After two years at the Round-up Centre, Gold Medal Plates returned to the Hyatt Regency for its Calgary jamboree on Friday night. With yet another sold-out crowd on what is proving to be a record-breakingly successful campaign, the great ballroom was buzzing with energy. Jim Cuddy, Anne Lindsay and Colin James played as superbly as ever and Alexandre Bilodeau was greeted with a standing ovation as we remembered his awesome gold medal – the first gold ever won by a Canadian on Canadian soil. Indeed, the entire video of highlights from the Vancouver Olympics had the whole crowd cheering (and quite a few people becoming misty-eyed with patriotism).
Gastronomically, it was also a most memorable occasion. Former Canadian Culinary Champion Hayato Okamitsu was in the audience – he’s now teaching at SAIT – and last year’s Calgary gold medallist, Jan Hrabek of Crazyweed in Canmore provided delectable canapés for the VIP reception before being inducted into the Gold Medal Plates Hall of Fame. Standards were as high as we could remember among the ten competing chefs and only a fraction of a percentage point separated fourth place from third.
Our bronze medallist was chef Justin Leboe, whose new restaurant, Model Milk, is about to take Calgary by storm. He made a confit of steelhead trout, setting a square fillet of the meltingly tender fish against the side of a bowl and dusting it with fine black ashes made from charred leek and celery. A salad of tangy chanterelles, soft leek and miniature potato crisps was strewn with chopped dill, chives and marigold petals then a warm saffron potato cream was poured into the bowl from a jug to finish the beautifully presented and colourful dish. Chef Leboe’s interesting choice of wine – the rich, limpid 2009 Chardonnay from Laughing Stock winery in British Columbia – provoked a good deal of discussion among the judges.
The silver medal was awarded to chef Shaun Desaulniers of Belgo who has won both silver and bronze in years gone by. This time, he worked with Nagano pork tenderloin from Quebec, slow-cooked at 180 degrees until it was pink and trembling. The thick slice of meat was crowned with a wedge of St. André cheese so meltingly ripe it was almost a sauce. Tiny crunchy little sticks
Our gold medallist had also stood on our podium twice before, earning silver in 2007 and 2009: chef Duncan Ly of Hotel Arts Raw Bar. The main event on his plate was a perfectly crisp, piping hot beignet stuffed with a rich, tangy mixture of tender braised beef cheek spiked with the intensity of sour cherry. While the flavour combination reminded Senior Judge John Gilchrist of classic Persian cooking the entire judiciary was full of admiration for the technical feat of making 550 beignets of such impeccable texture. The other major element on Chef Ly’s dish was some sleek, thickly sliced salmon gravlax cured with coriander and citrus zest and served over a lightly dressed salad of grated celeriac. Braised beef and gravlax? It was a courageous pairing that looked downright odd on paper but it somehow worked marvellously well thanks to a bridge ingredient – the finely minced shallots in a tomato confit vinaigrette prettied up with pink flower petals. The wine was also an effective ambassador between the meat and the fish – a great choice – Tantalus 2008 Pinot Noir from B.C.
I wish I had been able to present the gorgeous etched-steel 18-karat gold winner’s plate to chef Ly up there on the podium but he had already left the building, rushing home to be with his wife and their first baby, born just 24 hours earlier. Sous chef Colin Metcalfe accepted the trophy on his chef’s behalf.
So now we have six champions lined up for the Canadian Culinary Championships next February in the Okanagan – with only Ottawa-Gatineau and St. John’s remaining in what has been, in this reporter’s opinion, the most exciting Gold Medal Plates campaign ever.