Eager Beavers

Three well-refreshed judges: Anthony Walsh, john Higgins and me.

It was a night of good humour, excellent food, intense competition and the start of something that will benefit Canadian gastronomy in a unique way, if all goes according to plan. Last Monday, Michael Stadtländer and friends took over the Drake hotel’s bar and restaurant to raise funds for his Eager Beaver scholarship project. The idea is that a lucky graduate culinary student from George Brown College and another from B.C.’s Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts will be given an extraordinary apprenticeship, spending a month with a star chef in every province and territory in Canada. They will document this 13-month process on video for the benefit of other students and they will emerge with an unprecedented awareness of the foodways of our vast country. I think it’s a brilliant idea, though the students will have to be chosen very carefully if they are to take full advantage of such an opportunity.

Meanwhile, we had the fundraiser to enjoy – an industry-only affair that included a black box cooking contest between four chefs – Steve Gonzales, sous chef at Origin, Nick Liu, chef at the Niagara Street Café, Kevin McKenna, chef at Globe and Earth, and Alida Solomon, owner-chef of Tutti Matti. Three of us were judging them – George Brown College’s own chef John Higgins, chef Anthony Walsh (who is incredibly busy right now as Oliver Bonacini prepares to open its three restaurants in the TIFF Lightbox building) and me.

Before the contest, however, there was ample time to party and enjoy the delectable treats of a number of other superstar chefs who came to show their support for Stadtländer and the Chefs’ Congress he organizes. Here are some of the highlights…

Michael Stadtländer himself brought a whole pig (one of his own from Eigensinn Farm) slow roasted in his wood-fired oven until the skin was crisp and the colour of mahogany. He served it with delicate ravioli filled with peach and ginger in a lemon basil butter sauce. Southbrook 2006 Cabernet-Merlot was the inspired wine match.

Daisuke Sakura of Kaiseki Sakura marinated fingers of lake trout in a fish broth with soy sauce and lime then plated them alongside crunchy zucchini. He put delicately crunchy deep-fried noodles over the top and scattered flower petals and shredded red and green shiso leaves from his garden. As each bowl was handed out, he spooned a little warm fish broth over the top which softened some of the noodles and released the heavenly fragrance from the ingredients. Another great wine match with Malivoire 2008 Chardonnay.

Ravine Vineyards provided the wine match for the Dairy Farmers of Canada who cut four cheeses – a deliciously earthy, creamy, Chardonnay-washed Rosehaus and a Tomme-style Quinte Crest, both from Fifth Town Artisan Cheese in Picton, down in Prince Edward County; a semi-soft Fleur-en-Lait from Glengarry Fine Cheese in Lancaster, Ontario, and Le Rassembleu, a firm, woodsy blue cheese from Québec’s Les Fromagiers de la Table Ronde.

Chef Chris Aerni came all the way from New Brunswick’s Rossmount Inn, where he is chef and co-owner, bringing a suitcase full of perfect mushrooms picked from the Inn’s 75 acres – golden chanterelles and coral-coloured lobster mushrooms, to be precise. He cooked them up with baby NB scallops until they were soft as silk, dusting the scallops with powdered dried sea lettuce (such a salty, tangy marine flavour), a nasturtium coulis and a rich chanterelle butter. It tasted as heavenly as it sounds and was beautifully matched with spicy, complex Stratus 2006 White.

Jeremy Charles flew in from St. John’s, Newfoundland, where he is poised to open a new restaurant called Raymond’s in the fall. He made a ravioli of moose meat and mashed potato sauced with chicken stock and a brunoise of vegetables and finished with a little grated parmesan. A yummy dish, nicely paired with Mission Hill 2008 Five Vineyards Pinot Noir.

Oyster Boy Adam Colqhoun was a jovial presence behind the Drake’s sushi station, shucking huge, heavy-shelled beauties from Colville Bay, P.E.I. that he had personally harvested. Creemore Springs beer was the perfect accompaniment.

Anthony Walsh and two of his team made gorgeous, sticky steamed buns folded around incredibly tender Wellington County beef brisket, nam prik vegetables and “forever leaf” which is the pretty name for wild purslane, a fleshy plant that regenerates easily in the woodlands of our country. Henry of Pelham 2008 Baco Noir was an inspired pour with the brisket.

So, all told, I was pretty full already when I slid onto my judging stool beside Higgins and Walsh while master of ceremonies Sheldon Jaffine thanked sponsors All Clad kitchenware and Creemore Springs brewery. Then the competition began. The black box ingredients were interesting… two cuts of Eigensinn Farm pork; a cornucopia of David Cohlmeyer’s Cookstown beets, tomatoes, Asian greens and other vegetables; some cold-pressed hemp oil; some of Chris Aerni’s awesome mushrooms; a bottle of Creemore beer (for cooking not chugging) and the secret ingredient, a jar of raw pig’s brains. Each chef had 25 minutes.

The time passed quickly with pig-brain jokes coming thick and fast – lots of zombie wisecracks and references to Young Frankenstein’s Abbie Normal. We tasted Steve Gonzalez’s offering first – a sort of vegetable ceviche using the beer instead of an acid full of interesting textures and flavours with the sweet-tart green tomatoes and zucchini flowers most prominent. He had sautéed the pork bacon and braised off the pork belly but there was no sign of the brains.

Nick Liu surrounded his slices of pork with a garland of vegetables, using the oil as a final drizzle. He had roasted the pork and the bacon with maple syrup and chanterelle butter and set it over a salad of inely shaved fennel and beet. The brains had defeated him and were still in their jar.

Kevin McKenna roasted off his beautifully seasoned pork to tender perfection, slicing it over dark leafy greens, awesome chanterelles and crunchy julienne of fennel. The judges agreed his pig-brain and beer sauce would make him a fortune if he could bottle and sell it.

Alida Solomon combined larger elements – the whole onion flowers, the whole zucchini blossoms, stalks and all – cooked her beets just so and pan-seared her pork to give it a great crust before cooking it off in a covered pan. She too made a brains sauce using the bacon as scrumptious lardons. Her textures were distinct, her flavours bold and the food reached the judges piping hot. We were unanimous in giving her the victory.

All told, it was a super evening and a fine preliminary to the second Canadian Chefs’ Congress that will take place on Vancouver Island around September 11, 2010. In 2011, the third Congress is scheduled for St. John’s Newfoundland. Both gatherings promise to be epic parties and gastronomic exchanges of true significance.

One final date to note down: on October 3, Michael Stadtländer is holding his Harvest Festival up at Eigensinn Farm, reviving all the outdoor sculpture and cooking stations featured a couple of years ago for his Heaven on Earth project. It’s going to be amazing!

Judges three, all well refreshed: Anthony Walsh, John Higgins and me, with Christian Morrison, Canadian Chefs Congress, steering committee.

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