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.
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.
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.
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.
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.