As Canada’s Olympic athletes have shown us, the road to victory can be arduous. That was also the case for many of the judges making their way from Eastern Canada to Kelowna, B.C., to serve on the judiciary panel of the Canadian Culinary Championships. Thirteen hours door-to-door, in my case, thanks to the weather at Pearson and missed connections. Which made our ultimate rendezvous all the sweeter. Across the street from our hotel, the lovely Eldorado, stands a comfortable, cool, contemporary restaurant called Cabana. It was there we gathered, to be greeted by a glass of Bella sparkling chardonnay and an array of other brilliant wines very generously donated by Lindsay Kelm of the British Columbia Wine Institute.
We are 13 judges this year. Travelling, like the sun himself, from east to west, they are: from St. John’s, Newfoundland, broadcaster, food columnist for the Telegram, author and host of his own tv show, One Chef One Critic. KARL WELLS; from Halifax, journalist and restaurant critic for the Chronicle-Herald, who overcame his fear of flying to be with us in Kelowna, BILL SPURR; from Montreal, former pastry chef, author, journalist and since 1999, fine-dining critic and food columnist for the Montreal Gazette, LESLEY CHESTERMAN; from Ottawa-Gatineau, author and broadcaster, senior editor of Taste & Travel Magazine and former restaurant critic of the Ottawa Citizen, ANNE DESBRISAY; from Toronto, award-winning food columnist and food writer, currently an editor with the Walrus, SASHA CHAPMAN; from Winnipeg, professional chef, Liverpool fanatic, culinary arts instructor and Director Food Services at Red River College, JEFF GILL; from Saskatchewan, award-winning cookbook author, tv and radio host and publisher of Savour Life magazine, and our senior judge in both Regina and Saskatoon, CJ KATZ; from Edmonton, wine, food and travel writer, certified sommelier and wine instructor, publisher of red tomato online and the founder of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium, MARY BAILEY; from Calgary, teacher, broadcaster, author and restaurant columnist for the Calgary Herald, JOHN GILCHRIST; from Kelowna, Instructor in Baking and Pastry Arts right here at Okanagan College, PERRY BENTLEY; from Vancouver, world-renowned wine and food judge and the wine and food guru for Western Living magazine, SID CROSS; and also from Vancouver, author, teacher, restaurant critic, boulevardier and the editor-in-chief of Scout Magazine, ANDREW MORRISON. Andrew is also the CCC’s Culinary Referee and the man who will be responsible for enforcing the rules throughout the weekend.
Here was a merry meeting – and Cabana did us proud. We tasted a smoked duck confit crostini with drunken cherries and a fig reduction. We further calibrated our palates with a salad of roasted baby beets and corn, served on a bed of peppered arugula with orange vinaigrette topped with herbed Happy Days goat cheese and shaved rainbow radish. Some of us couldn’t resist one of the restaurant’s renowned specialities – deboned chicken wings stuffed with cream cheese. Then there was thickly sliced chateaubriand, crusted with a cinnamon coffee rub and set over a buttermilk honey parsnip mash and a smoked apricot purée. Three chocolate mouthfuls closed the occasion – one just a foam that melted into air in our mouths, another a fluffy milk chocolate mousse, the last a heavy, wickedly intense terrine. A fine start to a weekend of professional eating.
The treats continued on Thursday. It is the generous custom of Tourism Kelowna’s Catherine Frechette to devise a gently educational culinary adventure for the judges as a team-building preamble to the competition itself. This year we were driven up to Tantalus winery on the brow of a ridge overlooking the valley. We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be tremendous fun. There to meet us were luminaries from the winery and also the chefs and bartender from Kelowna’s splendid Indian restaurant, Poppadoms (948 McCurdy Road, 778-753-5563, www.poppadoms.ca). It’s a family business, with Jas Dosanj and her daughter Aman in the kitchen, and her son Harry a most inventive bartender. Our task this sunny but very cold morning was to work as cooks, aproned in black and divided into pairs, set to prepare six different dishes that would eventually become our lunch. To help us work, Mark Puttick, manager of Knifewear Inc, was there to lend us an array of marvelous Japanese knives, while Jas and Aman moved amongst our prep tables, offering advice.
I paired up with Sid Cross and we set to work making a Keralan vegetable dish of potatoes, carrots, parsnip and onions in a coconut sauce spiced with handfuls of julienned ginger and garlic, green chilies and cardamom, cloves, peppercorns and roasted ground fennel seeds. Harry provided inspiration with miniature shots of his prize-winning cocktail, a creation he calls a Harry Berry that mixes Okanagan Spirits whisky, Tantalus Pinot Noir, a syrup made by reducing maple stout, and a shot of blackberry lemonade, all finished with a moment of egg white. I’m usually pretty good at imagining what a cocktail is going to taste like but I was most surprised by the suave, tangy, subtle flavour of this one… An excellent invention!
While our dishes were finishing in the Tantalus ovens, Jas showed us how to make chapatis and then let us try. We soon had the balls of wholewheat flour and water dough rising like balloons on our butane burners.
Lunch was amazing! It didn’t hurt that we had a good number of actual chefs on the judging panel. I can say without fear of contradiction that we go into the first element of the competition tonight – the mystery wine pairing contest – as a very focused posse, ready to do our duty in passing judgement on 11 of Canada’s finest chefs.