Well, there you have it… The 2010 Gold Medal Plates campaign is officially concluded, the wonderful envoi a tremendous do in St. John’s, Newfoundland – and no, there is nowhere on the planet where better shindigs are thrown. So many highlights to remember, especially Jim Cuddy and Anne Lindsay playing along with Alan Doyle and Sean McCann of Great Big Sea… Stupendous energy, but it was the quality of the food that blew me away – the best of the campaign. Senior Judge Karl Wells did a magnificent job winnowing down the possible competitors. We had eight chefs giving their all tonight, and I do not exaggerate when I say that any of the top four or five of them would have won in three or four of our other cities. The bar was raised fifty feet tonight in Newfoundland. (And the bar was razed at the after-party at the Majestic, a lovely club just down the street from the Convention Centre. I’m quite sure they are still rocking on as I write.)
The bronze medal went to chef Roary MacPherson of Oppidan who told us he had created his dish based on flavours and recipes from his childhood. There was a dark block of local pork belly braised in molasses and anise, the texture rich and heavy, as pork belly should be, the flavour savoury-sweet and profound. He set the meat over a smooth, pale purée of bubble-and-squeak made with potato, cabbage and a hint of salt pork. Shavings of house-made gouda sharpened with bakeapple added extra richness while a trace of partridgeberry-cherry syrup contributed an elusive sweetness and picked up the cherry aromatics of the wine. A ragout of tender white beans in a soft stewed apple matrix was a delectably down-home starch while the garnish was an ethereal macaron flavoured with traditional Newfoundland mustard pickle (we call it picallili in England). Chef chose a wine from the west to compliment his creation – the Haynes Barn Merlot-Cabernet from Prospect Winery in B.C.’s Okanagan valley.
The silver medal was awarded to Tak Ishiwata of Basho. He prepared a ceviche of lobster, scallop and whelk, each tasting as if it had been in the ocean moments before, the textures unique and distinct, the tender morsels wrapped in a pashmina of raw sea bass fillet. Instead of cilantro and lime, he used yuzu juice and shiso to cure the flavourful marine elements, and finished the dish with a sprig of shiso florets, the basil-menthol aroma creating a herbal aura around everything. There was a tart, intensely sapid jelly of grape tomatoes beside the benthic bundle and a dark brown stripe of preserved plum on the plate to boost the acidity. Shredded daikon cooled things down; pomegranate juice brought it up again. The garnish of a small, crunchy deep-fried shrimp chip added a different texture. Chef offered a cocktail with the dish – a sweet concoction of local Shiver vodka over muddled cucumber, melon and yuzu, the glass prepared with a shiso-sugar rim. It was delicious, fruity, but needed more acidity to reach out to the flavours on the plate.
Chef Jeremy Charles of the bran-new restaurant Raymonds won the gold medal by a unanimous decision. As I added up the marks for his dish – presentation, texture, taste, originality, wine-match, wow factor – I realized I had never awarded such a high score to any chef’s work in any regional, national or international competition I had ever judged. Try as I might, I could find no fault with his dish. Raymonds has assembled a dream team in the kitchen, including last year’s St. John’s champion Ivan Kutyukchev and the brilliant young baker from Ravine winery in Ontario, Erin Turcke. But this was Charles’s dish. It began in the wilds of the province with the trapping of some 60 wild rabbits. Wild rabbit meat is dark and flavourful but also lean and delicately textured. Charles used the complete lapin. The tiny ribs were frenched and cooked as if they were a rack of lamb – elfin but succulent. The livers were turned into a rich, creamy, silken mousse fashioned into a teaspoon-sized quenelle and set upon a coin of fresh brioche. A purée of Jerusalem artichoke grounded a rich but refined ragout of local brussels sprouts moistened with rabbit jus and spiked with rabbit bacon. A crisp little ravioli held braised rabbit meat, local chanterelle duxelles, a hint of date for sweetness and Canadian feta for salty tang – a spectacularly complex mouthful. Then there was the roulade of confited rabbit meat enhanced with duck fat, juniper and chives and pressed around the wee loin – an impeccably tender roll. Against such a doll’s-house display of miniaturist technique, a firm, thimble-sized turned carrot soused in honey and butter seemed positively butch. The harmonies were in perfect pitch, the wine match – a 2008 Merlot from Ravine Vineyard in St. David’s, Ontario – faultless.
Jeremy Charles won silver last year when he was chef at Atlantica. Next year, he is hosting the pan-Canadian Chefs’ Congress here in St. John’s. I think he will be going into the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna as a very serious contender for the ultimate prize.
Before signing off, I’d like to take this opportunity to offer a heartfelt thankyou to all the judges across the country who so generously volunteered their time and expertise to Gold Medal Plates. Our Senior Judges are invaluable, playing the major role in choosing the chefs who will compete in each city and coming together to form the adjudicatory panel for the Canadian Culinary Championships. In Vancouver, two men share the duties – writer and international food and wine judge Sid Cross and food writer and editor Andrew Morrison. In Edmonton, it’s Chef Instructor Clayton Folkers, former captain of the Canadian National Culinary Team. In Calgary, author, food writer, teacher and broadcaster John Gilchrist is our Senior Judge. Food writer, editor and broadcaster CJ Katz covers Saskatchewan for us. Food writer, editor and columnist Sasha Chapman is our Senior Judge in Toronto. Anne DesBrisay, revered restaurant critic for the Ottawa Citizen, heads our Ottawa-Gatineau panel. Robert Beauchemin, author, teacher and gastronomic journalist is our Montréal Senior Judge. Food writer and broadcaster Karl Wells leads the team in St. John’s.
One other duty we ask of each of our Senior Judges is that they guide us in assembling a panel of judges in their city – food writers, chef instructors, chefs, restaurant critics, all of them professional culinarians – to adjudicate the Gold Medal Plates regional events and award gold, silver and bronze medals to the successful competitors. These judges, volunteering their time, provide the backbone of credibility that makes our Gold Medal Plates events more than just fund-raising galas. They have now become the most significant gastronomic competitions in Canada.
So a huge thank you to our judges across the country during the last campaign: in Vancouver, John Bishop, Barbara-Jo McIntosh and Lesley Stowe; in Edmonton, Liane Faulder, Gail Hall and Chris Wood; in Calgary, Michael Allemeier, Susan Hopkins and Michael Noble; in Saskatchewan, Trent Brears, Amy Jo Ehman, Vince LaPointe and dee Hobsbawn-Smith; in Toronto, Christine Cushing, John Higgins, Anita Stewart and Lucy Waverman; in Ottawa-Gatineau, Pam Collacott, Margaret Dickenson, Chris Knight and Judson Simpson; in Montréal, Julian Armstrong and Lesley Chesterman; in St. John’s, Bob Arneil, Tom Beckett, Kitty Drake and Cynthia Stone. Mes amis, let’s do it all again next year!