Archive for September, 2012

Food Couture

28 Sep

In New Guinea in the 1930s, Western anthropologists were intrigued (and amused) to see the men of a remote tribe wearing empty Kellog’s Corn Flakes boxes as hats. The colourful image of Cornelius Rooster on the packet appealed to the tribesmen and the boxes were considered the apogee of fashionable headgear. I tried one on myself the other day – it was comfortable, warm and certainly turned a few heads on College Street. Someone even complimented me on my conscientious recycling abilities. The same tribe in New Guinea also used old tin cans as belt ornaments, again in the name of fashion, but I haven’t yet copied that idea.

Is it such a long stride between using food containers as clothing and using actual food? Until quite recently, the best-known examples of the latter were Carmen Miranda’s tutti-frutti turbans from the 1940s and ’50s, towering assemblages of fruit as bright and as merry as the great entertainer’s smile. It took Montreal artist Jana Sterbak to introduce an element of seriousness to the notion with her famous dress made of raw steak, first displayed on a coat hanger at the National Gallery of Canada in 1987. The title of the piece, Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, hinted at all sorts of  complicated semiotics around the impermanence of food, of fashion and of life itself. Some people found it revolting, others inspiring; many were disturbed by the implicit reminder that humans themselves are essentially meat with a limited shelf-life.

Lady Gaga wears meat

The idea of food couture returned recently when Lady Gaga actually wore a dress made of steak at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. Animal rights activists were furious but Time magazine declared it the year’s top fashion statement. Undoubtedly, the purpose of the stunt was to shock but the dress was rather beautifully cut (or should that be carved?) and looked, from a distance, like heavy silk. It reminded me of the striking images created by photographer Helge Kirchberger and chef Roland Trettl in which glamorous fashion models are dressed in various foods – an evening gown of cabbage leaves, a shawl of cawl fat, a chocolate bustière, a headdress made from a very large raw octopus, its tentacles draped elegantly around the model’s face, neck and shoulders while she stares with humourless inscrutability into the camera’s lens.

There will always be a measure of surreality to clothing made from food. Salvador Dali and his colleagues were hugely influenced by the works of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527 – 1593), the Italian artist who painted portraits in which not only clothes but also his subjects’ faces and bodies were made of overlapping plants and vegetables, fish and fruit, arranged to give a trompe d’oeuil likeness of humanity. Contemporary reaction ranged from mirth to outrage, but the philosophical message was real enough. You are what you eat. You are what you wear. You wear what you eat… Suddenly the notion of a hat fashioned from a Corn Flakes box doesn’t really seem wacky at all.

Food couturier Roland Trettl adjusts octopus for the fashion runway


Gold Medal Plates Toronto 2012

25 Sep

Chef Marc St. Jacques and his team from Auberge du Pommier. (Big thanks to Brian Chambers for all these lovely images)

The chauffeur-driven, drive-around Gold Medal Plates Toronto event was a huge success and I only wish we could do it every day. Judges Sasha Chapman, Anita Stewart, Christine Cushing and I made our rendezvous at the Fairmont Royal York hotel at 10:00 a.m. together with 24 VIP guests who would join us on our gastronomical odyssey and Olympian Adam Van Kouverden, fresh from his dazzling silver performance in London. Then we all climbed into the limo bus – the sort of vehicle that has seen many a prom night party with disco lights, darkened windows and leather seats all around (if these old wheels could talk…).

The rules of the day were simple. We would visit the restaurant of each of the eight competitors (they were told when to expect us) where we would be given the competition dish and its accompanying beverage. The surroundings of the plate were irrelevent and the restaurant was not to offer us anything else. Then we would move on to the next location. Like a plane journey or train ride, the day offered all of us a measure of magical irresponsiblity – an enforced holiday – and we fully expected to eat very well indeed. What surprised the judges was how completely different all eight dishes were from each other! There have been years at GMP events where a number of chefs have chosen to work with the same protein or where the logistics of cooking for 750 have imposed a certain uniformity of style: not yesterday. Each dish was utterly distinct and delicious. We finally returned to the hotel at around 7:30 p.m. for Champagne and dessert and the crunching of the judges’ numbers. In the end, the gold medal was unanimously given, though only six percentage points separated the gold, silver, bronze and fourth-placed competitors. Here’s what we tasted.

Marc St. Jacques's magical foie

The first dish we tried was the dish that ultimately carried off the gold medal, created by first-time competitor and Toronto native Marc St. Jacques of Auberge du Pommier. There were some good-natured jokes en route to his restaurant when we saw that we would be starting the day with foie gras and icewine. We were not prepared for the elegance, finesse and imagination of the dish. The presentation was striking – all elements cleanly posed, the colour palette white, beige and pale gold with a dramatic sprinkling of green nori dust. The foie gras itself was a mousse, but as firm as a torchon, topped with a golden jelly of smokey dashi. Very thinly sliced raw matsutake mushrooms from northern Quebec leaned against the slice of foie beside tiny piped moments of intensely flavourful matsutake purée. Matsutake grow in pine forests so the other ingredient of whole toasted pine nuts and a pine nut crumble was entirely appropriate. Served separately were soft rounds of brioche fried in Monforte butter that had been spiked with more nori. All the flavours were pristine and powerful, the harmony between foie gras, mushroom, pine nuts and smoky dashi extraordinary. The longer we thought about the dish, the more radical it seemed. Foie gras with no fruit or sweetness or acidity on the plate?! But those components were brilliantly provided by the wine – the Peller Estates Ice Cuvee Rosé which hides its sweetness behind a cloak of acidity and rich fruit. It takes a brave chef to deliberately leave room for the wine in his conception of a dish – leaving it incomplete in the trust that the wine will fill the gap. It worked amazingly well in this thoroughly Canadian, woodsy treatment of foie gras.

Lorenzo Loseto and his team at George

Our silver medal winner was Lorenzo Loseto of George – the only Toronto chef to compete in every Gold Medal Plates event in the modern era. This is his third silver medal, which also puts him in a very small and exalted group of one. Yesterday he worked with black cod, timing the fish to moist perfection and crusting it with crushed cashews held together by an invisible beet tapenade that added a delightful earthy sweetness to the flavour of the nuts. Beside it was a tiny stack of soft juicy beet salad, a ½-inch mound of pungent avocado mousse and a scattering of minuscule pickled samiji mushrooms and wild leeks. A scattering of black beans and coriander seedlings boosted the earthy flavours and the whole dish rested on a tissue-thin magic carpet of shaved radish. The match with an exceptionally floral, fruity 2012 Teion Sakura Junmai sake from Toronto’s own Ontario Spring Water Sake Company was masterful.

Lorenzo's impeccable black cod

The bronze medal was awarded to Martin Kouprie of Pangaea who created another visually stunning plate. Here was a disc of bacon-wrapped venison striploin, incredibly tender and tasty, its red juices still held in the muscle. Beside that was a cube of venison liver cooked sous vide so it still had that almost crunchy texture that some rare offal provides; it was topped with a sweet potato and coriander crumble. The third major component was a blue potato polyhedron cooked sous vide in brown butter and topped with a perfect little toasted marshmallow spiced with a hint of nutmeg. Around these treasures, lightly pickled onion rings added a pleasing tang while a single white potato chip and a bed of silky sweet potato purée had us all thinking about Thanksgiving. Trailing down the side of the assembly a blueberry compote was perfectly judged in terms of sweetness. David Lawrason found the wine match the highlight of the tour – a smashing 2009 Pinot Noir, the 13th Street Essence.

Martin Kouprie's exemplary venison

Those were the podium dishes but there was so much to enjoy on our road trip. Michael Steh, now chef at O’Finn’s Irish Temper in Oakville, gave us a hearty dish of pan-roasted scallops with butternut squash purée, crisp apple and fennel salad and a generous mound of smoked bacon-and-shallot jam.

Donna Dooher of Mildred’s Temple Kitchen brought in some Sri Lankan ideas (and awesome spicy warmth) with poached lobster, a fluffy pittu filled with crabmeat and coconut and a sensational saffron sothy, like a spicy, buttery broth of coconut and fish stock.

Eron Novalski of Aria cubed raw bigeye tuna and tossed it in a puttanesca sauce then set the fish onto a super-rich olive oil purée. Strewn over it were fried capers, dehydrated black olive crumble, crispy cuttlefish, a single panfried anchovy and some crimson chili threads no bigger than hairs.

At Frank at the AGO, Anne Yarymowich cooked a whole duck egg en cocotte in a red wine jus reduction, leaving the yolk wickedly runny. There were thumb-sized cornmeal biscuits to dip into it and underneath a treasure of duck confit graisserons – the delectable bits left in the pan when the confit is done. A crisp of duck skin was the jaunty feather in the cap.

Our last stop was at Edulis where Michael Caballo had prepared a terrific dish of silky, finely sliced, seaweed-cured smoked pork shoulder and slippery Catathelasma mushrooms sliced and confited in cedar oil. There were clams – their syphons sliced raw, their bellies and skirts fried – and a brunoise of fresh apple. At the heart of the dish was a dark, tangy purée of pickled green walnut.

All in all, it was a spectacular day and our congratulations go out to all the chefs who took part. Only one will go on to Kelowna, however: Marc St. Jacques from Auberge du Pommier.

Martin Kouprie and the Pangaea brigade


Bonaparte of Naggaroth

23 Sep

Napoleon, Cold One knight of Naggaroth

This rare portrait of the Great Tyrant appeared in my email account recently. Those of you who are into Games Workshop will immediately understand that this is PROOF that Napoleon was indeed a Dark Elf lord (as many of us suspected) and an accomplished Cold One jockey. This accounts for his success in Germany (the Empire never stood a chance) and in Egypt (fighting the Tomb Kings of Khemri). As a result of the last campaign he became known as Boney because he destroyed so many undead skeleton warriors.


Coronation Day

21 Sep


Chef and co-owner of Atelier, Marc Lepine and his sous chef, Jason Sawision

To Ottawa for the coronation of Chef Marc Lepine of Atelier as Canadian Culinary Champion – a joyful and delicious evening. If you missed the competition last February, Lepine was a very worthy champion who leaped into the lead during the first of the three contests (the Wine Matching contest) and never stumbled. It was a strong field and all the chefs were on top form but Lepine was simply on fire. It was like watching Andy Murray in the Olympic finals – no one was going to keep him from that gold medal! The verdict among the judges was unanimous and a worthy Champion was celebrated.

On Tuesday last, we held the actual coronation, the traditional launch to the next Gold Medal Plates campaign. The trophy was presented before a small crowd of media, VIPs and all the Gold Medal Plates Ottawa-Gatineau judges who had taken Marc Lepine to the podium in last year’s regional event. Cameras flashed, glasses were raised and the general mood was one of undimmed merriment and congratulation.

Lepine and his team had generously offered to cook for some of us so we duly sat down. Those who had eaten at Atelier before were just as full of anticipatory excitement as those of us who had not. I wasn’t sure what to expect – a couple of apps? In the end we were treated to a 14-course dinner of extraordinary quality.


But first, a word about the restaurant. There is no name on the door of the low, detached building at 540 Rochester Street, Ottawa (613 321 3537). The windows are guarded by a fashionably rusted metal grill and there are rough stones laid around the base of the façade. Inside is a tiny room with grey walls hung with very small framed paintings done by Chef’s daughter when she was five years old. The wee room seats 22, mostly in huge, cream-coloured leather armchairs that are wonderfully comfortable. I counted 5 people in the kitchen and three servers – a ratio of staff to customers that promises much but must challenge the restaurant’s profitability. Interestingly, there is no actual stove in the kitchen. “He uses induction, and circulators, and sometimes a blowtorch or a soldering iron as a heat source,” someone mentioned.

Not to mention a warm sense of humour. The first canape to be passed among the little throng was an empty shot glass. Not quite empty: there was a tiny pinch of dark dust at the bottom. We were instructed to down it in one. Our mouths tasted gin and tonic.

Then there were wobbly brown bubbbles that burst into liquid gazpacho in our mouths. Confited quail legs coated in prune purée (the soft, seasoned flesh sliding from the bone between our lips). A popsicle of frozen yoghurt that wasn’t sweet at all, just a brilliant palate cleanser.

Lepine was a stagiere at Alinea in Chicago a few years ago. Clearly, it was a highly influential experience. I have eaten in the restaurants of several Grant Achatz alumni. Though Lepine doesn’t have a kitchen brigade of 50, he comes closest to Achatz’s aesthetic of surprise, wit, true flavours, wry juxtapositions and unexpected harmonies.

Lepine’s dishes all have amusing names, apparently chosen from suggestions offered by the team in the kitchen. The best was the last course, involving mango as purèe, jelly and as a dehydrated pickle paired with lemon balm, cardamom ice cream and fried bread covered with saffron syrup. The dish is called “A Mangoes Into a Bar” – which is great. But I’m jumping ahead.

Give Peas a Chance before the soup hits the porcelain

The problem for the critic is that each of the 14 courses involves at least 14 ingredients and a dozen different  techniques, some molecular, some not, others more a matter of studiously letting something like a marigold leaf or a tiny yellow chili appear entirely unadulterated. I’m sitting here looking at my laborious notes and realizing that listing a hundred flavourful grace notes isn’t really going to give much of an impression. The pictures show how stunning the dishes looked and perhaps you can see the little coloured dots and moments of pale powder and minuscule dice made of jelly. Analysis is probably not the right response (though I think Lepine appreciates the awe of the ingredient-nerd). It’s the same with Susur Lee and Claudio Aprile in toronto – and maybe Grant Achatz, too. They are magicians who would rather the audience sat back and were amazed than bent forward, squinting, to try and understand the sleight of hand. But let’s look closely at one or two plates and see if we can see what’s going on.

Here’s the dish called “Smoke,” which arrives under a glass cloche filled with applewood smoke that is whisked away, perfuming the dining room. On the plate is a PERFECT piece of Quebec bison, cooked sous vide for half an hour at 52oC the pan-seared. The meat is heavenly – juicy and red with a faint flavour of woodsmoke. Beside it is a teaspoonful of crumbled fried potato, like the sort of pan-roasted breadcrumbs my mum used to serve with gamebirds. A finger of deep-fried French toast sings a similar song (and what a good idea for breakfast!). there’s a sautéed radish, some white drops of onion soubise, a dollop of ground pink peppercorn mustard, three salt-cured grapes that have the texture of cherries and a fine tarragon powder. The dark smooth sauce at the top of the plate is a liquidized boudin noir – rather an extravagant way to make gravy but it tasted amazing. A single marigold leaf was the token green on the plate. Busy? Yes. Crowded? No. And the bison’s role as star of the show was never jeopardized.

“Give Peas a Chance” comes from a less multi-dimensional place – almost an experiment to see what can be done with something as simple as a pea, the better to express its essential peaness. It begins with solids in a bowl – fresh little peas, chunks of sweet pea meringue, and more pea meringue crushed to powder. A smear of crème fraiche up the side of the bowl lets pea tendrils climb almost vertically from the tiny pool of pea purèe at its base. Slices of green grapes cling to the slope; a morain of frozen green apple snow brings sharp acidity. And see the golden cubes of apple cider jelly! They add a different sweetness to that of the green peas, and a different kind of tang to the green apple’s tartness. Now the waiter pours on a chilled pea soup – thick and green as Wiberg’s pine essence for the bath, sleek as paint. The dilemma is whether to scoop a bit of everything greedily into the spoon or try to pick out the different components, as curiosity demands. Either way, it’s absolutely delicious.

Piggie Smalls

Those are just two moments from the evening. “Sebastien and Pinchy” featured lobster and crab. “Piggie Smalls” showed off piglet tenderloin with blowtorched corn, pickled chanterelles, a powder made of ramps and truffle oil, and umpteen other nuanced details.

What fun it all was.

On Monday, we begin this year’s cycle of Gold Medal Plates events with a chauffeur-driven judges’ day visiting our competing Toronto chefs and tasting their dishes – all in lieu of a gala this year. Then it’s on to Regina for the great party on October 11. I can’t wait.

yer actual trophy (not actual size)


Return of the man who ate Toronto

16 Sep

The new cover of The Man Who Ate Toronto

I’m delighted to announce that Black Walnut (an imprint of Madison Press) is republishing The Man Who Ate Toronto, a book I wrote in the last century that chronicles the history of Toronto’s restaurant scene from the 1950s onwards and is also a memoir of my career as a restaurant critic. It’s a very handsome and hefty edition with a new chapter that carries the story forward to the present day. And now there are many beautiful photographs interleaved amidst the text, making this an astonishing bargain at $24.95. There are also a small number of copies of a deluxe boxed edition – priceless.

By sheer coincidence, an English publisher called Clearview is republishing an even earlier book that I wrote with my wife back in 1987, called A Kitchen in Corfu. That one was a documentary about the foodways, ancient and modern, of the remote Greek village where we lived in the mid-1980s. I had thought the life the book describes would be long gone by now, dissolved by the encroachment of modern life, and indeed that was very nearly the case – until the current Greek economy made the old ways of foraging and subsistence farming suddenly viable again. For those forced once again to live off the land as their grandparents did, I’m glad to say the many recipes in the book still work! Clearview is selling the new edition for £9.99, though I fear it won’t be available on this side of the Atlantic. If anyone would like a copy, please let me know and I’ll see what can be done.

It’s a strange but happy feeling to welcome back offspring from the past, a little like going back in time and engaging in conversation with yourself. Thanks to Black Walnut and Clearview for taking a chance on these books.


Taste by CJ Katz

10 Sep

I’m always happy to see a really good new Canadian cookbook – particularly so when it has been written by one of the posse of amazing culinary judges who adjudicate Gold Medal Plates events. CJ Katz is GMP’s Senior Judge for both the Regina and Saskatoon events and now she has written her first book, Taste: Seasonal Dishes from a Prairie Table (CPRC books, $29.95) – and it’s a beauty, a delicious portrait of Saskatchewan’s foodways and, for me, a fascinating introduction to Canada’s prairie heartland.

When Gold Medal Plates first moved into Saskatchewan a couple of years ago, CJ was the obvious choice to serve as our Senior Judge. A prolific writer and documentary food photographer, she is the culinary host of The Wheatland Café on CTV and a regular columnist on CBC Radio. She is also very well connected across the province having met and interviewed just about everyone connected with the food industry from farmers to chefs to research scientists. All that experience is distilled into this book as we venture away from the cities to meet the people who grow and gather and produce the ingredients that CJ then turns into simple but mouth-watering recipes. As Anita Stewart writes in her foreword, “CJ’s food voice is strong and determined and respectful… She has chronicled the seasons and cooking traditions with great care. She honours farmers and fishers and a research community that is as creative as any.”

How can you find this book? If you live in Western canada, you can find it at Chapters. Here in the East, it’s at the U of T bookstore and also online at Chapters and Amazon. Well worth getting your hands on this one!