants from China. The first six episodes of the documentary series explore how Chinese food has been adapted in North America and how the 5,000-year-old cuisine thrives 11,000 kilometres away from home.

“There I was with these master chefs, and some spoke little to no English,” says Cushing. While filming, someone translated via an in-ear device what was being said to her. “It was a challenge to balance eating, tasting, hosting,” she says. No longer being the expert didn’t phase Cushing. It was the language barrier that frustrated her more than the learning curve. “I’ve always been a lifelong student,” says Cushing.

Although Cushing may have been out of her depth when it came to the cuisine and the language, she was right at home (quite literally) for some of the filming.

“I love to visit Tian Xin Place, which is a Huaiyang cuisine restaurant, and Season’s Supermarket, which is a terrific grocery store. We shot in both of these locations,” says Cushing of her favourite Thornhill spots that appear in the series.

Throughout Confucius Was a Foodie, Cushing visits restaurants, markets and Chinatowns across North America. Toronto keeners will be delighted to recognize a swath of local spots including the Aga Khan Museum, King Noodle, DaiLo and Luckee.

A life filled with food was evident for Cushing early on. Although she was a straight A student, she was struggling to balance her baking addiction with her school work. Nights on end Cushing would stay up well past midnight tweaking recipes in an effort to perfect delicate pastries and decadent cakes.

Cooking since she was knee-high, Cushing always gravitated to preparing savoury dishes. In middle school she started to tackle baking and quickly realized she was terrible.

“I was a very good spontaneous cook, but I applied that same method to pastry, but it just didn’t work. Then it dawned on me, I just wasn’t being precise. I wasn’t treating baking as a science,” says Cushing about her aha moment.“There was something about proving to myself that I could make this stuff.”

Although her Greek-Canadian parents were extremely strict — and they would constantly tell Cushing to go to bed — they ultimately relented, knowing in the end that their teen could be doing worse things at 2 a.m. than refining her meringue recipe.

At 15, Cushing started bussing tables at the Mill Restaurant in Fairview Mall. She knew if she wanted to go to university that she’d have to pay her own way. After noticing that the restaurant’s cakes were mediocre at best, she started selling her home-baked black forest cakes to her employer, and so her tuition fund began to grow a bit faster. All the while she was still studying for math tests and working as a busgirl.

This entrepreneurial attitude would define much of Cushing’s early cooking career. “I inherited my mom’s entrepreneurial spirit — she’s a risk taker! — and my dad’s love of cooking and languages,” says Cushing. Before she became a TV mainstay, Cushing was, at one point, giving cooking lessons, styling food, developing recipes and catering.

Cushing briefly pursued an academic path, studying linguistics and computer science at U of T. One day, while sitting in a 200-person amphitheatre, she suddenly realized that she was profoundly unhappy.

“Computers were not for me. I was bad at it, I hated it,” says Cushing, and so she dropped out (much to her parents’ chagrin) and enrolled in cooking school.

If there’s one profession that’s perfect for a natural pedant, it’s pastry. After completing her training at George Brown College and Paris’s École de Cuisine La Varenne, Cushing began working at Scaramouche.

Ever the chatterbox, Cushing (one of the first to arrive in the morning) would pounce on whoever came in after her, peppering the silence of the kitchen with stories and anecdotes.

“Keith [Froggett, executive chef at Scaramouche] would come in and would hear me blabbing, and he would say, ‘Shut up, no one wants to hear your stupid stories,’ ” says Cushing with a laugh. “He loved a quiet kitchen, which, for me, is my nemesis.”

Luckily for Cushing, she discovered that a television career was the perfect venue for her gift of gab and love of the kitchen.

Confucius Was a Foodie will air later this year, meanwhile Cushing is already focused on season two.