Winter finally caught up with us in Saskatoon… A sky of cloud-blurred sunshine like a Turner painting but snow on the ground and a cold breeze stirring the surface of the river. But nothing could deter the amazing crowd of 500 who showed up at Prairieland at dusk to revel in the party atmosphere, rocking it up and dancing in front of the tables to the brilliant music of Jim Cuddy, Danny Michel and (hip hooray) the incomparable Anne Lindsay on violin. Michelle Cameron Coulter (Olympic gold medalist in synchronized swimming) was our eloquent MC and Olympic diver Marie-Éve Marleau interviewed a score of other Olympians on the stage. Bidding was delightfully enthusiastic during the auction and the party continued late with a local glam-rock band channelling a vibe I haven’t seen since the early ’80s.
On the culinary side, each of the ten competing chefs brought their A-game, raising the bar for Saskatoon yet again. Discernible themes emerged from several of them – an affection for the superb local bison and for clever interpretations of First Nations food. It was a difficult task for the judges to decide between the best four or five dishes. Our Saskatoon judging panel is now led by Senior Judge, author and food writer Amy Jo Ehman, joined by writer and blogger at amazoninthekitchen.com Noele Chorney, restaurateur and all-round gastronome Janis Hutton, pastry chef, journalist and blogger at sweetsugarbean Renee Kohlman, poet, chef-restaurateur turned author and culinary activist dee Hobsbawn-Smith, and last year’s Gold Medal Winner, Chef Trevor Robertson. When the discussion ended we were all very happy with our conclusions.
We awarded the bronze medal to chef Simon Reynolds of Simon’s Fine Foods who created an umame-bomb of a dish based upon superb Canadian lamb. He presented two little drums of the sirloin, cooked sous vide with thyme and a hint of truffle and topped each one with a finely minced tapenade of green olive and anchovy. Beside them he set a miniature spring roll with the lightest and crispest of wrappers, filled with moist, rich pulled meat from the shoulder. A smooth carrot and fennel purée lay beneath the sirloin and he added a sweet prune compote as a condiment. Perfectly textured haricot beans were a nice, earthy touch, paddling in a suave lamb jus and half a dozen crisp fried capers brought yet another flavour to the plate. All the elements worked beautifully together, producing innumerable permutations of flavour and texture. Chef’s wine was the marvellous 2011 Cabernet Franc from Lailey Vineyard in Niagara, a Cab that successfully bridged the divide between the fruit and the olives.
The silver medal went to chef Daren Craddock of Riverside Country Club, our gold medalist in 2012. He gave us a generous tranche of bison striploin, letting the meat speak simply for itself then used the tongue and cheek to create a dazzling terrine that fell apart at the touch of the fork, revealing a heart of foie gras as rich and firm as butter. Over this he scattered a crumble made of dried wild blueberry pemmican with some puffed wild rice for crunch. Two sauces were paragons of intense but lucid flavour. A green dandelion purée spoke of the wild prairies while the smoked corn emulsion was so good I could have eaten jars of it. Chef’s sauce was a reduction of the bison’s jus spiked with wild blueberry vinegar and a foie gras poivrade. His wine was the deep, dry, sophisticated 2011 Merlot from Dirty Laundry Vineyard in Summerland, B.C.
And the gold? Standing on the top of the podium when all was said and done was chef Christopher Hill from the Delta Bessborough hotel. He described his dish as a reflection of his Saskatchewan childhood, using “humble ingredients,” but there was nothing humble about the visual elegance of his presentation. He cooked lamb sirloin sous vide to the point of tenderness and created a “pliable sausage” from other parts of the animal, rolling it out until it was as thin as a fruit leather and cutting it into dainty ribbons. Tucked between the meats was a tiny carrot and some slices of ruby radish. Two green moments of pea purée made their own contribution while more peas had been transformed into a shard of pea wafer that rose like a dorsal fin from the structure. Chef’s sauce was a lamb jus sweetened with a sour cherry reduction and there was a spoonful of pickled mustard seed to provide tangy contrast. Microgreens (celery and radish sprouts) and bright yellow mustard flowers were the finishing garnish. The wine match was impeccable – the lamb and cherry flavours linking arms with the soft tannins and blackberry-cassis flavours of the 2012 McWatters Collection Meritage from the Okanagan.
So now we are more than halfway through the campaign and the line-up of chefs who will be heading west to Kelowna in February is a roster of formidable talent. Next week, Toronto and St. John’s!