Was it only a year ago that Ottawa’s Marc Lepine raced to victory at the Canadian Culinary Championships here in Kelowna? Time speeds by even in this balmy lakeside paradise. Now the long weekend is over and we have a new champion. You could skip to the bottom of this post and find out who, or you could read on and relive it as the drama unfolded.
We had 10 competitors this year, each one of them the champion of his or her own regional Gold Medal Plates competition. On Thursday night, at a splendid reception up on the ridge at Tantalus Winery, we introduced them and their sous chefs to a select crowd of sponsors and friends, and boosted each team with a brace of eager, talented culinary students from Okanagan College.
There were wonderful oysters to be tasted and Saskatchewan pickerel on quinoa cake prepared by former competitor Chef Dan Walker. And My Tea Blending Room was also in the house. A few weeks ago, owner Amber Piche had the inspired idea of asking each chef and each judge to create a blend of tea. They were all on display, in a tin with our names and faces on the label. I was deeply honoured that Amber had decided to brew and blend my own creation, an iced green tea with juniper, lemon, bergamot and rose petal that I hoped would taste like a gin and tonic. I think Amber had fixed the recipe because it was actually rather good! All the details are there on the web site, www.myteablendingroom.com.
The competing chefs are: from Chinched Bistro in St. John’s, Shaun Hussey; from Fou d’Ici in Montreal, Daren Bergeron; from Oz Kafe in Ottawa, Jamie Stunt; from Auberge du Pommier in Toronto, Marc St. Jacques; from Wasabi Sabi in Winnipeg, Östen Rice; from the Saskatchewan Radisson Plaza in Regina, Milton Rebello; from the Riverside Country Club in Saskatoon, Darren Craddock; from Wildflower Grill in Edmonton, Nathin Bye (who competed in the CCC once before); from Crazyweed Kitchen in Canmore, our Calgary champion, Eden Hrabec (who also competed at the CCC before, as sous chef to her mother, Jan Hrabec); and finally the victor of the Vancouver GMP, a chef from right here in Kelowna at the Waterfront Restaurant & Wine Bar, Mark Filatow.
It seemed a strong list going in to the competition and the judges, each one a Gold Medal Plates Senior Judge, convened from sea to shining sea, had plenty to say about their local star. Here is the posse of überpalates who joined me on the panel. From St. John’s, Newfoundland, KARL WELLS, broadcaster, food columnist for The Telegram, host of his own tv show, One Chef One Critic. From Montreal, ROBERT BEAUCHEMIN, food writer for La Presse, culinary author, anthropologist, college professor… From Ottawa, ANNE DESBRISAY, restaurant critic, author and broadcaster. From Toronto, SASHA CHAPMAN, award-winning food columnist and food writer, currently an editor with The Walrus. From Winnipeg, JEFF GILL, professional chef, culinary arts instructor at Red River College, avid snowmobiler and Liverpool supporter (yes, we Chelsea fans forgive him). From Saskatchewan, CJ KATZ, award-winning cookbook author, tv and radio host and publisher of Savour Life magazine, and our senior judge in both Regina and Saskatoon. From Edmonton, MARY BAILEY is a wine, food and travel writer, a certified sommelier and wine instructor, publisher of The Tomato (www.thetomato.ca) online and the founder of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium. From Calgary, JOHN GILCHRIST, teacher and author and restaurant columnist for the Calgary Herald. From Kelowna, PERRY BENTLEY, Instructor in Baking and Pastry Arts right here at Okanagan College. From Vancouver, SID CROSS is the wine and food guru for Western Living magazine and is a world-renowned wine and food judge. And also from Vancouver, ANDREW MORRISON is a writer, a teacher, a restaurant critic and the editor of Scout Magazine. He is also our Culinary Referee and the man responsible for enforcing the rules throughout the weekend.
THE WINE MATCHING CHALLENGE
This is the first of our contests. At the end of our Thursday night reception we gave each chef a bottle of unmarked mystery wine and 24 hours to come up with a recipe that perfectly matched the wine. The catch? They had to cook for 400 people and they had only $500 to spend. Their students were very helpful here, full of advice about local stores and suppliers – the best butchers and grocers and farmers.
The wine was the last of Norman Hardie’s 2010 County Pinot Noir from Prince Edward County, Ontario, a lovely Pinot from a warm year that had richness and depth, cherry fruit and subtle spice. The ripe vintage confused some of the chefs who read it as an Okanagan wine but the underlying minerality was unmistakable for those of us who have followed Norm’s Pinots from the beginning.
On Friday evening, we all gathered at the Eldorado hotel (see view above). My friends from Van Houtte coffee were there with a great little kiosk and a range of rich brews. The 400 guests moved from chef’s station to chef’s station, tasting the mystery wine alongside each dish. We judges sat in our own comfortable salon and the dishes were brought to us. Brian Chambers was our official photographer and took these beautiful shots.
Here’s what we tasted:
Milton Rebello spent most of his allowance on local ducks (a classic Pinot Noir match). He used the total bird, making a layered terrine of juicy, coarsely chopped duck and chicken thigh confit (a tad too subtle for the wine), and slicing the perfectly seared breast then dabbing it with a ginger and orange marmalade that suited the Pinot to a T. He used the duck bones to make a broth then turned it into pudding with gelatin, setting it over tissue-thin shaved beet carpaccio. A crisp raspberry-strawbery tuille stood vertically on the plate with radish seedlings clinging to it like climbers on a Matterhorn.
Mark Filatow presented next (the order was randomly chosen). He introduced his dish by citing his Ukrainian heritage and then set down a dainty plate consisting of a delicate pierogy stuffed with bacon, potato, leek, sour cream and onion and a piece of wonderful pork-and-garlic sausage with the texture of meatloaf. The sausage sat in a tablespoonful of borscht jus and around the plate were many elfin moments of texture and flavour from crispy shallot rings, jellied sauerkraut, crunchy bubbles of pork fat, crumbs of horseradish-flavoured rye bread and a tiny ziggurat of shaved cucumber. My only doubt about the dish was a single shimiji mushroom, tartly pickled, that I felt was too much for the wine but the overall effect of the dish was spectacular.
Eden Hrabec brought her creation to us next. She had braised pork bellies to perfection with Korean spices, red pepper paste, garlic, ginger and black pepper, then reducing the liquid to a sticky, sweet-spicy sauce. She served her lusciously tender meat over juicy napa cabbage and topped it with a cracker of puffed rice and sesame and a teaspoonful of pickled mustard seeds. The intention was to contrast with the fruit and acidity of the wine and it worked well – again I felt there was an imbalance with the sesame – but what a great dish!
Daren Bergeron was our fourth competitor, using albacore tuna as his protein. “My star is the sauce,” he told us, but his protein was also remarkable – albacore tuna that he cooked old-school, caking it in salt then carbonizing it over an open flame, cracking off the salt and rinsing it, then cutting a thick slice for every plate. The effect was to double the flavour of the nearly raw fish and to add a smokiness that worked well with the wine. Daikon, carrot and brussels sprouts petals were his vegetables, topped with tiny crunchy quinoa kernels and a confit of ginger. And that sauce – a reduction of fish stock made with ling cod, clam juice, ginger, lemongrass and red wine – was indeed stellar.
In fifth location was Nathin Bye. “It’s a torchon of ‘faux’ gras,” he explained, in other words an intense chicken liver terrine made with tawny port, some of the mystery red wine and smoked bacon, cooked sous vide and crusted with powdered cherries and pistachios. He made a pesto arugula, spinach and olive oil and topped the torchon with a strip of bitter arugula jelly. To match the earthiness he found in the wine, he baked flat, rectangular sage crackers. The judges loved the forthright flavour of the terrine but some felt it changed the character of the Pinot.
Our sixth competitor was Shaun Hussey who brought out a dish that looked to me like a classic British toad in the Hole. Shaun had made his own “hot dogs” that morning – 700 of them – coarse sausages of pork butt – partially wrapped in toasted potato-bread bun. There was smoked mushroom ketchup enriched with caramelized onions, sugar and vinegar, as well as an apricot relish and a mound of pickled mustard seeds. A mound of salad leaves dressed with truffle oil sought out the earthy mushroomy elements in the wine.
Darren Craddock came next. He worked with fish, poaching ling cod in a court bouillon of white wine, lemon, butter and herbs topped with deep-fried crispy beets and a sprinkling of smoked salt. A second protein was a faux scallop made from a mousseline of the ling cod trimmings, crusted with toasted hemp hearts. Pancetta and shiitake added oomph to a sweet potato mash and beet reappeared arm-in-arm with cherries and turned into a tangy jam. Generously seasoned, it was a good match with the wine.
Jamie Stunt opted for a lamb tartare, using mildly-flavoured Abbotsford lamb. He ground some cuts, seared and hand-cut another, then stirred the meat with roasted beets. Toasted pistachios and black radish were other components, alongside deep fried threads of sweet potato for crunch. For richness, he smade a smoked turkey mayonnaise which perfected the balance between the dish and the wine – a most impressive effort.
Marc St. Jacques’s dish was the most delicate of the evening. He wrapped enoki mushrooms in a ribbon of striploin beef with basil and green onion – it looked like an exotic plant from a book by Dr. Seuss. Then he set it in a thin beet broth – sweet, deep pink and peppery – and suggested we wipe the beef-mushroom roll in the broth before we tasted it. I found the wine match one of the most successful of the night.
Our final competitor was Östen Rice. He sought inspiration in a great Pinot Noir dish – boeuf Bourgignon – but gave it a lightweight Asian twist, using Indonesian long pepper to crust his beef striploin. He used tangy red onion for acidity and made a cherry and Pinot Noir reduction as a sauce, then he assembled a sort of mille-feuille of potato and shiitake and finished everything by pouring on a delectably intense but weightless broth made from beef bones, soy, 12-year-old white balsamic, shiitake and star anise. Another terrific dish.
To summarize, the judges felt that the chefs all analyzed the wine well, using their palates and recognizing earthiness, cherry fruit, an impression of mushroom… Presentations were delightful – dainty with a sharp awareness of colour. But several dishes sabotaged themselves with food flavours and characteristics that jarred – pickled elements in particular. And a couple of dishes seemed pre-conceived, as if they had been planned before this precise wine was tasted – delicious and complete on the plate but better suited to a big tangy white wine or a sake or even bourbon…
In the end we felt that no one took the ball and ran with it. There was a pack of five or six chefs who were jostling for position and still in strong contention going into the next contest, with Mark Filatow leading the way. The people, however, made their favourite known – Eden Hrabec’s Korean-style pork belly wowed the crowd – and indeed, it was a dish all the judges agreed they could have gone on eating all night long.
THE BLACK BOX COMPETITION
It gets better every year! And because we keep increasing the number of competitors at the CCC, it starts earlier, too. Judges and chefs were up with the lark, waiting for the coaches outside the hotel in the mild grey light of a Kelowna dawn. Some judges decided to walk to Okanagan College and the test kitchens where this event takes place. They reached the event about three minutes before it began. No harm done…
The first half of the audience was already there, some 100 people, sipping Van Houtte coffee and My Tea Blending Room tea. The College students had set up omelette stations to keep the crowd happy since only the judges get to taste the food this morning. As the day went on, rack of lamb and shrimp were provided… We have come a long way since the early years of this competition when guests got nothing but water!
Here’s what we chose to put into the Black Box this year, a selection of six ingredients that we hoped would offer the chefs lots of options and lots of challenges.
Judge Sasha Chapman chose the grain – red fife wheat flour from K2 Milling in Ontario. I chose the fish – Northern Divine’s wonderful, organic, sustainable, farmed sturgeon caviar from Target Marine Hatcheries in Sechelt, B.C., very generously donated by Northern Divine. Perry Bentley chose the dairy component – a strongly flavoured, firm goat gruyère from Carmelis Artisanal Dairy in the Okanagan that tasted like pecorino. Sid Cross found the vegetable – bittersweet black kale, aka Tuscan kale or Dinosaur kale. Andrew Morrison selected the fruit – heritage Anjou pears from Hazeldell Orchards, a stone’s throw from Okanagan College. And Mary Bailey procured the meat – the bone-in shoulder and neck of Edmonton Katahdin lamb raised by Shayne and Vicky Horn at Tangle Ridge farm, deliberately difficult cuts that would require some butchering skills and a good long time to cook. Time they did not have…
Each chef had to create two dishes, using all the ingredients in one or other of them, along with anything they wanted from a basic pantry of other ingredients. They would be docked marks for failing to use them all or for over-running their 60-minute time frame by even a few seconds. The crowd leaned in to watch as the first chef opened his box. Leaving Andrew Morrison behind as colour-commentator for the crowd for the next five hours, the judges moseyed off to their sequestered lair and the contest began.
Darren Craddock was first out of the box. He made a blanquette out of the neck and served it with a nicely seasoned fondant potato, a carrot purée and a delicious mustard jus. A fresh pear and herb compote was a pleasing garnish. His second dish starred a cookie made from the flour (its strong buckwheat-like flavour would become a theme of the morning) and the cheese. Chef used it as the crowning glory over roast lamb shoulder (great flavour, not so tender), wilted kale and spinach and a clever vinaigrette sauce of chopped tomato, herbs and caviar.
Jamie Stunt, who had performed well the night before, kept his standards high. He used the red fife flour and gruyere to make a bannock, icing and microplaning the cheese to diminish its pungency a little. He whipped cream from the pantry with lemon zest and salt and put a dab on the bannock, topped with the caviar. Crispy thyme leaves and a sliver of pickled onion finished his first dish. For his second, he stewed both cuts of lamb, using the gnarly bits and the bones to make a wine-enriched stock that became the gravy. He marinated the kale in garlic and lemon juice and seared it in a very hot pan, then cooled the dish down with a slice of tangy pickled pear. Crispy onions were sprinkled o’er.
Nathin Bye went third. He made a stew out of the lamb neck, thickening it with red fife flour and sweetening the stock with carrot and potato. A sweet-tart pear and onion relish was spooned on top, in turn surmounted by a crisp kale leaf and a little of the caviar. Kale featured in his second dish, too,braised with a creamy cheese sauce that used the gruyere with white wine, garlic and shallots. All this served as the accompanying vegetables for medallions of the lamb shoulder, served very rare and almost tender. Chef had dusted the lamb with red fife flour, mustard and brown sugar and baked it over ginger to add a subtle nuance. He finished the idea with a tomato and lemon zest concassé.
So far so good. The judges were beginning to realize that making the lamb tender was probably the chef’s biggest challenge. We were still waiting to see the flour used in more imaginative ways.
Marc St. Jacques’s name was drawn next. His first dish had a noticeable elegance and sophistication – a beautifully white-and-green stack of finely sliced pear, like a mille feuille, dotted with lemon zest and olive oil and showing a hint of ginger. He had softened more of the pear and chopped it into a brunoise to mix with the caviar and more lemon and olive oil as a sort of vinaigrette around the plate. Dainty celery leaves provided a grace note of bitterness. His second dish starred the roasted lamb shoulder – tender enough to pass muster and set over a salad of chopped raw kale. On top was a kale stem, stripped and sautéed but still crunchy, and chef had steeped the cheese in cream to make a surprisingly subtle sauce. He used the lamb necks to make a reduced jus. But where was the red fife flour? He used it to make a batter to coat a deep-fried ring of shallot and set it on the top of the lamb. Bingo…
Milton Rebello was next and when we had tasted them both, the judges agreed that one was great and one was not. The great one may have been the dish of the day – a supple tagine of the lamb meat (beautifully butchered and cleaned) with tomato, onion and pear. The kale was there as a crispy chip and a swipe of bright green in the foreground turned out to be mint-and-cilantro oil, unexpectedly sweet and great with the lamb. Also on the plate was a really delicious fritter of mashed potato and caviar, its surface crispy, its heart delicately fishy… So yummy! The second dish was cleverly conceived. Chef made a soft, pliant paratha out of the flour. He lined it with a thin but firm cheese omelette then cooked up the lamb shoulder, searing it with ginger and garlic and rolled the paratha around the meat, dressing it with a super pear chutney. Somehow the dish didn’t quite work, ending up uncharacteristically bland. Next year we will add more interesting spices to the pantry!
Östen Rice found a smart solution to the toughness of the lamb neck, turning it into a sausage with garlic, thyme, panko crumbs, brown sugar and a touch of soy. He braised the kale in the oven, made a subtle roasted garlic and red wine gastrique as a sauce and added a separate mound of herbed and toasted panko crumbs for textural contrast. The lamb shoulder shared the plate, marinated and seared and the bones and trimmings had been turned into a rich jus. A julienne of gingered pear was a tart condiment. Chef’s second dish was a tart tatin of sliced pear, and caramelized sauce on a gruyere shortbread base, all surrounded by caviar in a sweet vinaigrette. “Think of it as a cheese and fruit plate,” said Östen.
Then it was Shaun Hussey’s turn. He roasted the lamb shoulder, sliced it and served it and, lo and behold, it was tender! Crunchy soft braised kale and onions lay alongside, an interesting compote of caviar and pear. The meat was sauced with a reduction of lamb neck, red wine and “loads of butter.” The second plate was a stew of the lamb neck, tasty and sweet, served over a thick, flavourful pancake of red fife and gruyere., A salsa of tomato, onion and mint brought everything to life.
What would Eden Hrabec make of it all? Her two dishes were wildly different. One made good use of baby spinach leaves from the pantry, turning them into a salad strewn with grains of caviar in a tart lemon dressing. Shaved gruyere was judiciously used (it is a very strong cheese) and hiding under the leaves were warm spaetzle made with the red fife flour. Poached pear worked beautifully with the rest of the ingredients. Her second dish was visually stunning – pan-seared lamb shoulder with salty wilted kale set over an exemplary potato rösti. The whole thing was smothered in a colourful, pungent chimichurri of tomato, onion, garlic and herbs. Delightful!
And now Daren Bergeron – always intelligent, always thinking outside the box. He had hand-chopped the lamb as a way of counteracting its toughness and turned it into a kefta, stirring the meat with raw egg, mint, onion, garlic and some of the flour then frying it in oil. A caramelized onion purée acted a sauce for this rissole; the pear was there, poached in white wine, and the goat cheese too, shaved like snowflakes where needed. He had chopped the raw kale as a salad and dressed it carefully. To finish his plating he added a component designed to add richness to the kefta and generally distract attention – a perfectly poached egg deep-fried in panko crumbs. When our knifes cut into it, the yolk flooded out like another sauce. Chef had used almost all the ingredients in one dish. His second offering was a model of simplicity. A very simple red fife blini fried in beurre noisette and topped with caviar and a streak of bitter lemon purée.
And so to our final competitor, Mark Filatow. He too made a teeny red fife pancake (the most perfect of the day) using egg white and cilantro for flavour. He topped it with the caviar and then set four small dice of marinated pear as a point beneath the circle. “This dish is all about the sauces,” he told us – and what sauces they were. One was a rich lemon-ginger aioli, the other a raw egg yolk cured and coloured with soy. Chef’s second dish used the two cuts of lamb. The neck became a tasty “bolognese” cut as small as a knife allowed and sweetened with onion and carrot. Lemony braised kale lay alongside and the piece de resistance was a crisp cylinder of fried potato filled with mashed potato mixed with enough of the gruyere to register. The one drawback of the dish was in the treatment of the lamb shoulder, roasted slightly but still virtually raw and too tough to cut with a knife.We had challenged the chefs and they responded so impressively! But then Andrew Morrison came in from the kitchen with news that four of our champions had incurred time penalties – one of them by less than 30 seconds (he lost 5% of his marks), two by less than a minute (each lost 10%) and one by a full four minutes which incurred the maximum 20-percent deduction and effectively (such is the standard of perfection at this level of competition) took away any chance of a podium finish.
The Black Box is all about accuracy and time and coping with pressure. Positions had changed somewhat since the morning began – Mark Filatow rejoining the pack, Marc St. Jacques now edging ahead… Time for the judges to retreat to our hotel, crunch the scores, discuss past, present and future and get ready for the Grand Finale.
THE GRAND FINALE
On Saturday night – just a few hours after the stress and rigours of the Black Box – the chefs set up their stations in the stately Delta Grand hotel and each one presented his or her signature dish to a crowd of 700 guests. It was a very glittering affair, with Alan Doyle and Barney Bentall, Kendel Carson and Cory tetford performing great music from the stage, Adam Van Koeverden MCing and presenting a host of Olympic athletes, and a live auction of GMP trips to Tuscany, the Adriatic, South Africa, Chile and other glamorous locations.
We judges, however, had work to do.
The first plate that reached us in our secret, windowless lair was from Marc St. Jacques. He had created a terrine of foie gras, its texture somewhere between a torchon and a mousse, and set it on a thin black layer of black sesame financier. On top was an equally thin layer of clear, golden white soy gelee, sharpened with mirin and Meyer lemon juice. Those lemons informed the rest of the components of this deceptively simple dish, as dots of intensely flavourful roasted lemon curd, and as morsels of fresh lemon flesh (secretly dusted with sugar to mitigate the tartness a tad). Tiny bubbles of tempura batter held black sesame seeds for moments of crunch and fattiness and the finishing notion were minuscule squares of shiso leaf. St. Jacques had given us five perfectly harmonious flavours, a range of textures, impeccably elegant technique and a good match with his chosen wine, Peller Estates sparkling Ice Cuvée from Niagara, Ontario.
Next up was Östen Rice. His dish had a personal narrative, inspired by the gravlax his Scandinavian grandmother used to cure but given a Japanese twist to reflect the style of his restaurant – call it Scandinasian cuisine. Instead of salmon, he worked with escolar, curing the super-soft, almost creamy raw fish with beet juice, honey and sea salt that stained a vermilion rim around each slice. Contrasting the texture, he gave us a fresh, crunchy, sweet-tart slaw of julienned Fuji apple and golden beet tossed with a chiffonade of shiso leaf. There was more shiso flavour (and more subtle crunch) in the compressed cucumber pieces on the other side of the plate while a scrumptious taro crisp with a hole punched out of its middle stood tall in a tiny hill of orange-coloured tobiko roe bound with a beautifully judged wasabi mayonnaise. It was going to take a wine of character to stand up to all those sweet-sour elements but chef found one in the 2010 Gewurztraminer from Gray Monk in B.C., a delicious Gewurz’ with the acidity and the lush weight to perfectly balance the dish.
Nathin Bye was up next with a dish he called “Breakfast for Dinner,” each of its many components based upon sensations he found in his complex wine of choice, the 2010 Chardonnay from Tantalus Vineyards in the Okanagan. There was plenty on the plate, but the intricate knot of textural and flavour harmonies provided unexpected unity, all within a loose interpretation of breakfast. Where to begin…? With an ornamental spoon that held a creamy bircher meusli of rolled oats, apple and quinoa, garnished with a tiny marshmallow, a miniature grapefruit jelly, a sun-cured blackberry and a half-inch-high tuile shaped like the 2012 Olympic symbol. A quail egg fried sunny-side-up, its yolk still runny, sat on a plinth of potato, golden beet and cheese pavé which served as the substantial point of reference for many of the dish’s more ethereal elements. There was a mushroom pop tart made with dried, powdered mushrooms but the centrepiece of the whole affair was a maple syrup and bacon-infused panna cotta, coloured bright green with evaporated parsley dust. The panna cotta contained a surprise – a meaty heart of Texas-barbecue-style pulled pork paté that matched a delicate vertical ribbon of crispy triple-cured speck. There were two sauces on the plate – a swoop of cheese fondue and a thin, very pungent line of hickory-smoked barbecue sauce.
Onwards with Shaun Hussey. Two major proteins shared the limelight on his plate, one a medallion of salt cod wrapped like a tight drum in crispy shoelaces of fried potato. Beneath it lay softly braised spinach and on top was a yummy smoked apple relish. The other protein was a a miniature timbale of ham hock that chef had brined for five days, braised for four hours and served with a little cap of unctuous fat. Circling all this at a distance was a sauce of chopped apple in an apple cider brown butter, equally good with either of the two elements and more than amicable next to a smmartly chosen wine, the lightly oaked 2010 Sketches Chardonnay from Tawse, in Niagara.
Eden Hrabec had delighted the judges all weekend and her finale dish, substantial, risky, subtle and clever, did not disappoint. She chose sweetbreads as her protein and prepared them immaculately, serving a big lobe that was piping hot, perfectly timed and finished in a brown butter sauce spiked with garam masala spices. Beside it was an almost-bubble-and-squeak of smashed baby potatoes and wilted spinach lit up by coriander seed. A sauce of puréed apricots with more delicate masala spices had just enough spicy heat to slip from the sweet to the savoury side of the spectrum and a brunoise of preserved lemon had a sudden pickle-like intensity that brought everything to life. The final touch was a “papadom” that was actually made from crispy chicken skin flecked with black pepper. Eden chose an accompanying wine that is a particular favourite of mine – the Alsatian-style 2011 Noble Blend White from Joie Farms in B.C., its weight just what the dish needed.
Daren Bergeron had decorated his station with an extra gift that he gave away to the dinner guests – cans of his own chowder or chili from his “grocery store” Fou d’Ici, specially labelled for the evening. It was a typically generous gesture that thrilled the crowd. His dish was an adventurously abstract reinterpretation of vitello tonnato. On the left of the plate, a slice of perfect veal tenderloin was crowned with chopped eel in a sticky, pungent barbecue sauce flavoured with onion and Asian pears. On the right, a drum of white tuna, barely seared but enough to turn the surface white, stood on a delicate mat of tofu. Its topping was a spoonful of salty salmon trout roe. The two proteins were decorated by a hank of glistening golden filaments – threads of calamari jerky in a sweet-and-sour glaze. The sprouts and seedlings of various pulses added some earthy flavours and Chef finished the dish by flooding each bowl with a clear dashi broth powerfully infused with daikon. A final detail was the dab of fiery English mustard high on the rim of the bowl – there if needed for the veal. Another complex dish but the wine match was very successful – the light-bodied, gently fruity 2011 Gamay from Malivoire in Niagara, Ontario.
News that Jamie Stunt was cooking yak ensured a long line-up at his station. We were spared the wait. The yak came from Tiraislin Farms near Lanark – slices of perfectly lean striploin pan-seared to leave its crimson, almost ostrich-like character intact. Chef collaborated with Ashton Brewing Company in Ottawa to create a unique beer to match his dish – a beautifully balanced brew flavoured with Lemongrass and kaffir lime, and many of the elements strewn around the dish paid homage to the beer. Here we found a dab of tamari sauce made with the beer’s sweet barley wort; there a barley miso mayo to use as a sauce. There was barley malt in the smoked boar vinaigrette that softened the crispy barley strewn around the plate. Delicate pioppino mushrooms were a final garnish – lovely with the seafood surprise of a mussel shell filled with Northern Divine caviar (coincidentally, the very product we had included in the black box that morning), egg white and yolk and a tangy beer vinaigrette. It was a clever, original and flawlessly executed plate.
Our last three dishes featured lamb and first up was Milton Rebello, who brought Indian spicing to his dish with great effect. He began with a perfect pink chop off the rack, the tender meat full of flavour from time spent in a ginger marinade, enhanced by a crust of mustard and crumbled pistachio. Beneath the chop we found a streak of minted pea purée and beside it a soft-textured corn and potato hash cooked in the lamb juices. On the other side of the plate, Chef set a sweet lentil tuile biscuit shaped like a curling maple leaf and dotted with a single lentil. In the leaf lay a ball of soft, mild goat cheese crusted with a powder formed from vegetables cooked with South Asian spices garnished with a refreshing pear chutney. The final touch was a stripe of tangy, pungent sauce made from ginger-infused cherry port. The wine match was most effective, See Ya Later Ranch’s 2010 Pinot Noir flattering the lamb but sturdy enough to stand up to the sauce and the chutney.
Mark Filatow worked with the charcoal-grilled loins of lambs from local farm, Bar ‘M’ Ranch, keeping the meat pink and juicy. Close by on the plate was a thick chunk of soft, juicy merguez sausage made from the lamb’s shoulder and the neck meat cooked sous vide in chef’s chosen wine. The third component was a dainty lozenge of lamb belly braised with a subtle touch of Moroccan spices. We had a piece of roasted thumbelina carrot and a tiny “doughnut” of deep-fried mashed potato the size of Cleopatra’s pearl and a little fennel relish to cut the richness. No sauce was needed, the meats being so moist and intricately spiced but moisture came from stripes of carrot puréed with yoghurt and honey. Chef’s wine was another remarkably accurate match – the 2010 Syrah from Orofino’s Scout vineyard in B.C.’s Similkameen Valley.
Darren Craddock also cooked lamb loin, preparing it sous vide with a hint of garlic and setting a little drum of it on the plate. He braised the shoulder and used the forked meat in a stiff croquette with truffles, chanterelles and mashed potatoes and parsnips, the ball crusted with hemp seed, pumpkin seed and sesame breadcrumbs. Moist and rich within, it was a show-stealer. Frisée dressed with cold-pressed camolina oil offered a bittersweet, leafy moment while a broad swathe of celeriac soubise sweetened with onion and cream was another moment of richness. A drizzle of green fennel oil decorated the plate while a column of compressed golden beet provided a cool, rooty sweetness of its own. A minted green pea foam worked predictably well with the lamb. A classic lamb jus reduction sauced the meat and the final garnish was a lateral slice of tomato, roasted to a crisp and so delicate it melted on the tongue, spiked with a crumble of pungent goat cheddar. Chef’s wine was the 2011 Kay-Syrah from B.C.’s Dirty Laundry winery.
So there we judges were – very well fed and thoroughly impressed by all the competitors. It was time to crunch the numbers and as I entered each judge’s scores for each dish it became apparent that this would be a very close call for bronze and silver, with five chefs within a couple of percentage points. Now marks lost on Friday or gained on Saturday morning meant the difference between a place on the podium or staying at the chefs’ table in the auditorium. Still leading the pack, however, was a clear winner with the gold medal in his sights.
The bronze medal went to Milton Rebello of the Saskatchewan Radisson Plaza hotel in Regina.
The silver medal went to Jamie Stunt of Oz Kafe in Ottawa.
The gold medallist and new Canadian Culinary Champion is Marc St. Jacques of Auberge du Pommier in Toronto.
Our sincere congratulations to him and his team and to all the chefs, sous chefs and student chefs who thrilled us over this mild weekend in Kelowna.