What an excellent evening in St. John’s! While the Conference Centre is under construction, we availed ourselves of the Delta hotel’s ballrooms, packing a typically hospitable, great-hearted and energetic crowd of almost 400 into the space. It was a super event, with the great Ron Maclean as MC (is there anything he doesn’t know about sports and Canada’s athletes?) and rocking music from Jim Cuddy, Neil Osborne, Anne Lindsay and Ed Robertson (who later went down to Water Street and thrilled a local cover band by playing with them for half a set). The chefs were all pumped and eager and their dishes delighted the judges – St. John’s Senior Judge, author, journalist and broadcaster Karl Wells; chef and educator Bob Arniel of Chef to Go (who cooked me an absolutely dazzling birthday lunch before the competition); food writer and blogger for the Independent, Nicholas Gardner; gastronome and food columnist with The Telegram, Cynthia Stone; home economist and international trade professional, Deborah Youden; chef, caterer and restaurant critic, Peter Gard; and last year’s gold-medal-winning chef, Roger Andrews. It turned out to be an enthralling contest, with all judges agreeing on the top three chefs, though in various permutations of order. In the end, the final conclusion satisfied us all completely.
We gave the bronze medal to Shaun Hussey of Chinched, who won the gold a couple of years ago. Last night he gave us a tremendous dish that he called “An Unlikely Trio of Pork with Seasonal Flavours.” It starred parts of a local sucking pig, beginning with a thick slice of corned and smoked tongue – the tenderest tongue some of the judges had ever eaten. Running close to it in terms of divine textures was a thickly cut slice of lean bacon with a forthright smokiness; but eclisping both these treats was a round of tender trotter stuffed with spongey boudin blanc. The technical tour de force continued with crispy little “chips” of deep-fried ear, scented with truffle, and an unctuous pork bone reduction. It was a night for puréed root vegetables and Chef Hussey gave us a silky parsnip version, strewn with micro-planed truffles, creating an aromatic atmosphere that seemed to hover over the plate. For acidity, he brought in marshberries, a local berry that looks like a blueish cranberry and tastes very similar. Some had been turned into a purée and with that chef painted a broad purple stripe across the plate; others had been deliberately picked in a tart, unripe state and were included whole for a jab of tanginess among all the other smooth, rich flavours. The final touches were a trickle of green parsley oil and a spoonful of a thick apricot and orange marmalade that worked well with the pork and with Chef’s chosen wine, a complex, intense 2011 Merlot called La Droite from Rollingdale Winery in West Kelowna, B.C., that also reached out to the parsnip on the plate.
Chris Chafe of The Doctor’s House Inn and Spa won our silver medal. About an hour from St. John’s, this property includes 100 acres of gardens and trails that provided the inspiration for Chef’s dish. “We started with apples from the property and berries from Trinity Bay,” he explained, “then thought of a way of showing them off.” The answer was a medley of duck charcuterie, each element beautifully seasoned and texturally distinct. At the top of the plate was a duck liver paté with the texture of a stiff mousseline and a suave, not-too-funky flavour, topped with a little walnut granola and a tiny amount of an intense raspberry compote. Rich moist rillettes of the duck leg were scented with fresh thyme, rolled into a ball and deep-fried to perfect crispness. A ribbon of ethereal duck breast prosciutto was draped over a firm seed-crisp cracker (there were a couple more of these useful and delicious biscuits for eating the paté, too) and a mound of apple-poached mustard seeds were available for spicing things up. The berries were present in various guises – as a partridgeberry paint on the plate or a bakeapple gastrique, and as colourful dots of various coulis – while the tissue-thin slices of lightly pickled apple threatened to steal the entire show. Chef’s wine was the fruity, mellow 2012 Pinot Noir from Meyer Family Vineyards in the Okanagan.
Mark McCrowe won the gold medal, to the great delight of the crowd and of his fellow chefs. Chef McCrowe has competed every year in St. John’s and has reached the podium before, but this is his first gold medal. His dish was quintessentially, delectably Newfoundland – “Moose and Juice,” he called it – and as the plates were brought in to the judges (we worked in camera last night) chef followed with a hand-held smokemaker that spread a haze of pine into the room. On the plate, the central protein was a pink and tender slice of charcoal-grilled moose loin sprinkled with a sugestion of chanterelle dust. Chef had braised and pulled the shank into a dark, rich ragout which he set on a thick pillar of “Nan’s” lightly toasted white yeast bread. The bread soaked up some of the meaty juices in a most engaging way! Because the moose meat was so lean, he also involved some fatback scrunchions (like tiny lardons of salted pork belly) to round out taste and texture. Vegetables reflected time and place perfectly – roasted roots with deep, sweet, earthy flavours, and a delicate turnip purée. Whole pickled blueberries and partridgeberries lurked about the plate, bursting into tangy juice in one’s mouth; garnishes included a moment of bakeapple syrup and a hank of crispy caribou moss for texture. And then there was the “Juice” – actually the moose jus, profound but not overly reduced, scented with the low-growing local shrub known as Labrador tea. Chef’s choice of wine was inspired, picking up the berry and vegetable components of the dish without threatening to overwhelm the subtle meat: the rarely seen 2013 Zweigelt from Norman Hardie’s Winery in Prince Edward County, Ontario.
Congratulations to Chef McCrowe and to all the chefs who performed so brilliantly here. No doubt about it, St. John’s is one of the gastronomic hubs of Canada these days! Only two more parties to go. Ottawa-Gatineau, here we come!
And now, here is the Wine Report – St. John’s, penned by Senior Judge Karl Wells who announced the winning wines from the stage in David Lawrason’s absence.
Rollingdale Rolls to Victory
The outstanding 2011 Merlot “La Droite” by Rollingdale Winery of West Kelowna, BC has scored a victory as Best of Show Wine at Gold Medal Plates St. John’s 2014. Merlot “La Droite” is a full bodied blend of late harvested Merlot from the south Okanagan, slightly younger Merlot from the Similkameen and a small amount of Black Sage Rd. Cabernet Sauvignon. It made a delicious pairing with Chinched Bistro Chef Shaun Hussey’s Bronze winning plate of suckling pig charcuterie.
First Runner-Up Award at the St. John’s event went to the 2010 Red Paw Pinot Noir from Coyote’s Run Estate Winery of Ontario. The popular cherry scented Pinot Noir has been the St. John’s first runner up for two years in a row.
Second Runner-Up Award went to the smartly balanced 2010 Pinot Noir from Meyer Family Vineyards, BC.
The Best of Show Wine judging takes place in all Gold Medal Plates cities and is meant to recognize and salute the generosity of the 60 plus wineries in Canada that donate wine to Gold Medal Plates.
Our St. John’s event wines were judged this year by an outstanding group of individuals. Tom Beckett of Beckett on Wine is a wine educator, Steve Delaney is the Telegram’s wine critic and member of the board of the Opimium Society, and Andrew Facey is a sommelier and Senior Product Knowledge Consultant with the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation.
Wines that made the culinary podium this year included:
Gold: Chef Mark McCrowe, Aqua, paired with Zweigelt 2013, Norman Hardy Winery, Ontario
Silver: Chef Chris Chafe, The Doctor’s House, paired with Pinot Noir 2012, Meyer Family Vineyards, BC
Bronze: Chef Shaun Hussey, Chinched Bistro, paired with the Best of Show Wine, Merlot “La Droite”, Rollingdale Winery, BC
Special thanks once again this year to Andrew Peller Limited, Gold Medal Plates National Celebration Wine Sponsor for providing the always enjoyable Trius Brut!