Carry on up the Okanagan

Just back from a 36-hour flying visit to the Okanagan for the media launch of the Canadian Culinary Championships, annual grand finale of each year’s Gold Medal Plates campaign, where the victorious chefs from each of the eight regional finals battle it out over a gruelling weekend of gastronomic challenges. For at least the next five years, we’re going to hold the CCC in Kelowna and the launch was to announce the fact to the locality and the world.
Why Kelowna? We were asked that question a lot by the local press. The answer involves a number of reasons. We were weary of reinventing the three-day event in a different city every year and were looking for a home. We wanted somewhere that wasn’t one of our regular cities. Kelowna kind of has it all… Great wine, obviously; excellent local produce; a strong chefs’ association; a vibrant culinary program at Okanagan College ( we can use their teaching kitchens for our Black Box competition and their students as apprentices for our competitors); above all, a sophisticated population who are very savvy about food and wine and will, we hope, provide the essential extra component to our funfair – an audience.
The launch went very well. We held it at the Delta Grand, where we will also hold the CCC Grand Finale next February. Triathlete and all-round hero Simon Whitfield flew in from Victoria for four hours and charmed everyone. Radio star Terry David Mulligan was the smart and genial MC, interviewing everyone (see his comment below for a chance to hear about the event on his own radio show). Excellent food was on offer, including an item from the Delta Grand hotel’s executive chef, Stuart Klassen, built around wine-fed beef. He gets the animals from Sezmu Farms – beef cattle whose diet includes a litre of wine a day for a minimum of 90 days. No, it doesn’t taste of wine, but it is remarkably tender (“I guess the cattle are that much more relaxed,” says Klassen, with a twinkle in his eye). Chef took little cuts of the chuck, wrapped them in cawl fat and braised them then set each piece of juicy meat on top of a hollow potato pedestal with a stewed cherry inside it. Beside this, over a stripe of reduced cherry wine, he set a tiny puck of foie gras terrine freckled with macerated cherries. Scrumptious.
The other dish came from Joy Road Catering out of Penticton, a company created by two young chefs, Cam Smith and Dana Ewarts, who I first met years ago when they were apprentices in the kitchen of Chris McDonald at Avalon. They are utterly delightful, existing in a sort of wonderful glow of innocence and youthful exuberance, but at the same time working incredibly hard in the service of their uncompromising values. Their dish featured 100 lbs of fresh wild morels they had picked the day before on Terrace Mountain – the happy legacy of the tragic forest fires of last year. They set the pan-seared morels over perfectly timed local asparagus (skinny and emerald green) all o’er-strewn with a crunchy brunoise of fried sourdough bread, fresh thyme flowers and chervil. They set this heavenly tangle of early summer flavours over two sauces – one a thick, mild-mannered purée of sweet onion bulbs, the other a cadmium yellow liaison of organic hazelnut oil and egg yolk from their own aracana chickens. It had that incredibly rich, yolky flavour that only truly free-range, intellectually independent laying-hens can give. It was a sensational match for the white wine we served – Laughing Stock’s 2007 Chardonnay, aged in 500-litre oak puncheons – juicy, silky, opulent Chardonnay with buttery biscuity overlay.
There will be four chefs from the Okanagan in the Vancouver Gold Medal Plates gala on October 29 – Stuart Klassen from the Delta Grand, Kelowna, Cam Smith and Dana Ewarts from Joy Road in Penticton (two talents competing as one) and Roger Sleiman, chef of the stunning Quail’s Gate winery restaurant, Old Vines. I believe they will give coastal B.C. a serious run for the gold.
There was barely time, but, the night before the launch and straight from the airport, we dashed down to Osoyoos to see Sean Salem, owner of two Oliver-area wineries – Le Vieux Pin (amazing Syrah, fabulous blended white, awesome Merlots) and La Stella (I had no idea anyone could make a SuperTuscan in B.C.!). Uncompromisingly generous with his hospitality and his barrel samples, Sean was an awesome host. His experiments with different French and Canadian cooperages and toasts at Le Vieux Pin are going to yield a wealth of delectable knowledge in a couple of years. Tragically, a massive landslide last week has destroyed one of his prize vineyards of almost 30-year-old Chardonnay and the gorgeous mature Muscat vines he uses for La Stella’s off-dry petillant Muscat. No one was hurt, though five people’s homes were wiped out. Apparently authorities knew about a poorly maintained pond and dam up on the hillside but failed to respond to local warnings. Heavy rains came last week and presto. It’s a miracle no one was killed. A tragedy about the Muscat.
Back in Kelowna, after the launch, we nipped out for dinner last night to a delightful five-year-old spot called The Rotten Grape. My friend John Gilchrist, Calgary’s primo food writer and restaurant guru, recommended it and he steered us totally right. It’s a 40-seat wine bar and bistro owned by Rita Myers (who got her start with the Fairmont hotel group) and chef Tasha Howe (proudly self-taught) – lovely and casual with rough stone walls, wine cabinets everywhere and a guy with a guitar singing old Beatles and Leonard Cohen songs with uncommon grace and beauty. There’s also an adorable Portuguese water dog called Praia who seems to be in charge of the entire place. We ate very tender baby squid smothered in almond panko crumbs with a chili cucumber sauce; gorgeously succulent local bison tenderloin, barely seasoned with some simple potatoes and a giant morel lolling on top like a gnome’s loofah; fascinating cakes made from mashed-up curried broccoli and Manchego cheese held together with egg and panko and served with a curry aioli (can you imagine them? They really were terrifically good); and squeaky green beans tossed with garlic, chili and ginger. Wines? We seem to have drained a few bottles, now that I try to make sense of my notes – a 2005 Conca Tre Pile Barbera d’Alba rings a bell, as does a bottle of MDC from Dunham Froese Estate winery – 50% Cab Sauv, 25% Zin, 25% Syrah (try and picture that blend – it was marvelous), and some frisky local bubbly… And of course there was cheese – Qualicum Bay Brie (delicate, miniature, childlike, irresistible), Poplar Grove Tiger Blue (soft, sweetish, gentle, rich – a Cambridge blue, in other words, the thoft-thpoken antithesis of a butch Oxonian Stilton), an Okanagan goat cheese and a gouda from Triple Island Farms in Lumby. Tasha Howe paired them with local arlos lavender honey, organic Aurora apples, boozed-up figs and some super crackers from a company called Gone Crackers, in Vancouver. I’m afraid we lingered so long we closed the place. So much smashing local food, so much local pride – I think we’re going to be very happy holding the CCC in Kelowna, a swift, four-hour direct hop from Toronto. And there’s skiing.
Leaving The Rotten Grape, I encountered a young, eager, fresh-faced busker with a guitar. He was playing the Catalan nursery rhyme that Pablo Casals used to use as his encore piece when he was in his eighties and that became a virtual signature tune for the UN peaceniks during the Cold War. I don’t think the busker was born during the Cold War and he had not heard of Casals but for me it was a little piece of synchronicity as I had just finished reading The Cello Suites, a very cool book by Eric Siblin about Casals, Bach’s cello suites and the power of serendipity. I took it as a blessing on our CCC endeavour and left more than the usual buck in the troubadour’s guitar case. I think Kelowna will be a very cool location for the CCC.

  1. With this post, you have just made me want to fly to Kelowna, or at the very least, find wine fed cows…the Canadian version of Kobi beef perhaps???

  2. James – you have made me hungry! I’m lucky enough to work with many of the people you’ve included in your write up. You’re right, there are some marvelously talented foodies in Kelowna, passionate farmers, and appreciative gourmands like me. Next time you come, you’ll have to take in the baked goods of Monika Walker (friend of Cam and Dana’s), stop in at Carmelis Goat Cheese Artisan, and dine at Waterfront Wines with Chef Mark Filatow. My goodness, I could go on and on about the many foodie delights you can find here. Thank you!

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