An excellent evening unfolded at Cava last night for the second annual Ground Hog Invitational Charcuterie Challenge. I was privileged to be one of the four judges together with the highly esteemed Jamie Drummond of Good Food Revolution, the rightfully renowned Suresh Doss of Spotlight Toronto and the respectfully revered chef Robert Bartley, Director of Culinary and Executive Chef for Maple Leaf Sports + Entertainment Ltd. Our host Chris McDonald was charm itself as he led the four of us out of the party and into his chocolate shop next door, where we spent the evening like so many little Hansels in a gingerbread prison, very well fed and fortified by Henry of Pelham Gamay and Pinot Gris from Niagara (and some fino sherry from farther afield) but forbidden to leave.
The invitation to compete had been sent out to some 20 chefs and McDonald accepted the first eight to reply. Michael Steh of Reds was there (he won last year) and so was Teo Paul of Union, Matt DeMille of Parts & Labour, Ryan Crawford of Stone Road Grille, Ryan Donovan of Marben, Ted Corrado of C5, Albert Ponzo from Le Select and Geoff O’Connor of Nota Bene. Each of them had prepared his best ground/cured/chopped/puréed/ emulsified/brined pork dish, all in pursuit of a handsome prize – a $400 gift certificate for the Cookbook Store, the opportunity to display the trophy for a year (it’s like something out of Lord of the Flies – a wooden board engraved with the name of the Magister Porcarius and decorated with four shins and trotters from a patanegra pig and a pig’s skull (you can see the kill hole above the left eye)) and the services of B.C. chef Mara Jernigan’s son Julian for a week. He’s starting out in the business and looking for work as a stagière.
The mood in the kitchen, we were later told, was decidedly friendly and collegial with chefs helping each other plate for the sold-out audience of 60 or so fans of the pig. The paying customers also had score sheets and declared a people’s choice winner – in third place, Albert Ponzo; in second, Geoff O’Connor; in first place Michael Steh again! All worthy, beyond doubt, but we judges made up our own minds as we sat next door at the chocolate counter with dishes brought to us, blind, every 20 minutes or so. And we were unanimous in our decision.
In third place was Michael Steh of Reds who prepared what looked like a mixed grill at first glance, with dishes based unabashedly on his mother’s Slovenian recipes. There was a thick slice of black pudding stiffened with barley, a slice of juicy cured pork belly, a whole little smoked sausage with a very fine grain and a crispy fritter of head cheese (aka brawn), all served over soft, subtle choucroute. The plate was decorated prettily with dabs of apple sauce and a spoonful of excellent mashed potato.
In second place was Matt DeMille from Parts & Labour. He made a flawless, rather classical dish of a slice of wild boar head cheese, its texture surprisingly light, the jelly matrix jewelled with flecks of carrot. He set this over a salad of nicely firm brown lentils and celery leaves dressed with lemon juice and olive oil and around the plate was a gribiche of pickled fennel in mayonnaise. The balance of acidity and richness was beautifully judged and it worked dramatically well with the H of P Pinot Gris.
Our winner was Geoff O’Connor of Nota Bene. His dish (may I be blunt?) took the competition to a different level, certainly in terms of complexity. He described it as a galantine cooked inside a piglet, and so it was… But let me explain. He began by poaching the piglet’s ears in duck fat to slightly soften the tell-tale white cartilege. He cooked the wee loin in a swaddling of maple bacon. The shoulder meat was wrapped in lardo. The tongue was poached with orange and a variety of spices. Then all four elements were built into a plump galantine, held firm and apart in a coarsely ground matrix of lean meat and fat. This mighty sausage was then put inside the pig to be oven roasted, then carved and served in slices. Also on the plate was a small drift of excellent whole-seed mustard in pickling brine, and a compote of diced quince which I think had been smoked in some way before being preserved with sugar and a hit of vinegar. An ethereal chicherone was the scrunchy garnish.
It was all good fun and I was happy to see chef Pat Riley (an Avalon alumnus, he opened Perigee, if you recall) in the audience. He is taking over Far Niente and the other restaurants and outlets at 187 Bay Street – great to have him back in action. Maybe he’ll compete next year. Sincere congratulations to all the chefs who gave up their Wednesday night to take part in the Challenge. O’Connor must now add some kind of porcine part to the trophy – a curly tail perhaps?