Nota Bene presents David Lee’s Taste of August menu

02 Aug

To Nota Bene, to preview David Lee’s Taste of August menu – a most elegant expression of some of the treats of an Ontario summer. The restaurant has a charming feeling of calm and spaciousness early in the evening and early in the week, though the bar is usually busy with patrons taking advantage of the generous Happy Hour (actually 4:00 to 7:00) when Lee’s delectable bar snacks are offered for a mere $4. The menu itself – five courses – costs a very reasonable $59 with matched cocktails and wines for another $36.

The first course stars the year’s first great tomatoes – a selection of different small red, yellow and purple heirlooms from Vicki’s Veggies in Prince Edward County, intense little flavour bombs of tangy sweetness. Lee dresses them with basil leaves and a chipotle vinaigrette thickened with roasted tomatillo pulp and chili oil, the prickle of peppery heat a lovely counterpoint to the perfume of the basil. On the other side of the plate, meanwhile, representing the pleasure of sin against the virtuous salad, is a slim crab melt sandwich of rich, runny cheese and crab meat inside golden fried brioche slices. Nota Bene’s sommelier (Nick Baldassari, lately of Bar Buca) proposes a cocktail with the dish rather than a wine, a Rio Cubano of muddled mint leaves, lime juice, pineapple juice and cachaça. It’s cold, tart, aromatic and utterly refreshing.

My wife’s unabashedly eager affection for chilled sweet English pea soup has raised eyebrows in the past, but her standards are high and based around an insistence on pea-purity (woe betide the potage that sluts itself up with alien flavours). Lee’s version passed her scrupulous tests. A thick, silky purée, it contained a few whole peas and, at the heart of the bowl, a small slice of creamy burrata Pugliese to add the richness of dairy to the head-filling, pea-green flavour. A crisp, golden, wafer-thin crostini, like Melba toast that’s died and gone to heaven, was served separately, to be crumbled onto the soup perhaps, or dipped into it, or used as a utensil to fish for the slice of burrata – there were no instructions… Matching a wine to a soup is often tricky – especially a soup with such a full body – but Baldassari  found a dazzling solution – “Sillery,” a white Pinot Noir from Frecciarossa in Lombardy with great weight and richness of its own.

A pasta course followed: a brace of big firm tortellini with taleggio cheese and black Australian “perigord” truffles grated on top. Zucchini blossoms had been chopped into morsels to add an intriguing, almost bitter vegetal note. This time the wine was chosen to contrast the unctuous textures of the dish – Norm Hardie’s 2013 “Calcaire,” a bone-dry, sharp and minerally ménage of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Melon de Bourgogne and Riesling.

Do you pay any attention to the prophesies of experts who claim to predict the coming trends? The next big thing in gastronomy? I have it on good authority that lamb will be the darling meat for the next little while. By a complete coincience, David Lee is offering Haldimand County lamb “three ways” as one of the two main course options on this August menu. He prepares it with his customary elegance and refinement. There is a firm piece of loin, almost gamey in its lamby-lanolin identity, a smaller chunk of tenderloin with a more delicate flavour and a texture so tender you really don’t need to take a knife to it, and lastly, a tranche of the lamb belly or “breast” as it used to be called – a cut that is rarely seen but is layered with delicious fat and, in this fine version, perfumed with rosemary. A bonus “fourth way” came with the scattering of crispy little shards of lamb crackling. Then there was a friter of peaches-and-cream corn, soft on the inside, crisp on the surface; a moment of olive tapenade (classic with lamb, of course, and justifiably so); some spinach for balance and a mustardy jus. It sounds straightforward but the quality of the lamb (and the cooking) lifted it head-high. Somm Baldassari paired it with 2013 Whoa Nelly! Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette valley and a very good time was had by all.

Were we full by now? We were not. So the house slipped in an extra course of three cheeses – minute amounts of three beauties curated by afrim Pristine of Cheese Boutique: buffalo milk Fuoco, Eweda Cru and Glen Garry’s renowned Lankaaster. Taylor Fladgate was an ideal accompaniment but a cinnamon-spiked apple purée was a much too powerful condiment.

And then it was time for dessert… Years ago, I remember Michael Stadtländer’s default pud was a loose compote of wild blueberries with lemon foam – and indeed the two flavours (and the two colours) are divine together. This time, Nota Bene’s pastry chef had topped an impeccable blueberry compote with a spoonful of lemon gelato and a spoonful of lemon curd – delectable, but a bit too much for the blueberries who had to shout to make themselves heard. A fin of apricot meringue was a brilliant garnish.

There are other, heartier treats at Nota Bene this season for those with the foresight to order them 48 hours in advance. How about a roast suckling pig spread across two courses, one traditional, the other taco-style? Or a lobster boil that also involves shrimp, corn, Linzer potatoes and pork and Mexican oregano sausages? Both are offered for two or four persons.

But I urge you to drop in for the Taste of August menu. Chef’s tasting menus have been out of style for a while, which is a shame because they offer an artist like David Lee a fine opportunity to show his mind and his palate at work over a whole evening, with careful progressions and resonances all in place.


Mae Martin in Montreal July 20, 22 and 24

12 Jul

Excellent news! My extraordinarily talented and amusing daughter, Mae Martin, is coming back to Canada this month to perform at Just For Laughs in Montreal. While there she will be performing her own show on three not-to-be-missed evenings at Zoofest. Friends of mine in Montreal, you know what to do! Here are the dates…


Mae Martin Two-time Canadian Comedy Award nominee Mae Martin, as seen on Russell Howard’s Good News and heard on BBC Radio 4, comes of age in a new hour where she will consider the labels projected onto us, and those we give ourselves. ‘A natural comic talent’ ***** (Skinny). ‘She had the audience in the palm of her hand’ **** (ThreeWeeks). ‘A dizzying hour’ **** ( ‘An hour of rapier wit and cute charisma’ **** (ScotsGay). ‘A complete gem’ **** (Gay Times). ‘A very accomplished stage presence’ **** (


Monday 20   19h30

Cabaret du 4e du Monument National

Wednesday 22   19h30

Cabaret du 4e du Monument National

Friday 24   19h30

Cabaret du 4e du Monument National

Follow this link to buy tickets!



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Mae Martin performs her comedy tomorrow in Toronto

27 May


My brilliant daughter, Mae Martin, is back in Canada for a couple of weeks and performing her brand new one-woman stand-up comedy show TOMORROW evening!

The show is at The Ossington, 61 Ossington Ave, Toronto

Tickets are on a first come, first served basis and cost $10.

Doors are at 7:30pm, the show begins at 8:00.

It’s going to be an amaezing night! But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the British media say:


Two-time Canadian Comedy Award nominee MAE MARTIN, as seen in ‘Russell Howard’s Good News’ and heard on BBC Radio 4, comes of age in a new hour where she will consider the labels projected onto us, and those we give ourselves. 

“A natural comic talent” *****. THE SKINNY.

“She had the audience in the palm of her hand”  ****. THREEWEEKS.

“A dizzying hour” ****. FRINGE BISCUIT.

“An hour of rapier wit and cute charisma”  ****. SCOTSGAY.

“A complete gem” ****. THE GAY TIMES.



In Aid of Nepal

27 May

Stadtlander Nepal

Passing on the news about an extraordinary event organized by Michael and Nobuyo Stadtlander and Paul Bohmer. What an opportunity!



J-P Challet returns to The Fifth for summer

17 May

On perfect summer evenings like this one there is really no finer or more pleasant destination in the city than the Terrace at the Fifth. You ride that old freight elevator up out of the crowded night club or the equally crowded Pubhouse and you discover that the old magic is more than intact – it has intensified – especially now that chef J-P Challet has returned there as guest chef for the summer.

Libell Geddes is the owner of the Fifth – her impeccable taste has always informed its ambience and she has a knack for getting the absolute best out of her chefs. I would argue that Didier Leroy, J-P Challet and Marc Thuet all did their finest work in the tiny kitchen at the Fifth and it was such a treat to taste Challet’s food again. After he closed Ici, his charming little bistro on Harbord Street, he went back to his old stomping ground at the Windsor Arms for a year. One feels he is happier to be at the Fifth. And his legions of fans will be thrilled to discover that he is working on a new book and testing some of the recipes in the restaurant. Should you go – and you should, you really should – and if you are very lucky you might find some of the same things on the menu as we tasted last week.

We started with excellent Italian caviar presented in three different ways – as a garnish on a spoonful of tangy, mustardy beef tartare; as the dark crown on a perfectly cooked potato and lemon raviolo; and, unforgettably, strirred with a little cream and just an unexpected drop of maple syrup into very soft-boiled egg, served in its shell.

Then there was a salad, in celebration of the first good weather of the year, made with sweet, juicy kumato tomatoes with crispy pickled ginger avocado and a goat cheese burrek that stole the show, the unctuous cheese bursting out of the little pastry pouch.

We tasted a scallop, barely cooked, dressed with asian pear and king crab, and sharing the elegant plate with white asparagus, a single potato gnocchi and a subtle harissa mayonnaise.

Our main course brought a tremblingly tender cuboid of braised beef short rib with some glazed heirloom carrots of a delightfully intense flavour and two examples of J-P’s affection for frying – a truffle cromesquis and a soft potato croquette, perfect for mopping up the moment of bordelaise sauce.

Dessert was simplicity itself – a slice of lemon tart that J-P had made that day paired with a crisp white meringue and some berries.

I think we are all aware that Toronto is swinging back a little towards elegant dining and accomplished service after so many years at the comfort end of the gastronomical spectrum. It’s great to see that the Fifth is still a leader in the field.



Brunch at Parts & Labour

09 Mar
Chefs Bertrand Alepee and Maty Matheson, with baked goods

Chefs Bertrand Alepee and Matty Matheson, with baked goods

To Parkdale on a sunlit Sunday morning, riding the streetcar along Queen Street West to emcee a brunch at Parts & Labour for the VISA Infinite dining series. I’m not a natural bruncher – never have been – though not because I disapprove of the conflation of breakfast and lunch, either linguistically or gastronomically. It’s just that when I was a busy restaurant critic, I tended to work on Saturday nights – and Sunday mornings were therefore more about recuperation than further feasting. But that was then, and these days I can eat when and where I choose, so the chance to taste the brunchular ideas of two of the Group of Seven – Matthew James “Matty” Matheson of P&L and Bertrand “Bert” Alépée of The Tempered Room – was not to be missed. Matty was a wild man in his youth. Now that he’s reached the ripe old age of 33, he has settled down, his businesses are doing brilliantly and he has become an amabassador for the Toronto food scene, spreading the good word across Canada and the States in person and through his excellent blogwork on He will have his own tv show next year, on the Vice channel. Bert (The Fifth, Amuse Bouche) is simply (and I use the word ironically of the confectioner’s art) one of the very best pastry chefs we have.

I arrived at Parts & Labour early and found everything poised and ready. The charming little woodstove by the front window was cosily ablaze; a cauldron of hot liquid stood on top of it, perfuming the air in a most irreststible way. P&L’s manager Chantelle Gabino is also a star mixologist and had created an amazing warm toddy for the event – Cinzano rosso spiced with cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and bayleaf, mixed with apple cider and two bottles of Woodford bourbon. Then she added rosemary and orange, roasted marshmallow syrup and some rare mas mole biters from Arizona. Gabino called the drink “Into the Wood” and indeed it was the apotheosis of a subtle winter warmer, perfectly balancing citrus, spice and the earthy flavours of bourbon and vermouth. A splendid start.

piglet and gribiche

piglet and gribiche

Propeller Coffee Co. provided the direct-trade coffee (a fruity Kenyan cup) and Krystina Roman of Rosewood Estates was there with her wines – a lively Pinot Noir and a buttery Chardonnay – and a sensational off-dry mead that came into its own in the later stages. She also provided the honey that Bert whipped into the butter he set out with some of his own treasures – a mountain of croissants (some plain, others almond or chocolate – or both), buttery brioche, and bowls of chouquettes, the bite-sized, sugar-crusted balls of moist chou pastry that used to stand on the counter of the patisseries he knew as a boy in France. In lieu of jam, he proposed a smooth compote of the year’s first forced rhubarb, all shy and tender, pink and tart and never been out of the greenhouse.

Those were for our first course. The main dishes arrived family style, the way Parts & Labour serves these days, and the list of them on the printed menu read like a rich, buttery, syrup-slathered poem. This was not one of those brunches where you get a skinny omelette and a piece of unripe melon. No indeed…

First out of the kitchen were platters of meat, the legs of achingly delicious little milk-fed Gaspord piglets from Les Laurentides in Quebec. Matty had brined the legs then set them to roast very slowly overnight – at about 200 degrees – so when he opened the oven this morning there they were, the flesh as tender as butter, the skin golden-brown, crispy and glistening, sitting in their own rich fat. He took all the meat off the bones and piled it up with shards of the crispy crackling. Under and over, he spooned a classic sauce gribiche (Matty cut his teeth working at Le Select and La Palette and knows from gribiches), a piquant slurry of chopped egg white and egg yolk with a brunoise of red onion, capers, celery, cornichons, garlic, lots of orange zest, chervil, tarragon, parsley, Dijon mustard, olive and canola oils – rich but tangy and the perfect condiment to the pork. He did not ignore the fat that was left in the roasting pan with all those scrumptious little dark sticky bits. Instead he whipped them up into a gloriously unstable emulsion and spread it on toast made with Simon Blackwell’s Blackbird Bakery sourdough baguette. Not so much gilding the lily as larding it.

Those pancakes...

Those pancakes…

Then there were pancakes. If you haven’t seen Matty’s pancake-making video on, you really should. It makes for compelling viewing. He makes a persuasive case that his are “the best fucking pancakes in the world” and I’m not going to argue. Apparently some kid was watching the video and called his Dad in to watch. His Dad was producing commercials for the Super Bowl, loved Matty’s attitude – and that’s how Matty Matheson ended up being seen by 115 million people on Super Bowl Sunday. Today, he stacked his pancakes up, put excessive amounts of butter on top and then drowned them in 70 brix maple syrup. This is an awesome maple syrup from Gaspé that gets boiled down for 20 minutes longer than ordinary humdrum maple syrup so it’s really thick and really sweet. Matty explained it to me by saying it was like the amps in Spinal Tap that go up to 11, not just 10. A fitting robe for those pancakes.




roasted foie gras with persimmon sauce

roasted foie gras with persimmon sauce

And what would any brunch be without whole lobes of foie gras? Matty roasts them in the oven, basting them with their own melting fat until they are almost liquid. Then he lets them rest a bit and recover, before slicing them up and smothering them in a compote made like a mostarda with the last of the season’s persimmons and a handful of pink peppercorns, thinned down with more maple syrup. People were spreading the foie onto whatever croissant and bread was left, and gasping with pleasure.
There was more… A classic potato gratin made with Emmenthal and shallots, thyme, cream and pepper. Hot quiche-like tarts of confited fennel and confited leeks in a royale of eggs and cream baked in a high-rimmed pastry and topped with an orange and fennel salad as the morning’s token vegetable moment.

eggs better jp

And of course there were eggs, soft-scrambled in a double-boiler so they stay loose and laid-back – jazz eggs, as ever there were – topped with toasted sunflower seeds and half a kilo of black truffles. Matty doesn’t slice the truffles; he uses a rasp so they end up as finely shaved as bonito flakes, stirring in the heat from the eggs and releasing a little cloud of earthy, truffly, funky fragrance that just hovers over the dish. The secret ingredient is a remarkable sunflower oil that he sources through Société Orignal, the brilliant Quebec company that provided many of the morning’s ingredients. Apparently, they dry out the sunflower seeds on a bed of hay on the top of the barn under a sun roof, a treatment that is the equivalent of a day at the spa. Then they cold press the oil. Why yes, it’s expensive – but it’s so good. No bitterness, just the pure taste of sunflower seeds. Matty drizzles the oil over the eggs.

One of the lovely things about having Dairy Farmers of Canada as a sponsor for these VISA events is that the cheese course is always extraordinary. DFC’s own Anne-Marie Rajabali introduced her quartet – Avonlea’s clothbound cheddar from P.E.I. (“grassy yet sweet with an aroma reminiscent of unwashed potatoes”); 5 Brothers Gun’s Hill Artisan Cheese (like a cross between gouda and appenzeller); soft, blue-veined, bloomy-rinded Borgonzola from Ontario’s Quality Cheese; and Laliberté, the ultra-rich triple-cream form from Fromagerie de Presbytère in Quebec. With these we had some fresh little biscuits and herbed cornbread from Bert and chunks of honeycomb from Rosewood’s hives.

Castel au praline

Castel au praline

And finally, by way of dessert, Bert gave his interpretation of a classic – a Castel au praliné. It’s always fun to try and track down the origin of classic confectionery. Bert didn’t know where Castel au praliné comes from but he was pretty sure it was the South of France. Maybe from Castelnaudary. But there are rival claims! Northern France also claims it, vowing it was invented in 1912, in the last gasp of Europe’s innocence, in the town of Chateau-Thierry in Picardy, by a pastry chef called Leon Hess. He took it to the great exposition in Paris and won a gold medal for it, making his own – and the cake’s – reputation. His patisserie did brilliantly and everyone who came to Chateau-Thierry to see where La Fontaine had written his amusing fables, knew they had to stop and buy a Castel au Praliné from Mr. Hess.

Alas. Sic transit gloria! It all came to an end only two or three years later. By 1916 it was impossible to get the ingredients. The French government eventually closed down all the patisseries for the duration of the Great War. I imagine Monsieur Hess muttering that the worst thing about the First World War was the shortage of butter… I suppose it all depends on your perspective. A year later, the Battle of the Marne took place – right in his town, which may have changed his mind.

Bert’s version was stunning – layers of chewy pecan macaron – somewhere between a meringue and a macaron – a very thin layer of raspberry jam to give a hint of tartness and bring everything to life, a thick band of light hazelnut buttercream, candied hazelnuts and a white chocolate butterfly as garnish, like one of the Duchess of Cambridge’s fascinators.

We ate well. We drank well. We went home to sleep until bedtime. It’s what Sundays are for.

Thank you very much to Ksenija Hotic who took the photos (except the ones of the pork and the Castel). Find out more about her work at


Chefs for Change

04 Mar
Chefs Anthony Walsh, Chris Brown and Nick Liu at the Chefs for Change event

Chefs Anthony Walsh, Chris Brown and Nick Liu at the Chefs for Change event

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: no one does more for charities and good causes than chefs. Over the last six weeks in Toronto there have been four riotous culinary gatherings where a bunch of chefs – some from Toronto, others from farther afield – have cooked for highly appreciative crowds to raise funds for Community Food Centres Canada. They’ve called themselves Chefs for Change and they are another razor-sharp facet of the new movement that is energizing the country under the leadership of Nick Saul. I was lucky enough to be at one of the events, held at The Propellor Coffee Roastery on January 30. Chef Antonio Park flew in from Montreal, on his way to the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna (see my last 4 postings), to join Nick Liu from DaiLo, Anthony Walsh from Oliver & Bonacini, Matty Matheson from Parts & Labour, Joel Rousell from George Brown College and Chris Brown from Citizen Catering, who is the mastermind behind these gatherings. Great to see a bunch of George Brown students also there, helping in the kitchen and gathering invaluable experience. Krystina Roman of Rosewood Estates winery donated some splendid wines, breads came from Blackbird Baking Co. in Kensington Market (I buy bread there almost every day). Other sponsors included Beau’s, Georgian Bay gin, Provender, Core, Beretta, Higgins Event Rentals and uniiverse. Singer-songwriter Jory Nash offered a musical interlude.

Nick Liu made sturgeon fin soup

Nick Liu made sturgeon fin soup

The food was entirely representative of the individual chefs involved. Nick Liu began it with a sturgeon fin soup, rich and textured like a shark’s fin soup but with much more flavour and much more going on, including a trembling, runny-yolked, soy-cured egg topped with Acadian sturgeon caviar. Fascinating.






Anthony Walsh wrapped an oyster in beef

Anthony Walsh wrapped an oyster in beef


Anthony Walsh wrapped a gorgeous kushi oyster from Honest Weight in a pounded beef fillet then paired it with various dainty iterations of cauliflower, dulse and mustards. Awesome.






Matty Matheson's mackerel with uni and brown butter

Matty Matheson’s mackerel with uni and brown butter

Matty Matheson draped sea urchin roes over a stunning piece of mackerel that shared a fishy broth with two turned potatoes, then pushed the whole concept way over the top by adding bacon and brown butter. Intense!







Antonio Park grilled dorado unilaterally

Antonio Park grilled dorado unilaterally

Antonio Park’s dish was as impeccable and composed as his work always seems to be, and a reflection of his multi-cultural talents. He presented slices of unilaterally grilled dorado as a Peruvian tiradito-cum-Japanese sashimi, with ahi sauce, all topped by a pan-seared shishito pepper filled with marinated and slow-cooked baby anchovies. Ethereal.





Joel Rousell's awe-inspiring squash pudding dessert

Joel Rousell’s awe-inspiring squash pudding dessert

Dessert drew gasps of admiration from our table – a round, sticky-toffee squash pudding on tangy apple purée with ginger beer ice cream, black walnuts and crumbled sponge toffee. Irresistible.

The plan is to do this again next year – maybe grow it? A brilliant idea.

And meanwhile the work of Community Food Centres Canada goes on apace. This from a recent press release:

“We organized our first national conference! Last weekend, staff from Community Food Centres and Good Food Organizations across the country — 100+ people representing 40+ organizations — came together in Toronto to share the good food work that’s happening in their communities, trade best practices, and brainstorm program innovations and joint actions. In addition to those practical sessions, our Saturday plenary session speakers, Dr. Mike Evans, farmer and organizer Damian Adjodha, and Dr. Valerie Tarasuk, leader of the University of Toronto’s PROOF food insecurity research project, explored levers for individual, community and public policy change. It was a totally inspiring weekend.

“Speaking of Community Food Centres… On March 13, we’ll launch Canada’s fifth Community Food Centre — the first outside Ontario! The NorWest Co-op Community Food Centre is located in Winnipeg’s high-needs Inkster neighbourhood, and is already increasing access to healthy food and bringing  the community together through its community lunches and breakfasts, community kitchens, community action program and affordable produce market.

“And speaking of Good Food Organizations… Next week we’ll announce 36 new Good Food Organizations that will bring the total number of GFOs across Canada to 73! By joining the initiative, these organizations are committing to offer dignified food programs based in shared principles of equity, health, and respect. Having reps from most of these organizations at the Food Summit really underscored the amount of amazing community food work that’s happening across the country, and the ways CFCC can support that work, and amplify it to a national audience.”

Excellent work all round!



Canadian Culinary Championships – part 3 – the Grand Finale

26 Feb
Owning the podium

Owning the podium

And so to the Grand Finale. Needless to say, this was quite the party, with 600 guests starting the evening with the scrumptious canapés provided by last year’s Champion, Chef Lorenzo Loseto of George in Toronto. Everyone admired the amazing new BMW that would belong to the chef who wins (a two-year lease) and later they rocked to the music of Barney Bentall, Spirit of the West frontmen Geoffrey Kelly and John Mann, and guitarist Matthew Harder, literally leaping to their feet and dancing in the aisles when the guys played Home for a Rest. The emcee was Olympic gold and silver medallist Jennifer Heil, one of 12 Olympians present, and she reminded everyone that, to date, Gold Medal Plates has raised over $9.5 million for Canada’s Olympic athletes.

That night, of course, the chefs were the athletes and they had their own medals to strive for. It’s hard to create your masterpiece for 600 when you only have about four hours to prepare. The chefs all did a lot of preparation in their home towns and shipped components and elements ahead. Every one (except Chef Eligh) did more or less the same dish that had brought them victory in their regional competitions. Which meant the judges were presented with some splendid and highly original treats. I called for them in an order that, on paper at least, would take us from the lightest dish to the heaviest.

Chef Lavallee

Chef Lavallee

We began with Chef Lavallée’s dish, a “Nova Scotia picnic” inspired by the beach picnics her grandmother used to make for her when she was a girl. “First eat the little green leaf,” instructed Chef. “It’s an oyster leaf and it tastes of the sun and the sea and oysters. Close your eyes and you’ll imagine you’re on a beach.” We did – and we did. The dish consisted of three elements. First, set on a tiny red-and-white-checked paper “picnic cloth” was a delicious little sandwich of lobster and snow crab meat in a light, truffle-scented mayonnaise inside a soft, buttery brioche bun, garnished with edible flower petals. There was a mound of finely-chopped, soft potato salad topped with a potato chip that served as a raft for a dab of crème fraîche and a spoonful of sturgeon caviar. The third element was a selection of different pickles of varying intensity and very distinct flavours – cubes of butternut squash, sweet bread-and-butter pickles, hanasunomata seaweed of various colours – and a perfectly cooked quail egg cut into two and seasoned with homemade celery salt. Chef Lavallée’s match was flawless – the fresh, summery semi-dry apple cider from Tideview in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.

Chef O'Flynn

Chef O’Flynn

Chef O’Flynn brought in our second dish, a taste of Canada from coast to coast. His dish was a thick and generous terrine of Alberta river sturgeon, pungently smoked with pine, and layered with perfect cured foie gras. The strata of colour were breathtakingly beautiful, the flavours rich and intense, challenging but ultimately so seductive. Decorating the plate and contributing much in terms of flavour were motes of Granny Smith apple jelly, dots of apple purée, minuscule crunchy dice of brioche and two plump, juicy morels reconstituted with a bathe in a fragrance of sherry vinegar, canola oil and bay leaf. Chef’s chosen wine – Sandhill Small Lots 2013 Viognier – had the weight and spicy fragrance to dance with the smoke and apple flavours of the dish.


Chef Park

Chef Park

Chef Park presented next. He took the traditional ingredients of Korean bibimbap and re-expressed them with the finesse of Japanese cuisine as a complex roll of moussey chicken boudin, julienned vegetables, nine-hour-braised shiitake and cauliflower. Instead of sauce from a squeeze bottle, he turned the gochujang into a jellied skin as the outer layer of the roll. A tremblingly undercooked quail egg lay on top and scattered here and there was a crunchy assortment of five different kinds of puffed rice, for texture. Chef Park’s chosen wine had been lost by Air Canada en route to the competition so he had to scramble to find a substitute – Gehringer Bros. 2013 Riesling, a most successful compromise.


Chef Eligh

Chef Eligh

Chef Eligh’s dish had a dramatic and avant-garde presentation – a perfectly smooth dome of crisp bread, as fine as lace, to be shattered into what lay beneath. There we found impeccably cooked, very subtly seasoned lobster and sablefish in a heavy, chowder-like sauce made from clam nectar and lobster reduction, thickened with butter and bacon fat and cradling soft morsels of carrot, celery and potato. The wine match was exceptional – Meyer Family 2012 Micro Cuvée Dhardonnay Old Main Road from the Okanagan.


Chef Bohati

Chef Bohati


Next up was Chef Bohati with a complex and delectable combination of yellowfin tuna and foie gras. The foie was a large slice of cold-smoked torchon – marvellously rich and a clever contrast to the cool, soft slices of tuna carpaccio. These two proteins were surrounded by a cluster of intensely flavourful little courtiers – preserved lemon and sorrel for sharpness; dots of red beet and pickled plum purée and other dots of yellow beet purée; a big khaki-coloured sauce made of pistachio and a braising liquid used for pork belly. Toasted pistachios were crumbled onto the plate and a warm vinaigrette touched with white truffle served as another sauce. Smoked salt and a blue oyster flower finished the dish. Chef Bohati’s match was brilliantly chosen – an off-dry blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Blanc with plenty of weight, the Wild Goose 2013 Autumn Gold from the Okanagan.

Chef Rebello

Chef Rebello

Chef Rebello reprised his avant-garde dish from the Regina GMP event, just two things on the plate, each of which needed to be consumed in a single bite. First, what looked like a tan-coloured puff perched on a rainbow-filled shot glass. “Pop the puff into your mouth give it  couple of chews then do the shooter,” chef instructed. The judges obeyed. The puff was an air tuile made of semolina. Inside it were some flecks of chestnut that had been puréed and then deep fried, seasoned with lemon, chili, coriander and cumin. Also inside was a small finger of warm belly pork, nicely crusted. It was indeed a delightful mouthful, the spices spreading a warm glow across the palate. Then the shooter… Pow! Those spices began to glow as they were hit by salted lemon chili water, pickled apple and a dab of cranberry chutney. The second element took the same ingredients but used them in completely different ways. The pork was a crisp chicheron, the chestnut had become a dab of mousse, the cranberry chutney had been turned into pearls. The apple reappeared as dainty chips garnished with chili threads. It was similar but quite different – soft flavours, soothing almost, with the geaseless crunch of the chicheron. Chef’s wine match? Red Rooster’s 2013 Gewurztraminer.


Chef Garland

Chef Garland


Chef Garland presented a little treatise on quail. The juicy roasted breast was stuffed with foie gras; the thigh had been poached in a master stock with soy and palm sugar (intense flavours) then Chef had pulled off the meat and turned it into a rugged-looking, panko-crusted croquette that several of the judges agreed was one of the most delicious things we had tasted all weekend. The stock, mixed with some of the chosen wine, had been reduced to a rich, sapid sauce. At the top of the plate was an enticing jumble of many effects – a gelée of peeled grapes and more Gewurztraminer, dainty cinnamon cap mushrooms, crunchy threads of fried shallot and fresh thyme that scented the entire dish. Chef’s wine match was inspired – Tawse 2013 Quarry Road Gewurztraminer, surprisingly ripe, rich and perfumed.


Chef Horne

Chef Horne

Chef Horne’s dish drew gasps of admiration from the judges. He had taken bite-sized pieces of exceptionally tender, braised beef short rib and finished them with a glaze of tree syrups – birch, maple, cedar and sumac – that gave the meat a heavenly, sweet, woodsy crust. One piece of the short rib was served on a bare beef rib bone. Real maple leaves had been marinated in cider and then turned into edible crisps. Wild leeks had been transformed into a seasoning salt while others had been pickled, adding their own piquant alium flavour to the composition. What looked like a gleaming piece of bark was in fact deep-fried parsley root and more parsley root had been turned into a purée with parsnip. It was like a walk in the woods and notably well matched with Creekside 2012 Iconoclast Syrah from Niagara.


Chef Jean

Chef Jean

Chef Jean built his dish around his chosen wine – Pelee Island’s 2012 Lighthouse Riesling. He marinated Manitoba pork tenderloin char-siu-style, cooked it sous-vide an then seared it with Asian barbecue spices for a touch of exotic heat. It was a beautiful piece of meat, nicely paired with sauerkraut that also had an Asian flavour, lightly spiced with star anise and chili. There was a potato confited in duck fat and topped with pork crackling, bacon and chives; squash purée provided rooty sweetness and a splash of colour. The sauce was a veal jus spiked with honey and lime and the final garnish was a flourish of candied kumquat, perched jauntily on the pork.

Chef Hill

Chef Hill

Our penultimate pleasure was Chef Hill’s “Farmer’s Table,” a dish inspired by the Sunday dinners he enjoyed as a boy growing up on his parents’ farm in Saskatchewan. He cooked a gorgeous lamb sirloin sous vide then seared it in camolino oil. Beside this lay a ribbon of pliable lamb sausage. Peas had been turned into a purée and also turned into a wafer with the texture of nori. Celery root furnished a second purée and micro celery greens added more colour and graceful freshness; a tiny carrot looked as if it had been grown in a doll’s house. Pickled mustard seed with lots of lemon was a welcome condiment and yellow mustard flowers symbolized the fields of Saskatchewan. A spoonful of sour cherry reduction was made with fruit from Chef’s father’s farm. The presentation was stunning and the wine match spot on – McWatters Collection 2012 Meritage from the Okanagan valley.

Chef McCrowe

Chef McCrowe

Chef McCrowe rounded off our evening with a splendid dish he called “Moose and Juice,” entering the judges’ room with a smoke gun to create the atmosphere of a Newfoundland forest – a little piece of theatre that was much appreciated. He had marinated the wild moose tenderloin with juniper then grilled it over charcoal with a dust of dehydrated chanterelles. The moose shank was braised with molasses and red wine together with salt pork fat back and finished with a scattering of crispy scrunchions. A purée of turnip and sharp cheddar was a powerful component and spikes of other root vegetables were scattered around the plate. Deep-fried caribou moss added to the sylvan mood of the dish and the last element was a piece of “Nan’s toast” in memory of the moose stew his Nan used to make. The wine Chef chose was a super compliment to the food, Norman Hardie’s 2013 Zweigelt from Prince Edward County, tangy, fruity and light-bodied.

The judges sat back. It had been a most memorable contest. Chef Park had aced the final round but all the marks for the Grand Finale were close – all within nine percentage points – a pattern that carried through to the final scores. We had known it was a very strong field going into the weekend and every chef had performed magnificently. At this level, their technical abilities can almost be taken for granted; what is exciting – as in the work of any great artist – is to see their unique and personal perspective emerge in the dishes they create before our very eyes. In the end, it was almost a photo finish – an Olympic sprint – and the winners of the gold, silver and bronze medals were less than two percentage points apart. Chef Eligh from Hawksworth in Vancouver won the bronze. Chef Park from Park Restaurant in Montreal won the silver. The gold medal went to Chef O’Flynn from the Westin, Edmonton.

Huge congratulations to all the chefs – and their sous chefs – and the students from Okanagan College who served as their willing apprentices throughout the weekend. Heartfelt thankyous to the judges. A deep bow to our new champion, Chef Ryan O’Flynn.


The Canadian Culinary Championships 2015 – part 2

25 Feb
Proffering the duck... Senior Judge Chef Bernard Casavant and James Chatto show the crowd the Black Box ingredients

Proffering the duck… Senior Judge Chef Bernard Casavant and James Chatto show the crowd the Black Box ingredients

Saturday morning – round about 7:15 a.m. in the lobby of the Delta hotel… Chefs and sous chefs are standing around or pacing, each one holding tight to his or her knife sets. The judges are there (some of them having already scored the excellent coffees from nearby Gio Bean) and two luxurious buses wait to take everyone to Okanagan College’s Culinary Arts building and the preparation kitchens where the Black Box will take place.

The venue looks splendid – a large area decked out for the public with banners and breakfast omelette stations manned by students. Amber Piché from My Tea Blending Room is here brewing some excellent teas. Another room houses a “market” of local artisanal producers showing off their wares, including awesome chocolate-covered cherries from Knight’s Fine Chocolate and super granola bars from The Bench Artisan Food Market. The first half of the audience arrives and the chefs are introduced then stripped of their cell phones and other communication devices before being led off to an isolated room to wait until their name is called.

Menawhile we judges introduce the contents of the Black Box to the eager spectators:

Tart, livid sea-buckthorn berries donated by Betty Forbes, proprietor of Northern Vigor Berries, Kamsack, Saskatchewan,  (

Two live lobsters (a male and a female – a cock and a hen, as we used to say in England) for each chef, donated by Taste of Nova Scotia.

A big Rougie duck from Quebec, donated by Two Rivers Meats in B.C.

A bag of golden quinoa, grown in Saskatchewan and donated by NorQuin quinoa.

A bag of dried lavender, donated by Okanagan Lavender & Herb Farm,

A tub of fresh ricotta cheese donated by Valoroso Fine Foods,

And, making up the complement of ingredients, are locally purchased turnips and yams, Honeycrisp and Granny Smith apples from Okanagan Packing House, Kelowna, and hazelnuts from Canadian Hazelnut Inc. of Agassiz, B.C.

In years gone by we have asked chefs to create two dishes using six ingredients, in one hour. Frankly, the whole contest sometimes devolved into a “beat-the-clock” plating ordeal. This year, we invite each chef to choose six of the 10 ingredients and create only one dish (13 plates of it, just for the judges). The idea is to stimulate creativity, to get the chefs going beyond the safe option, to raise overall quality – and it works. Okay, chefs who have competed for us in previous years, and are watching this year’s contest online on a live video feed, start texting us that it all looks much too easy. We will fine tune it again for next year.

Chef Jean

Chef Jean

Meanwhile, the first chef chosen is soon heads-down and deep in concentration with his sous. It’s Chef Luc Jean from Winnipeg. He announces his dish and the contest begins. Chef Jean decides to work with both duck breast and lobster (hooray). He pan-sears the duck with a touch of cumin, salt and pepper and presents a single tender slice over a rich purée of yam and carrot made with shallots and chicken stock from the communal pantry. The lobster is poached in butter with ginger and chives and though two lobsters barely furnish enough meat for 13 servings (something, we later learned, that deterred some chefs from using it), Chef Jean makes it go round. He uses the tart sea-buckthorn berries whole in a beurre blanc sauce for the lobster and finishes the dish with a slaw of apple and celery root, strewn with grated hazelnuts and topped with a wheel of green jalapeño chili. Presentation is more natural than fussy and the judges agree this is a very promising beginning.


Chef Hill

Chef Hill

Chef Hill is up next. He offers slices of seared duck breast in a presentation that looks fairly simple at first glance but in fact is a treasure trove of techniques and subtly used Asian flavours. Yam purée is spiked with miso, star anise, soy and sesame. Threads of the turnip are quickly pickled with rice wine vinegar and a blend of spices. A spoonful of lavender-scented sea-buckthorn gastrique is the colour of a desert sunset and brings the duck to life. An intense stock whipped up from the roasted duck bones and a little chicken stock serves as a second sauce. Hazelnut dust spiked with chili powder provides interesting texture and the dish is finished with a couple of watercress leaves and a trace of watercress oil. Balanced, accomplished… an excellent dish.


Chef Lavallee

Chef Lavallee

Chef Lavallée gives a little whoop of delight when she opens the box and sees lobsters from her home town among the ingredients. She cooks them perfectly (12 minutes then a plunge into ice-cold water), finishes them with a subtle lavender vinaigrette and uses their succulent meat as the crown for a fresh salad of julienned apples, celery root, turnip and watercress. The salad has its own dressing, thickened with the ricotta and cream, lemon, sesame oil and crushed hazelnuts. Crispy pancetta is crumbled over the top of the dish and beside it lies a light, crisp, salt-crusted cracker, baked using quinoa as flour.



Chef McCrowe

Chef McCrowe

Chef McCrowe is our fourth competitor. He has the happy idea of smoking the duck breast – but there is no smoker among the equipment available. So he McGyvers one out of a hotel pan and a handful of maple chips. The breast is juicy, tender and sweetly smoky – and he adds the hazelnuts into the smoker then crumbles them as a delicious garnish. We judges are becoming accustomed to puréed yam by now, but Chef McCrowe sparks his version with apple and smooths it out with miso, butter and sesame oil. For freshness he slices shiitake mushrooms from the pantry, gives them a light pickle and tosses them in a salad with turnip, mint, cilantro and pancetta. He uses the sea-buckthorn berries in the salad’s dressing, adding hazelnuts and a pinch of Asian spices.


Chef Bohati

Chef Bohati

Chef Bohati brings his plates into the judges’ room with the news that he loved the black box ingredients! The judges love the way he has thought outside the box with a dazzlingly creative dish that shows a lovely balance of flavours. He begins by making fresh pasta and uses it to make agnolotti. The filling is a mixture of puréed yam, ricotta and onion, loosened with chicken stock and stirred up with the claw and leg meat from the lobsters that he has lightly poached in a miso beurre blanc, touched by star anise. Morsels of the lobster tail meat nestle in amongst the angnolotti. On top are crisp, julienned apple, chives and watercress and a crumble made from hazlenuts and flecks of crispy duck skin, quickly fried in duck fat rendered down from the carcase. The duck fat also forms one of the fats in a delicate dressing for the apple salad, along with rice wine vinegar and grape seed oil. The final touch is a rich, pungent glaze made from the roasted lobster shells. Such interesting ideas!

Chef Park's sushi

Chef Park’s sushi

Chef Park is the next to strut his stuff. “I call this surf and turf,” he jokes as he escorts the dishes in for judgement. He has made two dishes for us. The first is a bowl of miso soup, studded with sliced mushroom and tiny cubes of the firm ricotta in place of tofu. Minced chives add colour. The second is a tasting of nigiri sushi. There was no sticky sushi rice in the pantry so Chef Park improvised with a mixture of arborio and quinoa – it’s just dense enough to hold its shape as we lift the sushi to our mouths. On top of one nigiri is a very thin slice of duck breast, seared like tataki with salt and pepper and topped with shaved turnip (masquerading as daikon) and radish chimmichuri. The second piece of sushi features the lobster, poached in butter but very rare, and a morsel of raw onion that seems startlingly piquant in such subtle company. Two purées dot the lobster, one of yam, the other of sweet onion and carrot. There are two sauces – a dramatic green stripe of lime and jalapeño mayo down one side of the plate, and a dainty ponzu spiked with lime zest served in a separate saucer. The judges are delighted by such an imaginative creation.

Chef Horne

Chef Horne

Chef Horne is our seventh competitor. He works wonders with the duck breast, roasting it medium rare (so tender and juicy) with a fine lavender-honey glaze like a crispy lacquer. His apple-turnip purée is rich and smooth and the turnip reappears gently pickled as thiny sliced circular cut-outs. Soy-sesame jus is perfectly judged and the apple also does double duty, paired up with sea-buckthorn as a tangy chutney. Quinoa finally takes a major role, some puffed, but also boiled with herbs to let its own complex, grainy-sweet flavour shine. The dish scores highly with the judges.



Chef Garland

Chef Garland

Chef Garland roasts the duck breast rare, scenting it with “warm spices” such as star anise, fennel and cinnamon. He makes a sea-buckthorn gastrique for fruity acidity and a pretty apple and vegetable slaw for a different kind of brightness. His purée features turnip, ricotta and hazelnuts and is flecked with chives – rich, weighty and flavourful. Hazelnut and caramel brittle, scented with rosemary, adds crunch and sweetness and harmonizes effectively with the duck’s spices.

Chef O'Flynn

Chef O’Flynn

Chef O’Flynn’s dish is as pretty as a picture. He has roasted the duck breast, leaving a fringe of fat between the tender meat and the crisp skin. He has also dealt with the lobster, making a confit in butter, fish and chicken stocks, lemon and thyme. A juicy chunk lies against the slice of duck. Spiced yam purée is as sleek as satin while a comma of apple purée offers freshness and innocence. Chef has dealt with the turnip by turning it into perfect balls and poaching them in chicken stock, butter, lemon and cider vinegar. Two little wands of apple lie across the proteins like a bridge and the plate is finished with a duck fat vinagrette flecked with chives and toasted hazelnuts.


Chef Eligh

Chef Eligh

Chef Eligh’s dish is equally accomplished, his roasted duck breast becomingly tender and crisp-skinned. The presentation is tight and very beautiful with a tasty, super-smooth yam purée placed to one side of the meat. Beneath it is a breathtakingly tart sea-buckthorn vinaigrette enriched with bacon and mustard. The turnip has been turned, à la Parisienne, into chickpea-sized spheres and lightly pickled. And Chef has cut plectrums from the Granny Smith apples, letting the fruit’s natural acidity cut the fat of the duck. Wholly unexpected – a finesse from a completely different cuisine – are crisp, nicely salted, shallow-fried onion rings that demand to be eaten with our fingers. As do two perfect watercress leaves laid over all as a final flourish.

Chef Rebello

Chef Rebello

Chef Rebello is the last competitor of the morning. The inspiration for his dish is the Indian tali tray – three separate components on the plate, though all of them use apple. The first is ceviche of chopped lobster, apple, citrus and jalapeño, formed into a little drum and set over a slice of raw Granny Smith. It’s cool, crisp, not too tart – nicely judged. Element number two is a slice of spiced, seared duck breast laid over a dab of yam and ricotta purée and topped with apple cooked with brown sugar, star anise and pepper until they are halfway to being a chutney. The third component is a dessert – a yam and ricotta dumpling fried like a doughnut and tossed in sugar surrounded by candied hazelnuts, candied apple and a curved wand of lavender tuile. It’s a tasting menu in its own right and the judges are pleased.

It’s fascinating to tally the marks at this stage. Unlike other years, no penalties have been imposed. Though the judges felt they had seen too much duck breast and puréed yam, they were also happy to see plenty of variety and imagination on the plates. As each judge’s score is added into the program, we see that the pack has caught up with Chefs O’Flynn and Eligh. Chefs Park, Bohati, Horne and McCrowe have performed particularly well this morning but no one has streaked into a dramatic lead and no one is out of contention. Going into the final stage of the Championship – the Grand Finale – it is still, clearly, anyone’s race.


The Canadian Culinary Championship 2015 – part one

16 Feb

To beautiful downtown Kelowna again for the 2015 Canadian Culinary Championship, ultimate test for each of our Gold Medal Plates regional champions. And what a very strong line-up we have this year! Some are better known than others but frankly any of them could win gold, each one sporting a rich and potent curriculum vitae. Here are the names of our 11 competitors.

Starting in the east with the champion from Aqua Kitchen & Bar in St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador, it’s Chef MARK McCROWE.

Our Halifax champion, from The Canteen in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, is Chef RENÉE LAVALLÉE.

Now our Montreal champion, from Restaurant Park in Montreal: Chef ANTONIO PARK.

Our Ottawa-Gatineau champion, from Absinthe Café in Ottawa is Chef PATRICK GARLAND.

Our champion from Toronto is chef at Canoe, Chef JOHN HORNE.

Our Winnipeg champion, from Jane’s, is Chef LUC JEAN.

And from Regina, from Wascana Golf & Country Club, Chef MILTON REBELLO.

Our Saskatoon champion, from the Delta Bessborough hotel, is Chef CHRIS HILL.

Our Edmonton champion, from The Westin Edmonton, is Chef RYAN O’FLYNN.

And our Calgary champion, from Market, is Chef DAVE BOHATI.

Finally, the champion representing all of B.C., from Hawksworth in Vancouver, is Chef KRISTIAN ELIGH.

In years gone by, chefs and judges have all stayed at the charming El Dorado hotel. This year, the competition’s entire cast is staying at the Delta Grand Okanagan hotel – and very comfortable it is, too.

As ever, my team of fellow judges outnumbers the competitors. Allow me to name them.

From St. John’s, Newfoundland, broadcaster, food columnist for The Telegram, author and host of his own tv show, One Chef One Critic. KARL WELLS

From Halifax, journalist and restaurant critic for The Chronicle-Herald, who overcame his fear of flying to be with us in Kelowna, BILL SPURR

From Montreal, restaurant critic, writer, lecturer and anthropologist, ROBERT BEAUCHEMIN

From Ottawa, author and broadcaster, restaurant critic, senior editor of Taste & Travel Magazine, ANNE DESBRISAY

From Toronto, award-winning food columnist and food writer, currently an editor with The Walrus, SASHA CHAPMAN.

From Winnipeg, professional chef, culinary arts instructor and Director Food Services at Red River College, JEFF GILL.

From Saskatoon, cookbook author, journalist and food columnist, AMY JO EHMAN.

From Regina, award-winning cookbook author, photographer, tv and radio host and publisher of Savour Life magazine, CJ KATZ.

From Edmonton, wine, food and travel writer, certified sommelier and wine instructor, the founder of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium and publisher of The Tomato, MARY BAILEY.

From Calgary, teacher, broadcaster, author and restaurant columnist for the Calgary Herald, JOHN GILCHRIST.

From Kelowna, the distinguished chef, Culinary Manager of Okanagan College and the current President of the Okanagan Chefs Association, Chef BERNARD CASAVANT.

From Vancouver, world-renowned wine and food judge and the wine and food guru for Western Living magazine, SID CROSS.

And also from Vancouver, author, teacher, restaurant critic, gab-gifted boulevardier and the editor-in-chief of Scout Magazine, ANDREW MORRISON, who serves as our Judge Invigilator, enforcing the rules of competition with an all-seeing, almost Sauron-like eye that is at once strict but fair.

Our adventure began on Wednesday evening when the lucky judges were invited to dinner at The Table, Chef Ross Derrick’s charming restaurant inside Codfathers Seafood Market (2355 Gordon Drive, (250) 763-3474). Owned and run by Jon Crofts, Codfathers is one of the best fishmongers in the country, offering superb sustainable seafood from fresh sturgeon to Gaspe smelt and is a vital resource for the chefs who compete in the Championships. The evening began with a merry contest, dividing the judges into three teams and setting them some challenges – shucking a dozen oysters, filleting a trout and making a ceviche. Great fun – and educational, too. We ate the oysters, and some gorgeous deep fried smelt – then we sat down for Chef Derrick’s dinner – a feast that began with the ceviches we had made ourselves, then progressed to a succession of treats – first, slender perogies stuffed with smoked onion and Keta salmon served with a roasted beetroot crème fraîche, winter greens and a bacon vinegerette; then the steelhead trout we had filleted ourselves (judge CJ Katz most elegantly) paired with tuna chorizo sausages made with the blood of the tuna and flanked by braised beans and spinach aïoli. Dessert chef Tina Tang made our afters – a dainty Chinese lemon egg tart with lemon mascarpone mousse, lemon thyme curd, pomegranate seeds and crushed honey comb. A fabulous time was had by all.

The competition truly gets under way on the Thursday evening with a reception for sponsors, media and guests. This year we held it at Howard Soon’s newly renovated and decidedly chic Sandhill winery, with Codfathers’ oysters and some delectable hors d’oeuvres from Poppadoms, Kelowna’s excellent Indian restaurant. There was a palpable aura of intensity emanating from the chefs and their sous chefs as each was introduced to the crowd and I conducted a short question-and-answer session. Completing each culinary team was a pair of students from Okanagan College who will serve as apprentices for the chef – always a brilliant learning experience for them. Then we handed over the mystery wine and the budget each chef must strictly obey – cooking for 480 guests but spending no more than $600. Could you throw a dinner party for $1.25 a head? I couldn’t. The chefs had 24 hours to create, shop for and prepare a dish that would perfectly match the wine. And what was the mysterious vino? David Lawrason only revealed it at the end of Friday evening, after we had tasted each chef’s dish: Stoneboat Pinotage 2012 from the Okanagan, a big, potent, purple red with a fruity nose but less fruit and more spicy complexity on the palate, smooth tanins and a well-judged measure of acidity. Each chef, brought up on stage to comment on the wine and describe what they had cooked, had different guesses and opinions about the wine, but one of them, Patrick Garland, identified it absolutely correctly. So did our judge Andrew Morrison, right down to the year. But what would the chefs decide to prepare with it?

Chef O'Flynn

Chef O’Flynn

Chef O’Flynn decided to draw on his European experience of dishes involving monkfish and red wine and went for fish, haggling for fresh sturgeon at Codfathers, which had stocked itself up to the gills in the hope that the mystery wine would be white. He felt the wine needed fat to balance its acids and tannins so he brought in a rich garnish of crème fraîche, devilled egg yolk and a dab of Northern Divine caviar. He turned to beetroot to build a sturdy bridge into the heart of the wine, smoking some red beets and puréeing them into silky, bittersweet heaven. He also made tiny cubes of beetroot jelly and a beetroot fluid gel, marinated some golden beets to the precise level of acidity of the wine and finaly made a beetroot crumble for texture. A sprinkling of crushed almond brought out the earthy note in the Pinotage and, all the time, the rich, succulent sturgeon was making its own sophisticated conversation with the fruitiness of the wine.

Chef Lavallee

Chef Lavallee

Chef Lavallée was almost vegetarian in her approach, creating  beautiful salad of barley and many kinds of beetroot, each one variously but perfectly textured and sliced into slender rounds. Threads of shallot and an array of radishes, sliced even more thinly, surrounded a mound of creamy, homemade quark; croutons of rye bread fried in duck fat provided an opulently rich contrast. Two dressings – a green goddess and a honey pistachio vinaigrette – brought tangy flavours to the party while crisp, crumbled fried speck and a scattering of Vancouver Island sea salt satisfied all possible cravings for saltiness. The beets and the croutons worked notably well with the wine.

Chef Horne

Chef Horne

Chef Horne felt the wine needed red meat but didn’t want to do a braise. Instead he chopped a delicious venison tartare tossed with crispy bacon. He turned the bacon fat into a soft white powder that lay in little hillocks along the linear presentation of the dish. Deep-fried bannocks, broken roughly in half, did double service as a bread for the tartare and as wicked little pillows of doughnut-like richness. Chef picked up the fruit in the wine with a dusting of raisin powder and garnished for freshness with wild chickweed harvested from the Okanagan.


Chef Rebello's "Illusion"

Chef Rebello’s “Illusion”


Chef Rebello offered a fascinating presentation, typical of his affection for culinary and visual puns. He cut lotus root into the shape of a marrow bone and confited it in duck fat, then he braised oxtail and spooned it inside instead of outside the “bone.” As so many of the chefs did, he felt the wine demanded fat on the plate, and rovided it by turning the fat from the oxtail into a dab of aïoli. A delectable puré of lotus, cauliflower and cashew nuzzled up to the lotus; a blueberry and blackberry gastrique that was almost jelly-like in its consistency echoed the fruit flavours Chef found in the wine. The finishing touch was a wafer-thin fin of translucent potato slices sandwiching flecks of cherry and beet sprout. He called this dish “Illusion.”

Chef Eligh

Chef Eligh

Chef Eligh was next, introducing his dish by saying he “wanted to keep it simple.” He chose to work with duck, a Yarrow Meadows duck breast, to be precise, perfectly tender and spiced with star anise, cinnamon, allspice and fennel – a single perfect slice of the meat lay upermost on the dish, fringed with fat and a nicely crisped skin. Beneath it was a mound of impeccably textured lentils dressed with a rich bacon vinaigrette while parsnip manned the flanks, on the left as a silky purée, on the right as crispy shards. Fronds of fresh fennel weed brought fresh, aniseedy flavour. It was a multi-faceted approach to the earthy spice of the wine that paid dividends while the Pinotage itself provided the dish with a fruity element that so often flatters duck.

Chef Hill

Chef Hill

Chef Hill also gave us duck, smoking the breast and presenting a slice of it pink and medium-rare. Showing impressive skills as a shopper, he bought four lobes of foie gras with much of the rest of his budget and spread them among the multitude by turning them into a mousse stretched with emulsified agar-agar and egg yolk. It tasted beautifully of foie and had the desired effect of taming the tannin in the wine. Beet also played a role – as a broad stripe of red beet purée and shards of golden beet on top of the duck. Pungent micro-arugula and hazelnut dust added more colour to Chef’s flavour palette while camolina oil, with its pleasing grassy note, and leeks confited in duck fat further boosted the richness of the dish. The most successful link into the wine remained the smokiness of the duck and the fatty, salty umami that lurked all over the plate.


Chef Park - the boudin brownie. Thanks to Karl Wells for the image

Chef Park – the boudin brownie. Thanks to Karl Wells for the image

Chef Park turned to pork and blood to tame the wine, cooking a soft boudin noir flecked with slightly firmer mini-dice of pork belly: the whole pudding looked disarmingly like a chocolate brownie. Jerusalem artichokes were everywhere – as crispy chips and also as a luxe, caramelized purée invigorated by puréed Granny Smith apple and hidden inside a crispy shell. Roasted vanilla oat crumble was strewn like granola and a second crumble of salty bacon added to the overall intensity of flavour. A smudge of vanilla dust kept its distance on the edge of the plate, in case we decided the granola needed reinforcements.

Chef Bohati

Chef Bohati


Chef Bohati decided chilled, nose-to-tail pork would provide the necessary fattiness to match the Pinotage. He made an oniony pork-belly rillette shaped like a sausage and flavoured with five-spice then set it over an aïoli of smoked ham hock sweetened with vanilla bean. A crispy blood wonton furthered the porcine cause, as did crispy deep-fried pig ear dusted with five spice powder. Earthiness came courtesy of marinated enoki and shiitake mushrooms; freshness was provided by a tissue-thin slice of compressed pear, prepared with some of the wine, lemon, cinnamon and sugar.


Chef Garland

Chef Garland


Chef Garland nailed the identity of the wine, characterizing it as “hot, with ripe fruit, warm spices, potent…” and matching it with juicy, shredded braised lamb shank. Those warm spices were echoed by white and black pepper, vanilla, clove and cinnamon in the braising liquid and by the black pepper and rosemary in a delicate biscuit. Fennel, tarragon and pea shoot salad with a walnut vinaigrette offered big fresh flavours and another line of approach into the wine. Crispy leeks were perfumed with sage and a smoked ham hock and red wine reduction was an extra sauce on the plate.

Chef Jeab

Chef Jean


Chef Jean gave us a dramatic presentation with his elements artfully arranged on just one side of the plate. His main protein was a coffee-rubbed short rib, seared and medium rare in the Korean style then sliced as if it were tenderloin. Beneath this was a white navy bean purée and a jumble various delectable things – brussels sprout leaves tossed with butter and speck, caramelized pearl onions, crunchy hazelnuts – all making significant contributions of taste and texture. A tangy wild blueberry gastrique worked well with the Pinotage and an unexpected hit of gorgonzola on the plate was a star turn, nicely meeting the rough-and-ready charm of the wine.

MW McCrowe

Chef McCrowe’s dish was the last one the judges tasted. He also worked with beef short ribs but in a more conventional manner, braising them until they were gorgeously tender then glazing them with a subtle mix of spiced rum and molasses. A generous spoonful of cherry compote flirted outrageously with the fruit in the wine while tart, crunchy, thinly sliced slivers of pickled plum handled its acidity. A salad of radisn and Italian parsley brought freshness and crispy parsnip chips were a final flourish. The judges admired the wine match – and so did the crowd of 480, who awarded Chef McCrowe the People’s Choice prize.

Meanwhile the judges pondered as their marks were processed. There had been plenty of different ideas and some boldly imaginative moments. No one had floundered and in the early stages of the weekend nine of the chefs were running in a close pack. Out in front of them, however, and by a respectable margin, were two pacemakers – Chef Eligh and Chef O’Flynn. In just a few hours, the second part of the competition, the dreaded Black Box, would begin.