Canadian Culinary Championship report (short version)

Chef Ryan O'Flynn's wine matching challenge dish
Chef Ryan O’Flynn’s wine matching challenge dish

To beautiful (foggy) downtown Kelowna again for the 2015 Canadian Culinary Championship, ultimate test for each of our Gold Medal Plates regional champions. And what a very strong line-up we have this year! Some are better known than others but frankly any of them could win gold, each one sporting a rich and potent curriculum vitae. Here are the names of our 11 competitors.

Starting in the east with the champion from Aqua Kitchen & Bar in St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador, it’s Chef MARK McCROWE.

Our Halifax champion, from The Canteen in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, is Chef RENÉE LAVALLÉE.

Now our Montreal champion, from Park Restaurant in Montreal: Chef ANTONIO PARK.

Our Ottawa-Gatineau champion, from Absinthe Café in Ottawa is Chef PATRICK GARLAND.

Our champion from Toronto is chef at Canoe, Chef JOHN HORNE.

Our Winnipeg champion, from Jane’s, is Chef LUC JEAN.

And from Regina, from Wascana Golf & Country Club, Chef MILTON REBELLO.

Our Saskatoon champion, from the Delta Bessborough hotel, is Chef CHRIS HILL.

Our Edmonton champion, from The Westin Edmonton, is Chef RYAN O’FLYNN.

And our Calgary champion, from Market, is Chef DAVE BOHATI.

Finally, the champion representing all of B.C., from Hawksworth in Vancouver, is Chef KRISTIAN ELIGH.

As is well known by now, the Championship consists of three contests: the Wine Matching Contest, where the chef must create a dish to perfectly match an un-named wine – and do it for 480 people on a budget of $1.25 a head. The Black Box, where the chef must create a dish using six of ten mystery ingredients in a black box, plus anything from a generous pantry. The Grand Finale, where the chef can present his signature creation and chosen beverage – to 630 people.

In the next few days, I will present a full report with details of each dish. For now, here is a précis of the competition as we saw it in the judges’ chamber.

David Lawrason’s mystery wine turned out to be Stoneboat Pinotage 2012 from the Okanagan, a big, potent, purple red with a fruity nose but less fruit and more spicy complexity on the palate, smooth tanins and a well-judged measure of acidity. Each chef, brought up on stage to comment on the wine and describe what they had cooked, had different guesses and opinions about the wine, but one of them, Patrick Garland, identified it absolutely correctly. So did our judge Andrew Morrison, right down to the year. What did the chefs decide this wine demanded? All but two found meat was the answer. Chef O’Flynn chose sturgeon which he sourced at a bargain price from Codfathers fish market, which had stocked itself up to the gills in the hope that the mystery wine would be white. Chef Lavallée was almost vegetarian in her approach, making a beet and barley salad (as pretty as a picture) with crunchy duck schmaltz croutons her only concession to carnivory. None of the chefs crashed and burned at this stage (as has happened in previous years) but when we had tasted all eleven dishes and totted up each judge’s marks it was clear we had two front runners a fair way ahead of the pack – Chef O’Flynn with his sturgeon and smoked beetroot, and Chef Eligh, who aced the pairing with a spiced duck breast, parsnip purée and perfectly cooked lentils with a bacon vinaigrette. The people’s choice award went to Chef McCrowe who braised beef short rib in spiced rum and molasses with a cherry compote.

Saturday morning brought the Black Box. This year, to encourage creativity and make it less of a race against the plating clock, we asked each chef to choose six out of 10 ingredients, dramatically revealed as his or her hour of competition began. The ingredients? Two live lobsters donated by Taste of Nova Scotia. A bag of tart Saskatchewan-grown sea-buckthorn berries donated by Northern Vigor Berries. An air-dried Rougie duck from Quebec, supplied by and donated by Two Rivers Meats in B.C. A bag of toasted hazelnuts. A bag of golden quinoa grown in Saskatchewan and donated by NorQuin. A bag of mixed Granny Smith and Honey Crisp apples. Yams. Turnips. Dried lavender. A tub of very fresh local ricotta cheese.

Our plan worked. The culinary standard of the dishes the judges received was much higher than in years gone by. There were plenty of similarities – the majority of chefs decided to offer pan-fried duck breast as a main protein – and if I never see yam purée again, it will be fine by me – but skills were definitely on parade. Stand-outs for me in terms of sheer technical ability was Chef Park’s dish. He made nigiri sushi, one of lobster sashimi, one of duck, using the quinoa and arborio as a makeshift sushi rice then brought in a second hot dish alongside – a miso soup with the firm ricotta standing in for tofu. Chef Bohati also thought outside the box, swiftly making some fresh pasta and turning it into agnolotti stuffed with lobster, yam and ricotta, finishing the dish with a crisp aple salad, a glaze from the roasted lobster shell. By the end of the morning, the pack had caught up with the two front runners and were treading on their heels.

And so to the Grand Finale. It’s hard to create your masterpiece for 600 when you only have about four hours to prepare. The chefs all did a lot of preparation in their home towns and shipped components and elements ahead. Every one except Chef Eligh did more or less the same dish that had brought them victory in their regional competitions. Which meant the judges were presented with some splendid and highly original treats. Again, I will be commenting on each dish in the longer “director’s cut” of this report (including outtakes and bloopers). Meanwhile, let me describe the dishes of the three chefs who finished the evening on the podium.

Chef Kristian Eligh from Vancouver won bronze. His dish had an avant-garde presentation – a perfectly smooth dome of crisp bread, as fine as lace, to be shattered into what lay beneath. There we found impeccably cooked, very subtly seasoned lobster and sablefish in a heavy, chowder-like sauce made from clam nectar and lobster reduction, thickened with butter and bacon fat and cradling morsels of carrot, celery and potato. The wine match was exceptional – Meyer Family 2012 Micro Cuvée Chardonnay Old Main Road from the Okanagan.

Chef Antonio Park from Montreal surged ahead to seize the silver medal. He took the traditional ingredients of Korean bibimbap and re-expressed them with the finesse of Japanese cuisine as a complex roll of moussey chicken boudin, julienne vegetables, nine-hour-braised shiitake and cauliflower. Instead of sauce from a squeeze bottle, he turned the gochujang into a jellied skin as the outer layer of the roll. A tremblingly undercooked quail egg lay on top and scattered here and there was a crunchy assortment of five different kinds of puffed rice, for texture. Chef Park’s chosen wine had been lost by Air Canada en route to the competition so he had to scramble to find a substitute – Gehringer Bros. 2013 Riesling.

Taking gold and the Canadian Culinary Championship (the first time a chef from Edmonton has ever reached our patrticular podium) was Chef Ryan O’Flynn from the Westin Edmonton hotel. Having taken the lead on Friday evening, he had never really let it slip away. His dish was a thick and generous terrine of river sturgeon, pungently smoked with pine, and layered with perfect cured foie gras. The strata of colour were breathtakingly beautiful, the flavours rich and intense, challenging but ultimately so seductive. Decorating the plate and contributing much in terms of flavour were motes of Granny Smith apple jelly, dots of apple purée, minuscule crunchy dice of brioche and two plump, juicy morels reconstituted with a bathe in a fragrance of sherry vinegar, canola oil and bay leaf. The wine match – Sandhill Small Lots 2013 Viognier – was flawless.

To sum up – it was a competition conducted at the highest level by eleven chefs who all brought their A game, who took risks and who entered fully into the spirit of the occasion. At this level, their technical abilities can almost be taken for granted; what is exciting – as in the work of any great artist – is to see their unique and personal perspective emerge in the dishes they create before our very eyes.

Huge congratulations to all the chefs – and their sous chefs – and the students from Okanagan College who served as their willing apprentices throughout the weekend. Heartfelt thankyous to the judges. A deep bow to our new champion, Chef Ryan O’Flynn.



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