The 2010 Gold Medal Plates campaign got off to a delicious but unconventional start yesterday in Montreal. Our usual method, as some of you may recall from previous years, is to hold a spectacular party with great chefs cooking in competition with each other, delectable Canadian wines, amazing live music, inspiring athletes, and a crowd of 600 or more to enjoy the evening and raise money for Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes. That will be the pattern in other cities as the autumn progresses but it was not how we did things yesterday. Montreal had already thrown its great Olympic party and parade of champions in April and the powers that be in Canada’s Olympic movement felt one major event was enough this year. Which left us with a predicament, as we needed to be able to find a new Gold Medal Plates champion from Montreal who could compete in the Canadian Culinary Championship in Kelowna next February. What to do, what to do…?
Our solution was to gather our esteemed group of judges, rent a luxurious and spacious vehicle and spend the day traveling from restaurant to restaurant, zigzagging across Montreal. At each restaurant, the competing chef presented us with his competition dish and accompanying beverage. Other than water, that was all he was allowed to offer. The judges took absolutely no notice of the décor, service or anything else, concentrating solely on the dish and its beverage, awarding marks for presentation, texture, taste, originality, the compatibility of food and drink and also for “wow factor,” a category that allows us to award a few extra, very subjective points for the immediate effect the dish produces.
It was a gloriously sunny day as the judges convened in the calm of the library-like lobby of Le Centre Sheraton hotel. This year, our posse of palates included senior judge Robert Beauchemin of La Presse, Julian Armstrong, former food editor of The Montreal Gazette, Lesley Chesterman, fine-dining critic and food columnist of The Montreal Gazette, Chef Mathieu Cloutier who won both Montreal’s GMP event and the Candian Culinary Championship last year and was therefore obliged to judge, not compete, this year, and yours truly. Also with us was Gold Medal Plates CEO Stephen Leckie, our admirable logistics star Claudette Dupras, who organized the day, and two gentlemen from the Canadian Olympic Committee - Jean Gosselin, Senior Advisor, Public Affairs (and no relation to the competing chef) and Jacques Cardyn, Chef de Mission for the 2011 Pan American Games.
Our chariot was a sturdy black minibus with darkened windows that looked from the outside like the sort of vehicle that takes prisoners to and from the courthouse. Inside, however, it was furnished with soft leather horsehoe banquettes and all sorts of other pleasures. Off we went… Eight hours later, well-fed and happy, the judges compared their scores and our gold, silver and bronze medallists were confirmed. It had been a fascinating day, notable for the fact that so many chefs had chosen to use the glorious little piglets from Gaspor farm, also known as St-Canut, and the abundance of squash in the dishes.
Here are the chefs who took part in the competition – in alphabetical order: Darren Bergeron of Decca 77, Derek Damann of DNA, Alexandre Gosselin of Bar & Beouf, Martin Juneau of La Montèe de Lait, Alexandre Loiseau of Cocagne, Francis Pouliot of Laurie-Raphaël, Michel Ross of MAS Cuisine and Marc-Andrè Royal of Le St-Urbain.
The scores were very close.
Taking the bronze medal was Michel Ross of MAS Cuisine, a very small, unpretentiously decorated restaurant in the Verdun area of town that the local judges told me was always packed. He made an amazingly tender confit of pork shoulder “en crepinette” topped with a pressed cep cap. Beneath it, he painted a broad stripe of bright green arugula puree and a thicker brown puree of the richly flavoured ceps. Two tiny turned turnips had been poached in Gamay until they turned a deep purple colour and took on the fruity acidity of the wine. A spoonful of toasted savoury granola added plenty of textural crunch to contrast with the soft purees while the morsels of dried fruits in it formed a bridge into the wine. Chef Ross finished the dish with a foamy emulsion of oat milk and a piece of the piglet’s crispy crackling, deep-fried like chicharron. It was a beautifully thought-out and harmonious dish and it worked very well with the wine Chef Ross chose – Malivoire 2008 Gamay VQA from the Niagara peninsula in Ontario, its lightish body bringing intense fruit flavours and refreshing acidity.
The silver medal was awarded to Marc-André Royal of Le St-Urbain, a former fruit store in the up-and-coming Ahuntsic area. The menu and wine list were written on huge blackboards and the place had a delightfully casual feel. Chef Royal’s dish starred a cylindrical mound of blood pudding with a gorgeous texture – light, moist, almost crumbly and not at all gummy. It was seasoned with five-spice and cardamom, finished with a caramel gastrique glaze and topped with some crushed almonds. Next to it stood a perfectly cooked scallop, medium-rare but seared to a golden crust on one side. A luxe puree of smoked yellow squash flecked with chives lay beneath the boudin and a little more of it had been dried and turned to powder to decorate the side of the plate. The sauce was an unctuous, fabulously rich bordelaise made with soft cubes of smoked bone-marrow and the dish was finished with a white parsnip foam. The wine match was dazzlingly good with the blood pudding – a spicy, elegant Osoyoos Larose 2006 VQA, a Bordeaux blend from the Okanagan valley in British Columbia.
The gold medal was awarded to chef Martin Juneau of La Montée de Lait in Mile End. This is the third incarnation of the restaurant, a cheerful space with a blue pressed-tin ceiling and red vinyl banquettes. As you can see from the picture, the presentation of this dish was most dramatic. A stripe of pink-purple beet puree streaked the plate and more of the multi-coloured beets (from legendary Laurentians grower Monsieur Bertrand) lay beneath the meat, some cooked, others raw and sliced paper-thin. The meat was belly pork from a St-Canut piglet, glazed and stained purple with beet juice, superbly juicy and topped with a beet-glazed square of crackling. Little cubes of soft green-apple jelly and counters of fresh green apple dotted the plate while the pork was crowned with a crunchy knot of beet crisps. There was plenty of subtle sweetness in the dish, brilliantly paired with an intensely flavourful, full-bodied and potent still cider, La Face Cachée de la Pomme Dégel réserve cidre tranquille from Hemmingford, Québec.
So the Gold Medal Plates campaign has begun. Chef Juneau is the first champion and will be heading off to our finals, the Canadian Culinary Championship, to be held in beautiful Kelowna, B.C., next February.