On the road again… I love my involvement with Gold Medal Plates. Crossing the country as we do makes me feel as if I’m in some kind of rock band, swinging into town, doing our show, then moving on. I get to see my fellow culinary judges and catch up with what’s cooking in their communities, hobnob with real heroes and heroines from the worlds of sports and entertainment, and relive golden moments from Canada’s recent Olympic and Paralympic triumphs. And I love the cause. By the end of the year we will have raised well over $5 million for our athletes and also, I like to think, tightened the national network of culinarians, chef instructors, chefs, food writers, winemakers, brewers and distillers that GMP has built up over the years in this gastronomically engaged but far-flung country.
Last Tuesday night, it was Ottawa-Gatineau’s turn as we blew in to the National Arts Centre in the heart of the nation’s capital for the penultimate event of the regional campaign. I don’t think another guest could have been squeezed in but the mood was merry and energetic, enlivened by the 100-or-so sous chefs, cooks and accomplices who manned the chefs’ stations and then lined the mezzanine balcony, looking down on the splendour of the celebration tables. It’s the first time we’ve ever had a “peanut gallery” but it was a great place to enjoy the show put on by the athletes (led by Alexandre Bilodeau) and our genius troubadours Jim Cuddy, Anne Lindsay, Holly Cole and Aaron Davis.
The evening began with the VIP reception where last year’s local champion (and Canadian Culinary Championship bronze medallist) Matthew Carmichael served superb spot prawn tacos (divine with our Ontario bubblies). Then, promptly at six o’clock, the serious eating began. Without exception, this year’s dishes were imaginatively complex, elaborately garnished and beautiful to look at. The judges, sequestered for once in their own lair, were divided about the eventual order of the gold and silver medallists – but when the marks were finally totalled a clear winner emerged.
Our bronze medal was awarded to Ross and Simon Fraser, brothers, co-chefs and owners of Fraser Café. Their dish consisted of two major elements. To the right, a well seasoned, pan-seared fillet of ling cod was admirably moist and fluffy, sitting above a lightweight but appropriately spicy curry of fenugreek and brown mustardseeds in a delicate coconut sauce. Cubes of juicy white melon mitigated the chili heat in the curry. A crisp miniature papadom sat on the fish like a jaunty hat. On the other side of the plate, the chefs had julienned a cool, crunchy slaw of cucumber, carrot and radish and crowned it with a plump B.C. spot prawn – a delicious mouthful. While the two parts of the dish were unabashedly distinct they shared a most attractive balance of flavour intensities. The chefs chose the crisp, aromatic 2008 Artist Series Gewurztraminer from Hillebrand Estate Winery in Niagara, Ontario.
Taking the silver medal, Chef Caroline Ishii of Zen Kitchen presented the first-ever vegan dish in Gold Medal Plates history. It looked spectacular, topped with a crisp tube of fried, applewood-smoked yuba (dried soy milk skin) filled with fermented macadamia curd that tasted like richly nutty cream cheese. The principal element was a ragout of exotic mushrooms from local grower Le Coprin set over a truffled mushroom sauce, and a drum of polenta, creamy within, golden and crispy on the surface. A thin disc of beet-and-red-pepper aspic crowned the drum, which sat on two little sheets of seared green kale dressed with a kombu-plum wine vinaigrette. A conserve of fruity passilla peppers finished a most seductive dish. Chef Ishii’s wine was the crisp, refreshing 2008 Archangel Sparkling Pinot Noir from Angels Gate winery in Niagara, Ontario.
Our gold medal was won by Chef Michael Moffatt of Beckta Dining & Wine, who also won gold in 2007. His dish consisted of three separate components and Chef explained the order in which they should be eaten. To begin, a slice of bacon-wrapped rabbit terrine sat on a crisp horseradish cracker. “Making terrines is becoming a lost art,” pointed out one of the judges, but Moffatt has clearly mastered it. This one was packed densely with lean, tender meat and crowned with a little relish of pickled watermelon rind and some opal basil seedlings. The second part of the dish was a fork upon which was impaled the super-tender tentacles of a grilled squid which were wrapped tightly with freshly made herb linguine dressed with a rich, velvet-textured bonemarrow butter sauce. “When you’ve eaten it, use the fork for the third element,” instructed Chef Moffatt, referring to slices of duck breast, seared to give just the right amount of texture to the skin while rendering down the fat beneath it but leaving the tender flesh attractively pink. Hidden beneath the duck lay some crunchy, intensely flavourful kimchi of cabbage, green bean and garlic scapes. Chef Moffatt turned to a generously fruity, off-dry aromatic white for his pairing – the 2008 Pinot Gris from Fielding Estates in Niagara.
So our team of gastronomic gladiators for next February’s Canadian Culinary Championship is almost complete. Martin Juneau from La Montée in Montreal, Andrew Fung from Blackhawk Golf Club outside Edmonton, Robert Clark of C in Vancouver, Dan Walker of Weczeria Food and Wine in Saskatoon, Frank Dodd of Hillebrand Winery restaurant in Niagara, Duncan Ly of Hotel Arts Raw Bar in Calgary and now Michael Moffatt of Beckta Dining & Wine in Ottawa will line up against whoever emerges as the winner of our last event in St. John’s on Thursday night. The excitement grows.