Victory was on the menu for Niagara College alumna Erica Karbelnik (nee Hakien) who dazzled the judges on the finale of Top Chef Canada season nine which aired on June 7 on Food Network Canada. Karbelnik graduated from NC’s Culinary Management Co-op program in 2011, an experience that shaped her as a chef and inspired her love for local food.
Competing alongside her at the finale was Erica’s husband and NC alumnus Josh Karbelnik (Culinary Management Co-op, 2011) who cooked his way into the final four chefs on the Food Network Canada show before being eliminated. The high school sweethearts from Toronto were the first married couple to compete on Top Chef Canada.
“Winning is surreal. It is emotional. It is an out-of-body experience,” said Erica. “You go there with this dream of wanting to win and prove that you’re good at what you do. This industry is so hard, you give up so much. But it is a matter of not giving up and fighting for what you want, with cameras in your face, bright lights, and strangers all around you, you need to perform.”
“Our entire team of chefs at the Canadian Food and Wine Institute (CFWI) at Niagara College are so proud of Erica and Josh for this incredible culinary achievement. We were excited to watch them on Top Chef Canada from week to week,” said Craig Youdale, dean of the CFWI. “Seeing our grads build extraordinary careers and excel in culinary challenges like this will inspire our students to dream big.”
Flashback to 2011 at the start of their journey as aspiring chefs, Erica and Josh were living in Fonthill and attending classes at the CFWI at NC.
“The culinary program is so wonderful. You get to use so much of the local products. You don’t just focus on cooking but the whole culinary experience, from suppliers to produce to wine pairings,” said Erica. “We loved our professors. They shaped us and helped us grow.”
It was an experience at NC that inspired Erica’s creation of a dish for the ‘Eat local challenge’ in episode five of Top Chef Canada. “I made a seared porkchop with apple and wheatberry risotto which was inspired by a field trip to a pig farm in Niagara. I remember feeding the pigs apples and wheatberries.”
After graduating, the couple moved to Vancouver. Josh, classically trained French, began cooking ultra-fine cuisine for well-known Chef Scott Jaegger at The Pear Tree.
“Josh suffered from a tragic accident, losing two of his fingers in an ice cream machine. He thought he would never cook again. Scott Jaegger retrained him and gave him the strength and confidence. Now he cooks circles around people with 10 fingers,” said Erica.
Erica, classically trained French and Italian, explored her passion for pasta making before shifting gears as the operations manager and expediter at Wildebeest restaurant in Vancouver. After five years in Vancouver, Erica and Josh returned to Toronto.
With the COVID-19 pandemic taking a hit on the restaurant industry, the couple are looking forward to returning to their respective kitchens; Erica as the executive chef of Terrace Restaurant at Toronto’s Elmwood Spa, and Josh as the chef de cuisine at The Broadview Hotel. For now, the chef duo have embarked on their own catering company for private home events in the Greater Toronto Area.
“A lot of chefs have had to pivot,” said Erica. “Our dream is to have our own restaurant, but unfortunately because of the pandemic, the future is uncertain.”
After being eliminated in the semi-final round – placing fourth out of 11 professional chefs from across Canada – Josh supported his wife as sous-chef in the final five-course tasting menu challenge.
Along with the title of Top Chef Canada, Erica won a cash prize of $100,000 and a Lexus RX Hybrid Electric SUV. Josh took home $5,000 as the winning sous-chef in the final competition.
The win comes at a special time for the couple who are expecting their first child.
“Winning means everything to us. It is the start of our life, of our future. It’s a college fund for our baby, a house we can call our own, a restaurant we can own,” said Erica.
With their passion for Niagara, Erica says that they have considered moving back. “There is no place like Niagara. I love going to the farmers market, talking to the farmers, going to the wineries, picking out pairings. Not a lot of people know how special Niagara is, it really needs to be celebrated.”
“NC was such a big part of my and Josh’s life. The students who go to NC have to know how lucky they are … the people you are learning from, the wine, beer and horticulture classes – you can only get that at Niagara College. We were not just a number there. We were somebody that someone wanted to succeed.”
Niagara College’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute provides students with valuable hands-on experience and academics in food, innovation, wine and beer. The CFWI, located at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus, is home to Canada’s first Teaching Winery, Teaching Brewery and Teaching Distillery.
Niagara College offers more than 130 diploma, bachelor degree and advanced level programs; as well as more than 600 credit, vocational and general interest Part-Time Studies courses. Areas of specialization include food and wine science, advanced technology, media, applied health and community safety, supported by unique learning enterprises in food, wine, beer, distilling, horticulture and esthetics. Visit niagaracollege.ca.