Archive for February, 2009

Good Things To Do

28 Feb

The Petraia Sessions sounds like a high-speed action thriller or a jazz veteran’s comeback cd but it’s actually something much more exciting. La Petraia, as well-read food lovers must know, is the 900-year-old property in Tuscany brought back to life by Susan McKenna Grant, author of Piano, Piano, Pieno, and her husband, Michael Grant. The Sessions are a seriously tempting idea they have dreamed up recently… But let Grant tell you in his own words:

“This year in Tuscany at La Petraia ( Susan and I are hosting a series of weeks called The Petraia Sessions in which 4 couples or 8 people can join a well known chef or author for 5 days of fine dining, the best Tuscan wines, cooking classes, unique excursions and thought provoking discussions.

“The first guest of this series will be the award winning author Michael Pollan, (In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire). Michael will be with us from July 13 to July 18th. ( It would not be an exaggeration to call Michael one of the most inventive and influential food writers that we have seen in many years. His books and numerous articles have lead us first to a new consciousness about what we eat and now to the importance of food and agricultural policies in the U.S. and a growing awareness of the difficulties we face in feeding ourselves in an economically and environmentally sustainable way.

“In the eight years we have taken to bring this 900-year-old property back to agricultural life, we have constantly considered ways in which we might enrich not only the 175 acres of fields and forests that Petraia encompasses but also all those who are fortunate enough to be touched by her magic. The vines, olive trees and vast vegetable gardens we have planted and the dozen or so courtyard animals we raise are organic. We’re continually developing biodynamic practices. Our heirloom and traditional varieties of fruit trees were planted in concert with a recovery program of the Province of Siena. We have restored ancient buildings with local artisans of the highest caliber. Susan has shared her experiences and knowledge of northern Italian cuisine in the field to table apprenticeship program for culinary students at Petraia, in the cooking and foraging classes she conducts on the property and of course in Piano Piano Pieno; Authentic Food from a Tuscan Farm, published in the U.S. this year by The Rookery Press, (

“All of these things Susan and I consider to be spokes of a wheel, the hub of which is the same magical property that the Etruscans chose to inhabit some 2700 years ago. The Petraia Sessions are another.”

“The Petraia Sessions are being organized in cooperation with Trufflepig Travel Inc. ( To reserve or to receive further information, please contact Jack Dancy at or +1 416 628 1272. “

Sounds like an excellent adventure. Closer to home, fans of righteous nose-to-tail butchery may wish to join chef-owner of Cowbell restaurant, Mark Cutrara, and head butcher Ryan Donovan for a highly educational introductory class. With ten participants, they will be breaking down an entire heritage pig at the restaurant on March 9 from 7:00 to 10:00 pm. Everyone is invited to stay after the class to chat with Donovan and Cutrara, and to enjoy some of Cowbell’s house-made charcuterie and a pint. Plus, each participant goes home with a pound of the pork. The price is $100. To enroll, call (416) 849-1095.


The Canadian Culinary Championship 2008/9

23 Feb

Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championship was held at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel over the weekend of February 19 to 21. It was the ideal location for the competition – vast yet self-contained, with huge well-equipped kitchens and dramatic public rooms large enough to accommodate the hundreds of guests who came to observe and take part in the events. The hotel’s executive chef, Martin Luthi, was a most generous host, providing everything we asked for, from the exclusive use of his busy banquet kitchen for three days to a dozen apprentices.

The competitors were the chefs who had triumphed at the Gold Medal Plates regional events across the country in the autumn of 2008. Here are their names, in alphabetical order, with a little information about their backgrounds supplied by the senior judge from each chef’s respective city.

David Cruz is chef of Sage and won the Edmonton GMP event. David was destined to become a world-class chef. With both his mother and father accomplished chefs and restaurateurs, he was groomed from a young age in the culinary arts. His enthusiasm and passion for food and cooking eventually led him to the River Cree Resort and Casino’s fine-dining haven, Sage. Prior to this he worked at La Cote Basque, Boulevard, Mary Elaine’s, Evergreen and Simon Telluride, also at such restaurants as Masa’s, Tru, Charlie Trotter’s, Daniel, Motos, San Dominico, Spagos and La Folie. A key for David is respecting the source of the ingredients and keeping the chain from small growers and farmers to the restaurant table alive and well.

Deff Haupt is chef of Le Renoir at Le Sofitel hotel in Montreal. Born in Dortmund, Germany, Deff Haupt, age 42, apprenticed at the Hilton International in Mainz, Germany, and then worked for Emile Jung in Strasbourg, Paul Bocuse in Lyon, and Joel Robuchon in Paris before moving to Chile to work at a ski resort at Vallenevado. During that period, he trained the Brazilian team of chefs for the Bocuse d’Or culinary competition and married a Brazilian wife. Next stop was a ski resort at Val d’Isere, and then Berlin, where he was co-owner of a German-French brasserie near the Brandenburg Gate. Although his Berlin restaurant was a success and his guests at different times included George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger, he moved to Canada in 2005 with the dream of opening a small restaurant in Mont Tremblant, Quebec. Le Sofitel beckoned in 2006 before that dream became a reality. Now Executive Chef of Hotel Le Sofitel and Restaurant Renoir, Montreal, Haupt describes his cuisine as French-based with German touches. He avoids endangered fish species and serves as much local Quebec food as he can.

Patrick Lin is Executive Chef of Senses restaurant in Toronto, the jewel in the crown of the Metropolitan Hotel. Lin was born in Hong Kong, and has spent much of his career shuttling between Hong Kong and Toronto. Gray Kunz was an early mentor for him at the Regency Hotel, where he embarked on his career in 1980; a decade later, he immigrated to Canada and became the chef at Truffles restaurant at the Four Seasons during executive chef Susan Weaver’s tenure. Since then, he has returned to Hong Kong several times. In 2007, he came back to Toronto to take over the helm at Senses restaurant. He is best known for combining Asian ingredients with classic European techniques.

Hayato Okamitsu is chef of Catch Restaurant & Oyster Bar in Calgary. “The dreams of a young Japanese Chef can become a reality,” write Adam Geml and Pat Insole. “After six years of unstinting dedication to Catch Restaurant & Oyster Bar, Hayato Okamitsu was named Executive Chef in 2008. Hayato has created Japanese-influenced dishes such as Wonton Crusted Tempura Prawns with Togaroshi Dip which quickly became a Catch signature dish and is still the most popular appetizer after seven years on the menu. Hayato’s creativity shone through at Calgary’s Gold Medal Plates Competition when his dish was the most ambitious of the night in terms of complexity, but truly set a record when it became the first vegetarian dish to win the Gold Medal honour.”

Frank Pabst is chef of Blue Water Café in Vancouver
A master of local seafood, Frank Pabst came to Vancouver in 1993 after working in several Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe (among them Aachen’s Le Becasse, the Hotel Negresco in Cannes, and Antibes’ Restaurant de Bacon). He led the kitchen at Lumiere as chef de cuisine before opening Pastis in 2000, which won Best New Restaurant at that year’s Vancouver magazine restaurant awards. As the executive chef at Blue Water Café since 2003, Pabst is recognised in the industry as a leader in celebrating local producers and sustainable-savvy fishermen.

Charles Part is owner-chef of Les Fougères and won GMP’s Ottawa-Gatineau event. His first restaurant was in Toronto, a little gem in the Beaches called Loons. Together with his wife, Jennifer Warren-Part, Charles has been the chef-owner of Les Fougères in the village of Chelsea, Quebec (12 minutes from Parliament Hill) since 1993. Charles is British by birth, received his culinary training at the Westminster Hotel School and had his first restaurant experiences in London, UK. Charles and Jennifer’s 2008 book, A Year at Les Fougères, won gold in the Canadian Food Culture category at the 2008 Cuisine Canada’s Book Awards.

The chefs were all introduced at a small reception at the hotel on Thursday night. They introduced their sous chefs to the gathering (each chef was allowed to bring two from his restaurant, though Chef Cruz opted to bring only one friend). Then our host, Chef Luthi, introduced the apprentices who would assist each chef. It was also a chance for me to introduce my panel of judges…

From Montreal, Julian Armstrong, food writer for The Gazette and a founding member of both Cuisine Canada and the Association of Food Journalists. She is the author of A Taste of Quebec.

From Ottawa, Anne Desbrisay, restaurant critic of the Ottawa Citizen for the last 17 years. She writes about food, restaurants and travel for many publications and for CBC radio and is the author of Capital Dining, a Guide to restaurants in the National Capital Region.

From Toronto, Sasha Chapman, former food editor of Toronto Life who now writes regular columns about food in the Globe & Mail, Toronto Life and Report on Business Magazine as well as major U.S. and Canadian magazines such as Saveur and Chatelaine.

From Vancouver, Sid Cross is the wine and food guru for Western Living magazine and is a world-renowned wine and food judge. He has been honoured by the French and Italian governments and is the only Canadian to be awarded The Gourmet of the Year by The Society of Bacchus in the USA.

From Edmonton, Clayton Folkers is a world-class pastry chef, international judge and educator, and was the first pastry chef to captain the Canadian National Culinary Team. He has captained Culinary Team Alberta and Culinary Team Canada to gold medals, won the IKA Culinary Olympics and was twice named Canadian Chef of the Year.

From Calgary, John Gilchrist is a familiar voice on CBC Radio. He’s also the author of eight national best-sellers on dining in southern Alberta. He has a column in the Calgary Herald, writes for dozens of magazines and teaches Food and Culture programs for the University of Calgary.

Last but not least, from Vancouver, Andrew Morrison is the restaurant critic for the Westender newspaper, the editor of Scout Magazine, and a regular contributor to Western Living and Vancouver magazines. He had a special role this weekend as our culinary referee, making sure all rules were followed during and between the three competitions.

The Thursday evening reception was the start of the first of these three events, the Wine Pairing Challenge. Each chef was given a bottle of the same wine with no label and an unmarked stopper. All they knew about it was that it was Canadian and that GMP’s National Wine Advisor, David Lawrason, had selected it especially for the competition. The chefs were instructed to taste the wine and devise a dish that would perfectly match it. They had 24 hours to do this but there were certain added provisos that made the task a little more challenging. We asked them to make enough of their dish to feed 235 people (the number of guests at our Friday evening party) and we told them they were only allowed to spend a very small amount of money on ingredients – $350. They could go shopping wherever they wanted – in Banff, Canmore, Calgary – anywhere except in the hotel where we were staying. They could be as ingenious and creative as they wished with their shopping but they had to present us with receipts for everything they purchased. To mitigate things a little, we provided a communal pantry of basic seasonings, herbs, spices, oils and stocks, etcetera.

Friday afternoon – a cloudless sky of cerulean blue above the snow-capped peaks around the hotel. Some 25 of us gathered in the insanely glamorous Presidential Suite at the top of the hotel’s tallest tower for a casual whisky tasting. Maxxium had very kindly donated three rather magnificent offerings – A 15 Year Old Fine Oak version of the Macallan; an 18 Year Old Sherry Wood Macallan, by way of contrast; and a superb 25 Year Old Highland Park as rich and Christmasy as any Armagnac. Huge kudos to Maxxium for supporting the Gold Medal Plates cause (raising funds for Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes) in such a handsome way.

Seeing as how we were in Banff, Alberta, I had wanted to find a single malt from the Banff distillery in Scotland’s East Highlands, but that distillery was destroyed in 1985. I was moaning about this to John Maxwell, proprietor of Allen’s on the Danforth and he took pity on me. He found an incredibly rare item, a Signatory bottle of Banff distilled on March 18, 1980 and aged 20 years in wood. It was bottle number 80 of 702 drawn from butt number 604. With typical generosity, John Maxwell donated it to the tasting. I was speechless! Many glasses were raised to Mr. Maxwell and to Maxxium during the tasting.

The Wine Pairing Challenge
On Friday evening, the event took place in the baronial splendour of one of the hotel’s halls. The chefs’ stations were arranged around the room. The guests were able to taste the mystery wine (later revealed as Inniskillin Okanagan Malbec 2005) and each of the dishes.

Deff Haupt took everyone by surprise by deciding to match this dense, hearty red wine with fish. He cooked a fillet of red snapper perfectly, leaving it juicy and sweet under a savoury crust of cinnamon, an element he had detected in the wine. For a sauce he made a red wine butter and a white wine butter which swirled together on the plate, both of them with a lovely silky weight and a well-judged citrus edge. The two colours of purple and white were echoed throughout the dish. Tangy, acidulated, finely chopped beets formed another bridge into the wine. The dish was finished with a little wilted spinach on top. The sauces, beets and cinnamon worked admirably with the wine, but the flavour of the actual fish struggled to make itself apparent.

David Cruz braised pork shoulder, giving it a delicious sweet flavour and a variety of textures. Beneath it he set a semi-purée of Tuscan cannelini beans topped with juicy chopped chard and sautéed crimini mushrooms that were particularly good with the wine. A streak of yellow carrot purée lacked flavour and focus, as did a streak of green basil oil. Crunchy shallots were the final garnish. The general lack of edge and acidity in the flavours of the food actually brought out those qualities in the wine a little more, accentuating its fruitiness.

Hayato Okamitsu also chose to work with pork, roasting a pork shoulder to tender succulence then slicing it for the plate. Working within his budget, he made peppery hand-pressed gnocchi (he found considerable pepperiness in the wine, as did several of the chefs). His sauce was a rich brown butter spiked with finely chopped beets. Some judges felt he served a little too much sauce for the dish. A few leaves of arugula proved a refreshing little garnish. On top lay a bacon and thyme “maxime” like a crisp transparent tissue of herbed bacon that was utterly delicious. The dish worked well with the wine, its homespun flavours in a good balance with the wine’s intensity.

Patrick Lin prepared a relatively complex plate. He roasted a leg of lamb seasoned with garlic and cumin – it was delectably tender and sapid but perhaps a little too pungently “lamby” for the wine. Beside it he made a meat ball of miced pork stuffed with crab meat (subtle but fabulous and a better match than the lamb). The meatball was set on a disc of king oyster mushroom scored with a knife for textural interest. On top a single rasher of bacon had been crisped with honey. On the bottom two mustard greens provided green crunch and refreshment – lovely for the dish, irrelevent to the wine. The natural jus of the lamb was refreshed with diced granny smith apple.

Charles Part also chose lamb, carefully sourced from a farm outside Calgary. He cooked the shoulder sous vide, its flavour ending up a tad more subtle than Patrick Lin’s roast. The jus was enriched by whole cloves of roast garlic, blackcurrants and a brunoise of root vegetables. A minted pea risotto had a perfect texture and seemed like a breath of summer. On top of the lamb, a bright green teaspoonful of salsa verde made with fresh herbs and anchovy was a deliciously intense condiment. Presentation was pretty and the dish’s internal balances were very well achieved. Some judges felt it was too big a dish for the wine. If it had been a Cabernet Sauvignon, it would have been more successful but this soft Malbec turned out to be less powerful and structured than it appeared to be at first sniff.

Frank Pabst created a cabbage roll filled with a subtly flavoured mince of braised elk, pork shoulder and double smoked bacon. He bought two more bottles of the wine from Gold Medal Plates (at a price of $30 per bottle) and added them to the jus to create the dish’s sauce. A celeriac and apple purée had a lovely fresh, rooty flavour. A mix of black rice and carrot, interestingly, produced a flavour close to sweet corn. On top was a mound of crunchy purple beet “straw”.

The guests voted that night for a “people’s choice” favourite, an award that went to Charles Part, by a considerable margin. The judges kept their marks private but Hayato Okamitsu was in first place with three other chefs clustered a few percentage points behind him – Charles Part, Deff Haupt and Patrick Lin.

The Black Box
Saturday morning brought the intensity and drama of the Black Box competition, where each chef is given an identical group of secret ingredients. They must devise two dishes that will use these ingredients (all six must be used, though not necessarily in the same dish) and they have one hour to finish the dishes and plate one of each for each of the judges. Points would be deducted for failure to use all ingredients, for going over the allotted time by even a few seconds and for failing to provide the requisite number of dishes. Each chef was allowed to use only one assistant.

There was room in the hotel’s banquet kitchen for three chefs to work at one time and for the crowd of fifty guests and camera crews, but we staggered the chefs working time to allow a 15-minute gap between each start time and a longer break in the middle so there were never more than three chefs competing at any one time. While the judges sat apart in the kitchen’s servery, the chefs set to work.

The six mystery ingredients had been chosen by Gold Medal Plates regional senior judge, John Gilchrist. They had to be local Alberta product and we asked for a meat, a fish, a grain, a fruit, a vegetable and a dairy product. His selection was challenging indeed – a kilo of organically raised Alberta pork tenderloin with a good fat cap on it; three farmed rainbow trout, gutted but with heads on; a bag of rolled oats; a bottle of saskatoonberry syrup (fresh local fruit being impossible to find in Alberta in February); a bag of fabulously swet, crunchy organic carrots; a substantial wedge of a local gouda cheese, recently voted the fourth best gouda in the world at the cheese championship in Wisconsin.

First up was chef David Cruz. He filleted his trout, rolled the fillets in ground oats and served it with the carrots which he had prepared two ways, candied and as a deliciously spiced savoury purée with some real chili heat. For his second dish, he roasted the pork medium rare, sliced it and sauced it with a beurre spiked by the saskatoonberry syrup. He turned the gouda into a golden crisp that he used to garnish the pork.

Chef Hayato Okamitsu was next. He mixed the oatmeal with sesame and used it as a crust for the trout fillets. He turned the carrots into a purée scented with ginger from the communal pantry, added some wilted spinach and a rich brown butter sauce spiked with soy, clove and the saskatoonberry syrup. Visually, it was an exceptionally pretty dish. His herb-rubbed roast pork loin was sliced and set over a ragout of finely diced potato flavoured with shallots and the gouda and sharpened with a dash of a mustard and sherry vinaigrette.

Chef Charles Part was the third competitor. He rolled his trout fillets in the oats and pan-fried them, timing them to a perfect point of juiciness. He also borrowed pantry items, serving the fish with spinach and a confit of lemons that brightened the plate and the palate. For his second dish, he cut the pork into escalopes and sandwiched gouda in between then rolled the meat in panko crumbs and pan-fried it until the cheese melted. He used the saskatoonberry syrup carrots and other pantry vegetables to create a pickle that he served with the pork and crowned it with a perfectly timed poached egg. Its runny yolk formed the sauce for the pork dish.

Chef Patrick Lin aced the texture of the trout which he served as a sort of melt, crowned with molten gouda. Butter-sautéed spinach shared the plate and he sauced it with a lightweight tomato-herb bouillon. For his pork dish he pounded the meat into schnitzels, coated them with oats and deep-fried them, fisnishing the plate with a sauce meuniere and carrots spiked with the saskatoonberry syrup.

Chef Deff Haupt stuffed the pork tenderloin with gouda and fines herbes and roasted it off, slicing it and crowning the plate with a gouda crisp. He braised the carrots and scented them with curry spices, saucing the dish with a beef stock and rosemary jus spiked with saskatoonberry syrup. The trout fillets were simply pan-seared, which brought out their flavour beautifully, then set atop a sturdy galette of grated potato and oat flakes. He opted to make a version of the classic sauce Albertine using the pantry stocks hit with butter and herbs.

Chef Frank Pabst finished the competition. He coolly brined his pork loin for 20 minutes to tenderize the meat and served it with a delicious saskatoonberry gastrique sharpened with sherry vinegar, thyme and shallots. He used the gouda as a subtle component of a classic Pommes Anna, the tissue-thin potatoes fanned and pan-fried. Braised baby carrots picked up hints of ginger and shallot from their braising liquid. His trout fillets arrived crusted with mustard-spiked oatmeal then panfried. He set the fish over a delectable onion soubise, a little baby spinach and topped it with a clever crisp of the fried trout skin.

The judges were impressed by all the dishes, though they wondered why no one had thought to use the oats as a biscuit or be a tad more creative with the pork. Three chefs scored particularly highly in the black box competition: Hayato Okamitsu, Frank Pabst and Deff Haupt. But going into the third and final element of the competition it was still anyone’s race.

The Grand Finale
For this event, each chef was allowed to create any dish he wished, the limits set only by his own imagination and the fact that he only had Saturday afternoon to pull the masterpiece together. He could bring in whatever ingredients he wished but he had to prepare enough to serve 300 guests and he could only be assisted by his two sous chefs (one in David Cruz’s case) and his two hotel apprentices. Wine pairing was again a component. Each chef was instructed to work with the same winery he had chosen to pair with during the regional events, though not restricted to the same wine.

Chef Deff Haupt presented three ethereal cornmeal gnocchi, light as any mousseline, smothered in a nutmeg-spiked parmesan sabayon and strewn with crispy little nuggets of pan-fried sweetbreads. Black winter truffle was grated over the dish and it was finished with a dramatic spiral of sweet tuile and some whisps of wheatgrass. His wine was from Prince Edward County, Ontario – Black Prince Winery’s First Crush unoaked Chardonnay 2005.

Chef Frank Pabst chose to showcase the great seafood of the west coast. His plate consisted of three elements – the first a gorgeous raw kushi oyster, out of its shell and set on a mound of chopped cucumber jelly, topped with horseradish foam. A slice of raw Qualicum Bay scallop was turned into a delicate ceviche, its natural sweetness perfectly balanced against the tart citrus of the dressing. Beneath it was a spoonful of salad made from green seaweed and fine shavings of Humboldt squid. The third element was a cold parfait of sea urchin, its marine pungency mitigated by a cap of ponzu jelly. Dotted here and there were tiny amounts of green onion, preserved watermelon rind, black dots of a sauce made from sake, soy and nori, and a dab of tangy yuzu-sake “pudding”. Chef Pabst paired his dish with Sumac Ridge Stella’s Jay Brut 2004 sparkling wine from B.C.

Chef Hayato Okamitsu also presented a triptych. The first component looked like a cube-shaped chocolate smothered in a glossy black sauce. It turned out to be Alberta beef short rib braised sukiyake-style with a profound soy-based sauce. A finger of Quebec foie gras torchon gained extra flavour from a light soy cure; Chef served it on a tiny morsel of toast. A demitasse held a spectacularly rich and intense lobster bisque. Across the rim of the cup a lattice sesame crisp supported a shiso-scented B.C. spot prawn, out-of-season but still charming to most of the judges. A dab of ginger-yuzu “pudding” was as intense as any of the powerful flavours on the plate. Sumac Ridge Private Reserve Merlot 2005 was a fine match for the beef.

Chef David Cruz began with flatiron steak cut from Alberta kobe cattle. He grilled it rare and sliced it delicately – it proved surprisngly tender. On top he laid a julienne of carrot, apple, radish and micro greens. Two sauces competed for attention – a tangy lime emulsion and a rich dark shiitake sweet-and-sour sauce, made even more irresistible with brown sugar, garlic and Szechuan pepper. He astonished the judges by pairing it with See Ya Later Ranch Chardonnay 2007, a coup that proved surprisingly successful.

Chef Charles Part presented a dish he described as the dish he would choose for his last meal – “it means that much to me…” Its principal was a generous helping of confited Quebec moulard duck, rich, tender and moist with a skin that was crisp where it needed to be and fatty elsewhere. The flavour was wonderful, the sweetness enhanced by threads of orange zest. It sat on a thick disc of cooked pear with a spoonful of soft, tangy chevre cheese at its hollowed heart. Beneath that was an Agria potato rösti. The dish was finished with some forthright spinach and a delicious sauce of New Brunswick partridgeberries zapped with vinegar to become a classy ketchup. This dish was honest-to-goodness bistro taken to the bistro extreme. Some judges loved its democratic lack of fuss; others found it too plain. Chef Part paired it with a Prince Edward County wine, Huff Estates Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2005, made with Niagara grapes.

Chef Patrick Lin also offered duck – an extraordinary and complex five-part treatment of Ontario King Cole duck, to be precise. On a silver spoon was a sliver of sweet, cured, oolong-tea-smoked duck breast. A round slice of duck galantine using the duck’s neck was garnished with a dot of kumquat compote and a slender lotus root crisp. Cured duck breast appeared with a Thai-style fruit salad all arranged on a round disc of iceberg lettuce – a refreshing, texturally complex mouthful that played with the fresh sweetness and tartness of the fruits and the salty fat of the cured duck. A foie gras ball had been rolled in a crust of crushed candied walnuts and then set on a cone of crisp wonton wrapper like some angelic ice cream cornet. The final iteration of the canard was a hollowed eggshell filled with a loose, lightweight foie gras custard brûlée topped with a sugestion of dried tangerine peel. The last component was amazingly delicious with the chosen Inniskillin Niagara Cabernet Franc Icewine 2006 – the weekend’s most obvious wine-food epiphany. Chef Lin also presented a second wine – Jackson Triggs Okanagan Grande Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 that worked well with the smoked breast.

Opinion was divided about Chef Lin’s dish. Some of us felt it was a three-Michelin-star effort; others found it too much, with one or two elements too many. When the scores were fed into the number cruncher, however, Chef Lin’s dish won the day at the Grande Finale. Would that be enough to win the entire Championship? The judges retired to a quiet room and the math was done. The honour fell to me to return to the crowded ball room and make the announcement. First, I invited the retiring champion, Chef Melissa Craig, up on stage. Melissa had travelled across the country with us during the 2008 Gold Medal Plates campaign, cooking for the VIP reception in each city, and had proved a delightful companion, a great sport (even when half her crabs were left out of the refrigerator in Calgary) and a true champion. I speak for the entire GMP organisation when I say that she will always be part of our team.

Joining us on stage was GMP CEO, Stephen Leckie and representatives of our two title sponsors, Denise Carpenter of Epcor and Mark Toner of GE. Then came the moment of truth. When all the numbers were crunched, the bronze medal went to Deff Haupt of Le Renoir in the Sofitel hotel, Montreal. The silver medal went to Frank Pabst of Blue Water Café in Vancouver. And the gold medal was awarded to Hayato Okamitsu of Catch in Calgary. He becomes the new Canadian Culinary Champion.

A huge thank you to the judges, organizers, volunteers, Olympic athletes, sponsors and everyone else who contributed so much to the weekend. Gobsmacked admiration to all the chefs who competed… Above all, most sincere congratulations to Chef Hayato Okamitsu. We’ll see you soon, Champion!


Wine and Steak

16 Feb

The pursuit of excellence is at the heart of everything.

In that spirit, may I direct you to where the highly esteemed David Lawrason will enlighten you about his forthcoming series of wine lectures. He has teamed up with Canadian Living wine columnist and critic, Anne Martin, to present a spring series of seminars focused on wine value. Called “Where in the World are the Best Wine Values”, it’s a series of eight tastings on Wednesday nights in March and April at a newly renovated space at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. Guests can sign up for one, some, or all. Themes include South Africa (David has just returned from the Cape full of enthusiasm for the products of the world’s most picturesque wine country), Argentina and Southern Italy. Describing the series he explains, “It’s something new and affordable for those who just refuse to give up on exploring and enjoying wine in tough times.” I recommend you join him there asap.

The same must be said for the extraordinary event now taking place at Allen’s, Toronto’s most accomplished Irish-American saloon, up there on the Danforth. I wrote about this two years ago (blimey, how time flies!) and now it is upon us again, the ultimate experience for those who crave the taste and texture of steak. The proprietor of Allen’s, John Maxwell (who will be in my league of nine gastronomical superheroes when the Final Battle is fought to free the palate and the intellect of mankind from the hands of the sly priests and the professors whose mouths are gorged with sawdust, and the merchants who sell blades of grass – the awful people of the Fomor, in other words, as identified by Mr Stephens) has again revived his Steak Festival, which lasts until February 22, 2009.

For those who have never indulged, this is Canada’s (perhaps the World’s) most telling and convivial forensic exploration of the quality of beef. On the menu are striploins, rib-eyes, bone-in rib steaks, tenderloins and prime rib from specific farms – many different breeds of cow, the creatures raised and then finished on many different feeds, the meat aged for many different lengths of time. Forget the laboured old comparisons of Canadian beef and USDA Prime (whatever that is – though Maxwell includes one decent example as a sort of scapegoat) – this is truly interesting. Here is a wagyu-Angus cross from Patrick McCarthy’s farm in Camrose, Alberta, hormone- and antibiotic-free, fed hay, barley, wheat, corn and oats, the meat aged 28 days. Compare it with its antithesis, the lean-as-venison James Cagney of all beef cattle, a Dexter steer from Ron and Adele Service’s Black Walnut Lane farm in Millgrove, Ont., also hormone- and antibiotic-free, fed on grass, hay, corn and corn silage, aged 24 days. You get the picture – and there are 20 other unique steak experiences to compare. Maxwell has met the individual animals in question and can vouch for their pedigree. I strongly suggest you gather a group of aficionados, mosey to Allen’s, gather around a big table and order one or two of each steak. You will go home with an unprecedented knowledge of the best steak Canada has to offer.

But what will you sozzle while conducting all these experiments? The wine list that Maxwell has assembled is a museum-quality manifesto of what Ontario can achieve. Dozens of rare Ontario masterpieces including such treasures as Chateau des Charmes Equuleus 2001 ( not a typo – it is the 2001) and Reif Estate Tesoro 1995 are assembled for your pleasure and education. He has even thrown in a couple of ringers from out west – Nk’Mip 2002 Pinot Noir and Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Meritage Reserve 2002 – to make the point.

February is so weird, such a zigzag-crazy month anyway, why not become a master of Canadian beef and wine? You will never regret the expertise you acquire.


Banff in February 2009

01 Feb

I was in Banff last November for a flying visit, scoping locations for the upcoming Canadian Culinary Championship. It was my first visit and I was gobsmacked by the beauty of the place. Calgary had been glum and foggy, the overcast skies as bruised and swollen as Mickey Rourke as we drove across the last of the prairies towards the rearing curtain of the Rockies. We was me and John Gilchrist, writer, bon viveur, critic and teacher and the senior judge for Calgary’s Gold Medal Plates fundraiser. He taught for years in Banff and knows the road intimately. The sun burst through as we entered the mountains and was blazing out of a cloudless periwinkle sky by the time we reached Canmore. The splendour of those mountains astonished me! Whole continents of rock upended, sheer, impossible, caped in snow! And then we were in Banff and the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel loomed up against the trees like the Scottish schloss of some mad Austrian laird. I could see at once that this was exactly the right place for the Canadian Culinary Championship – unique, eccentric, intense, larger than life and entirely Canadian. At dusk, when the temperature fell and the silence of the surrounding mountains reached down into the valley, a pair of elk wandered across the car park of the hotel, pausing to admire a Chrysler LeBaron convertible. I made a mental note not to include elk in the black box of ingredients that forms part of the CCC competitions.

So we will be going back there on Thursday, February 19 to prepare those same bouts. They will take place over the course of the weekend, February 20 and 21, the festivities starting on Friday before teatime with a leisurely exploration of a number of fine whiskies in some quiet turret of the hotel (I’m still putting together the list of bottles I intend to crack, but they will be drawn from a list of my favourites). By then the chefs will have arrived at the hotel – the victors of the Gold Medal Plates events held across Canada last fall. In alphabetical order, they are David Cruz from Sage, outside Edmonton; Deff Haupt from Renoir in Montreal; Patrick Lin from Senses in Toronto; Hayato Okamitsu from Catch in Calgary; Frank Pabst from Blue Water Café in Vancouver; and Charles Part from Les Fougères in Quebec, who won the Ottawa-Gatineau competition.

On Thursday night, we will give each chef a bottle of wine with no label and a blank cork. We also give them a small sum of money. The first leg of the competition involves them tasting the wine, coming up with a dish that will perfectly match it, shopping for ingredients (using only the paltry sum allotted), cooking their dish for the judges and also for the guests (anything between 125 to 200) who will attend the event on Friday night. We don’t make it easy. The guests get to taste the wine, all the dishes and vote on a “people’s favourite” award that will be handed out that night by the host for the weekend, Olympic gold, silver and bronze medallist and all-round star, Adam van Koeverden (who also knows better, dirtier jokes than anyone I’ve ever met). The judges will put together their own scores but will hold their counsel until the end of the weekend. Those judges, by the way, are, in my opinion, Canada’s top palates: Julian Armstrong from Montreal, Sasha Chapman from Toronto, Anne Desbrisay from Ottawa, Sid Cross from Vancouver, Clayton Folkers from Edmonton, John Gilchrist from Calgary and Andrew Morrison from Vancouver who is the Culinary Referee for the entire event, making sure rules are obeyed to the last letter of the law.

The chefs will barely have recovered from that Olympic effort when we startle them from their beds and rush them down to the infamous black box competition. Here our guests get a chance to mill about in the kitchen with the chefs as they open the black box, discover what they have to work with and then labour to create two spectacular dishes, all within the space of a precisely timed hour. I should mention that the entire weekend is being filmed by the six brilliant crews from Lively Media and it will be broadcast in the spring as the culmination to the seven-part series, Gold Medal Plates: The Quest for Canada’s Best Chef.

Staggering away from this gruelling gladiatorial cookfest, the chefs must now prepare for the Grand Finale on Saturday night, each cooking his signature dish for the judges and hundreds of excited guests. In their regional heats, the chefs chose a Canadian wine to acompany their dish. They will work with the same winery on Saturday night and a percentage of the marks their dishes receive will have to do with the genius of the wine and food match.

The whole weekend couldn’t be more exciting if it tried. And the winning chef will be crowned Canadian Culinary Champion on Saturday night. Victory in previous years has seemed to change the winner’s life. Last year’s champion, Melissa Craig of Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, went around the world – I even ran into her in Beijing in August. The 2007 Champion, Makoto Ono, left the suburban Winnipeg restaurant where he was working and ended up opening a super-glamorous restaurant in Beijing called Makoto’s (which was where I ran into Melissa, come to think of it). He was on his way to Hong Kong to open another, the last I heard.

For me, a lot of the fun about the CCC is the opportunity to meet dedicated Canadian food-lovers and spend time with them and the chefs over an intense but amazing weekend. For the guests, there is the fun of getting up close and personal with Canada’s top chefs, Olympic athletes and food writers, plus the dazzling surroundings of Banff with all its skiing and spaing and other winter sports. If anyone would like to join us there is still room. Just go to, follow the path to Canadian Culinary Championship and climb aboard. I very much look forward to seeing you in Banff. We will have a blast.

Oh yes – the first person to buy a ticket to the weekend because they read about it on this blog will become my special lieutenant and foreman of the culinary jury for the people’s choice award on Friday night. I hope they don’t mind being on tv – or elk in the car park.