Gold Medal Plates started its 2011 campaign with a triumphant return to Winnipeg under a starlit prairie sky. We were last here in 2006 when Chef Makoto Ono won the event and went on to represent the city at the first ever Canadian Culinary Championship in Whistler. He won that, too, then headed over to Asia to open a restaurant in Beijing in time for the Olympics and two more in Hong Kong (they’re still going strong). Now he’s back in the Peg for a while and he joined us as an honourary judge last night as well as providing dazzling little dishes for the VIP reception to start our party. Chef Jeff Gill returned as Senior Judge while the rest of the high-powered panel consisted of chef, baker and educator Mary Jane Feeke, writer and broadcaster Arvel Gray and writer and journalist Christine Hanlon. We had our work cut out. All the competing chefs performed superbly and while we had a unanimous winner there were six chefs within a couple of percentage points who could have taken silver and bronze.
The party itself was a true celebration of Canadian excellence. This year, we’re introducing a new component honouring Canadian artisanal spirits, presented in our western cities by the brilliant mixologist Hailey Pasemko of Nita lake Lodge in Whistler. She created three cocktails to showcase Alberta Premium rye, Victoria gin and Iceberg vodka, working a British theme into the mix. I couldn’t resist the Lavender Lass, a luxe, silky liaison of rye whisky, lemon juice and honey syrup topped with lavender-infused cream and garnished with a sprinkle of dried lavender. It was delightfully aromatic and creamy but the lemon juice kept everything from venturing even close to after-dinner country. I’m saving her other two cocktails for other cities later in the campaign.
Another innovation, shining a bright light on the genius and generosity of the Canadian winemakers and brewers who contribute so much to Gold Medal Plates events, was our new award for Best in Show wine, beer or other beverage, judged by three local experts Ben MacPhee Sigurdson, Gary Hewitt and Domer Rafael. Their verdict: Grey Monk Pinot Gris 2010 VQA from the Okanagan.
Our emcee was none other than multiple Olympic medallist Marnie McBean who held the audience in the palm of her hand, chatting on stage with a galaxy of Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Needless to say, the 2012 London Olympic games was a universal topic of conversation and the athletes were, as always, brimming with inspiring stories.
The entertainment also had a British timbre with Jim Cuddy, Anne Lindsay, Barney Bentall and Ed Robertson from Bare Naked Ladies playing some classic Brit rock showstoppers which brought more than one nostalgic tear to this reporter’s eye.
For me, and for the other culinary judges, however, the main event was the splendid array of dishes created by our competing chefs – so much imagination and effort on parade!. In the end, we awarded the bronze medal to Michael Schafer of Sydney’s at the Forks. He had great fun with his idea – a play on the many flavours of crisps he used to enjoy in pubs when he lived in London. A spiral of crispy potato held potato chips upright as if they were tiny pieces of toast. Fried in duck fat, they were delicious in their own right. Beside them was a little drum of creamy pearl onion mousseline topped with a thick layer of gelatinous brawn (aka head cheese). As a garnish, Schafer had made three kinds of “caviar” – one from Worcestershire sauce, one from malt vinegar and a third from shrimp and rose sauce to imitate the flavour of “prawn cocktail flavour crisps.” He advised the judges to mash the brawn into the onion mousseline with the tangy beads and scoop up the result with our crisps. It was fun and delectable and worked very well with one of the three beers chosen last night – Russell’s Blood Alley Extra Special Bitter Ale.
Our silver medal was awarded to Cameron Huley of 12 Resto Bar for a dish of almost classical balance and tonal precision. At its heart was an impeccable piece of salmon rubbed in a star anise dry rub and then cooked sous vide (at 42 degrees) until the texture softened to extreme tenderness. The fish was surrounded by a bouquet of baby vegetables – crunchy yellow carrots that had bathed ever so briefly in pickling liquid, tiny golden beets that had more of a tang, a perfect, peeled cherry tomato, all sorts of baby sprouting leaves and seedlings. Serving as a sauce for the salmon and a dressing for the vegetables was a vibrant pea purée and, looming over the entire plate, a hoop of tissue-thin fried potato added scrunch and flavour while conjuring notions of the Olympic rings. The accompanying wine, Henry of Pelham’s 2007 Reserve Riesling VQA, was a fine choice, its fruity, petrolly notes unchallenged by the pickling vinegars.
Our gold medal, a unanimous decision, went to Michael Dacquisto of Dacquisto, who named his dish “Acapulco Sunset.” It looked like an exuberant abstract painting full of bright colours from the squiggle of green avocado purée to the sunburst of red chili coulis to the clouds of tart passion fruit foam at the top of the plate. There were two principal elements, the first a ceviche of roughly chopped raw scallop with finely diced yellow pepper that had steeped in lemon, lime and orange juice spiked with cilantro and chili. Beside it was a mound of raw, soft, ruby-coloured tuna that had seen just enough of a pasilla pepper sauce to acquire some knowledge of the world. The tuna was topped with pumpkin seeds and crunchy little ribbons of cumin-accented tortilla. A lot going on! But it all made perfect sense in your mouth, each forkful different, the flavours hitting beautifully calibrated spikes of acidity and spicy heat, the textures very well judged. Dacquisto paired his dish with Grey Monk Riesling VQA from the Okanagan – a dry, rather butch Riesling that was unintimidated by the Sunset.
Congratulations to Chef Dacquisto, who now goes on to the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna next February. The Gold Medal Plates goes on to Calgary tonight, to do all this again. The fun never stops.
And now, as an added bonus for diligent readers who have got this far, here is the wine report from Gold Medal Plates National Wine Advisor, David Lawrason:
Winnipeg 2011 Wine Report – An Auspicious Debut
With the opening night of Gold Medal Plates 2011 Campaign split between Montreal and Winnipeg, my wine duties fell to Montreal (but given the state of my French I don’t quite understand the logic). Anyway, to do the duties in Winnipeg I enlisted the help of friend and fellow Canadian Wine Awards judge Ben McPhee-Sigurdson, wine columnist of the Winnipeg Free Press and a Canadian Wine Awards judge. He was joined by Gary Hewitt senior wine consultant and educator at Banville and Jones, a leading Winnipeg wine shop, and by Domer Rafael of the Manitoba Club, who recently earned his International Wine Education Guild Diploma.
The first ever Best of Show Award for wines, beers and spirits was handed out one hour prior to Montreal, with the top nod going to Gray Monk 2010 Pinot Gris (BC), a wine praised by the judges for its purity and balance. The runners up were virtually tied in the judges estimation, and indeed of very similar origin and style. A pair of 2008 Rieslings took the honours: Cave Spring Niagara Peninsula, and Henry of Pelham Off dry.
The gold medal winning paired wine also went to Gray Monk, with their 2010 Riesling. Other products donated to the chefs included Pelee Island 2010 Blanc de Blanc Vidal Riesling, Malivoire 2010 Gamay, and two beers: Picarroon’s Timber Hog Ale and Half Pints Bulldog Amber Ale. And for the Celebration portion of the event guests were treated to a pair of Italian wines from a property owned by Tina Jones of Banville and Jones: Quadri 2010 Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie and Tolaini 2006 Valdisanti, Toscana IGT, Italy