Wild goings-on last night at BarChef on Queen West where six of the country’s finest mixologists duked it out at the second National Bar Chef Competition. It was the idea of BarChef’s co-owners Frankie Solarik and Brent VanderVeen, though Frankie was not competing, preferring to serve as one of the three judges. Alongside him were Kevin Brauch (the tough but genial, sometimes manic, secretly sentimental host of the excellent Chef Off! Television extravaganza) and Catherine Santos from Diageo, representing the evening’s revered sponsor, Ketel One vodka. The prize is a trip to Amsterdam, including a visit to Ketel One’s family distillery and two nights in the red light district.
I arrived early, as is my wont, and enjoyed a refreshing White Orchid, a fabulous cocktail for a hot summer night, served in a flute and created by Frankie. Appropriately, it starred Ketel One, the vodka embraced by a heady cardamom and cumin syrup, sweetened with cassis, acidulated with a grapefruit-infused dry white vermouth and topped up with sparkling wine.
Wandering to the back of the long room (Frankie usually keeps the lights so dim that I hadn’t seen the rear wall since it was the Opal Jazz Lounge, years ago) I came upon David Wolowidnyk from West in Vancouver preparing his mise-en-place. His principal ingredients were Szechuan Buttons – spherical, bright orange flower buds about the size of a large garden pea, each with a wiry green stalk. Their real name is Acmella oleracea, also known as spilanthes, and they are native to Brazil though they are grown in many parts of the world these days. What makes them so special is the strong analgesic in the plant, a substance called splianthol, which has the same effect on a person’s mouth as Szechuan pepper. The Chinese call that sensation ma la, meaning “numb heat,” the tingling cold-hot anaesthesia you get when you lick a 9-volt battery. It also makes you salivate. Wolowidnyk cut one of the wee buds in half and gave it to me to eat… The effects lasted for hours! He used them in his cocktail (he called it Sichuan Punch) by muddling a handful of the buds and then infusing them in vodka for two weeks. Meanwhile, he brewed a delectable green tea flavoured with cherry blossom and sweetened with sugar (it is served to first-class passengers on Singapore Airlines, the lucky dogs). To these ingredients he added fresh lemon juice and a dash of Scrappy’s cardamom bitters from Seattle. “Shake hard to chill,” he suggested, “then strain it into an Old-fashioned glass over new ice, top it up with [his own house-made] ginger beer and garnish it with a whole Szechuan button.”
Wolowidnyk was full of lore. Did you know the term “punch” in the sense of a bowl of drink comes from the Indian word for “five,” which is punj, because a true punch has five ingredients. I didn’t know that, and I am horrified by the omission. I always assumed I knew absolutely everything.
Another useful fact: as of June 3, 2010, it is now legal in British Columbia for a barman to make his own infusions.
And another: In British Columbia, bitters has always been classed as a herbal extract in order to exempt it from liquor tax. I can see that. Yes, that one I can see.
Anyway, Wolowidnyk’s Sichuan Punch is pretty delicious and very interesting. I taste the tart lemon juice first, then the cherry sweetness of the tea syrup, then a faint tingle of the Button, coming in like a ghostly echo of ouzo and pepper.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The competition has not yet begun and there are canapés to negotiate and people to talk to, ears straining over the shouted conversation and the steady thump of the DJ’s contribution.
At last we begin and first up is Lauren Mote, once a server at Le Sélect, now a writer, mixologist and general manager/sommelier of downtown Vancouver’s hot hot spot, The Refinery, where she has created a formidable and persuasive cocktail program. Tonight, her competition drink is called the Nolet Prat and it begins with three remarkable tinctures – home-made vermouth “van Kersen” (macerated cherries and cocoa nibs in vodka), home-made “Smaak van Noyaux” (made from taking the white membrane on the inside of apricot kernels which tastes like bitter almonds and infusing it in vodka) and home-made orgeat syrup. To these she adds a dash of quince vinegar and garnishes the rose-pink drink with a twist of lemon peel. The Ketel One vodka should be added almost at the end of the process but – horreur! – there is none to hand. A bottle is quickly grabbed from the display behind the bar and the cocktail completed.
As a prelude to the experience, she freezes quenelles of lemon curd in liquid nitrogen and these are passed among the crowd as a palate cleanser. It is one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. OMG. Makes me want to dash out and buy a bottle of liquid nitrogen and set to work with the old egg yolks and lemons… Wow.
Kevin Brauch lets me sample his cocktail. The Nolet Pratt is pretty good, but it lacks pizzazz and definition. Only later do I find out why…
David Wolowidnyk goes next, followed by Wes Galloway, who has won a string of major competitions and is currently bar manager and mixologist at Black Beans Steakhouse and Lounge in Port Hope, Ontario. He takes a much more conventional approach to cocktail building – so solid, so old school, in the best sense. His drink is the Jade Crown – vodka, Lillet Blanc, Domaine de Canton, Strega, a dash of Fee Bros. grapefruit bitters, a drop of roasted black peppercorn tincture, all stirred together with plenty of ice. Before straining this into the glass, he spritzes the glass with tobacco-infused Navan. It tastes spicy, like ginger, but then the black pepper kicks in, and the bittersweet suggestion of tobacco, the citrus, the herbal Strega… It’s fascinating but surprisingly insipid considering it contains so many powerful ingredients.
Next up is Nishantha Nepulangoda, cocktail guru of Blowfish in Toronto, renowned for the complexity of his achievements. His Snowbird does not disappoint his many fans. The drink itself is tall and bright green, a mixture of vodka, ginger liqueur, yuzu-infused sake, home-made ginger beer, nelli cordial, fresh lime juice, Nisha’s own bitters, five fresh nelli fruits and a whole yuzu. The glass is rimmed with a powder of sugar, dried ginger and citric acid. The drink is presented on a tray together with three other elements – a flaming cube of camphor; a glass cloche of fresh fruits (nelli, yuzu, vodka-steeped grapes); a wonton spoon containing a Ketel One pearl, an ice wine pearl with cucumber, a yuzu sake pearl, some wasabi seaweed paper and some jalapeno olives with cucumber.
So… Quite the presentation. And Nisha added to the theatre by freestyling vodka from a great height into each of the three cocktails he was preparing and then into his mouth. That’s when it happened. Nisha stopped dead in his tracks, turned to the crowd and announced that the bottle of Ketel one contained not vodka but water. It was a prop bottle from the back of the bar!
Scandal and consternation! No wonder those early cocktails had lacked a certain je ne sais quoi!
The judges go into a huddle, but meanwhile, on with the show… Next to step up is Fabien Maillard, once a French chef, now owner of the Lab, Comptoir à Cocktails, a modern speakeasy in Montreal. Maillard, too, has a showman’s touch, juggling and spinning bottles behind his back like Bryan Brown in the movie, Cocktail. His Martini de Provence is the only savoury cocktail in the competition and to me it is the most delectable, the simplest, and probably the only one I will one day make at home myself. First he tastes the vodka. Okay. It’s really Ketel One. Then he halves cherry tomatoes and drops them into the glass. He takes fresh oregano sprigs, crushes and slaps them and drops them in. Some Worcestershire sauce. Some lavender-infused sea salt. A hefty slug of Pernod. It looks amazing with the scarlet tomatoes shining in the lights. Then he muddles it all together, adds ice, stirs and strains the now coral-coloured liquid into a glass which he garnishes with a whole cherry tomato.
Again, I nab Brauch’s cocktail. It’s a beauty. The sweet-tart tomato water, the perfumed salt, the forthright hit of Pernod – very good balance. A real cocktail.
The last contender is Rob Montgomery of Toronto’s The Miller Tavern. He uses a chemist’s flask and two cut crystal mixing jugs to prepare a drink he calls To The Five Boroughs a.k.a. Voltron Cocktail. To make one you’d have to combine Vodka, Tanqueray No. Ten gin, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, green Chartreuse and fresh lime juice in a glass of ice, stirring well. Rinse a new, chilled glass with Lillet Blanc vermouth then strain the cocktail into it. Garnish with orange zest (spritz, wipe, discard) and a pickled cherry. “First sip the drink then bite the cherry!” That is the instruction. Yum. The overall impression is of fruit – kind of a delicious blur – or is that because it’s getting on for midnight by now?
The judges retire to a backroom and are gone for the longest time… 45 minutes… tasting the early water cocktails remade with vodka. Then the grand announcement.
Sharing third place are Nishantha Nepulangoda and Fabian Maillard. In second place is Lauren Mote. And the national bar chef champion 2010 is David Wolowidnyk – he of the Szechuan Button that I can still taste, walking home up Spadina, along Cecil, holding my loot bag of Fee Bros. aztec chocolate bitters, yuzu juice and tissue paper, counting my echoing footsteps in the breathless Toronto night.