To beautiful 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 Restaurant Park 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.
In years gone by, chefs and judges have all stayed at the charming El Dorado hotel. This year, the competition’s entire cast is staying at the Delta Grand Okanagan hotel – and very comfortable it is, too.
As ever, my team of fellow judges outnumbers the competitors. Allow me to name them.
From St. John’s, Newfoundland, broadcaster, food columnist for The Telegram, author and host of his own tv show, One Chef One Critic. KARL WELLS
From Halifax, journalist and restaurant critic for The Chronicle-Herald, who overcame his fear of flying to be with us in Kelowna, BILL SPURR
From Montreal, restaurant critic, writer, lecturer and anthropologist, ROBERT BEAUCHEMIN
From Ottawa, author and broadcaster, restaurant critic, senior editor of Taste & Travel Magazine, ANNE DESBRISAY
From Toronto, award-winning food columnist and food writer, currently an editor with The Walrus, SASHA CHAPMAN.
From Winnipeg, professional chef, culinary arts instructor and Director Food Services at Red River College, JEFF GILL.
From Saskatoon, cookbook author, journalist and food columnist, AMY JO EHMAN.
From Regina, award-winning cookbook author, photographer, tv and radio host and publisher of Savour Life magazine, CJ KATZ.
From Edmonton, wine, food and travel writer, certified sommelier and wine instructor, the founder of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium and publisher of The Tomato, MARY BAILEY.
From Calgary, teacher, broadcaster, author and restaurant columnist for the Calgary Herald, JOHN GILCHRIST.
From Kelowna, the distinguished chef, Culinary Manager of Okanagan College and the current President of the Okanagan Chefs Association, Chef BERNARD CASAVANT.
From Vancouver, world-renowned wine and food judge and the wine and food guru for Western Living magazine, SID CROSS.
And also from Vancouver, author, teacher, restaurant critic, gab-gifted boulevardier and the editor-in-chief of Scout Magazine, ANDREW MORRISON, who serves as our Judge Invigilator, enforcing the rules of competition with an all-seeing, almost Sauron-like eye that is at once strict but fair.
Our adventure began on Wednesday evening when the lucky judges were invited to dinner at The Table, Chef Ross Derrick’s charming restaurant inside Codfathers Seafood Market (2355 Gordon Drive, (250) 763-3474). Owned and run by Jon Crofts, Codfathers is one of the best fishmongers in the country, offering superb sustainable seafood from fresh sturgeon to Gaspe smelt and is a vital resource for the chefs who compete in the Championships. The evening began with a merry contest, dividing the judges into three teams and setting them some challenges – shucking a dozen oysters, filleting a trout and making a ceviche. Great fun – and educational, too. We ate the oysters, and some gorgeous deep fried smelt – then we sat down for Chef Derrick’s dinner – a feast that began with the ceviches we had made ourselves, then progressed to a succession of treats – first, slender perogies stuffed with smoked onion and Keta salmon served with a roasted beetroot crème fraîche, winter greens and a bacon vinegerette; then the steelhead trout we had filleted ourselves (judge CJ Katz most elegantly) paired with tuna chorizo sausages made with the blood of the tuna and flanked by braised beans and spinach aïoli. Dessert chef Tina Tang made our afters – a dainty Chinese lemon egg tart with lemon mascarpone mousse, lemon thyme curd, pomegranate seeds and crushed honey comb. A fabulous time was had by all.
The competition truly gets under way on the Thursday evening with a reception for sponsors, media and guests. This year we held it at Howard Soon’s newly renovated and decidedly chic Sandhill winery, with Codfathers’ oysters and some delectable hors d’oeuvres from Poppadoms, Kelowna’s excellent Indian restaurant. There was a palpable aura of intensity emanating from the chefs and their sous chefs as each was introduced to the crowd and I conducted a short question-and-answer session. Completing each culinary team was a pair of students from Okanagan College who will serve as apprentices for the chef – always a brilliant learning experience for them. Then we handed over the mystery wine and the budget each chef must strictly obey – cooking for 480 guests but spending no more than $600. Could you throw a dinner party for $1.25 a head? I couldn’t. The chefs had 24 hours to create, shop for and prepare a dish that would perfectly match the wine. And what was the mysterious vino? David Lawrason only revealed it at the end of Friday evening, after we had tasted each chef’s dish: 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. But what would the chefs decide to prepare with it?
Chef O’Flynn decided to draw on his European experience of dishes involving monkfish and red wine and went for fish, haggling for fresh sturgeon at Codfathers, which had stocked itself up to the gills in the hope that the mystery wine would be white. He felt the wine needed fat to balance its acids and tannins so he brought in a rich garnish of crème fraîche, devilled egg yolk and a dab of Northern Divine caviar. He turned to beetroot to build a sturdy bridge into the heart of the wine, smoking some red beets and puréeing them into silky, bittersweet heaven. He also made tiny cubes of beetroot jelly and a beetroot fluid gel, marinated some golden beets to the precise level of acidity of the wine and finaly made a beetroot crumble for texture. A sprinkling of crushed almond brought out the earthy note in the Pinotage and, all the time, the rich, succulent sturgeon was making its own sophisticated conversation with the fruitiness of the wine.
Chef Lavallée was almost vegetarian in her approach, creating beautiful salad of barley and many kinds of beetroot, each one variously but perfectly textured and sliced into slender rounds. Threads of shallot and an array of radishes, sliced even more thinly, surrounded a mound of creamy, homemade quark; croutons of rye bread fried in duck fat provided an opulently rich contrast. Two dressings – a green goddess and a honey pistachio vinaigrette – brought tangy flavours to the party while crisp, crumbled fried speck and a scattering of Vancouver Island sea salt satisfied all possible cravings for saltiness. The beets and the croutons worked notably well with the wine.
Chef Horne felt the wine needed red meat but didn’t want to do a braise. Instead he chopped a delicious venison tartare tossed with crispy bacon. He turned the bacon fat into a soft white powder that lay in little hillocks along the linear presentation of the dish. Deep-fried bannocks, broken roughly in half, did double service as a bread for the tartare and as wicked little pillows of doughnut-like richness. Chef picked up the fruit in the wine with a dusting of raisin powder and garnished for freshness with wild chickweed harvested from the Okanagan.
Chef Rebello offered a fascinating presentation, typical of his affection for culinary and visual puns. He cut lotus root into the shape of a marrow bone and confited it in duck fat, then he braised oxtail and spooned it inside instead of outside the “bone.” As so many of the chefs did, he felt the wine demanded fat on the plate, and rovided it by turning the fat from the oxtail into a dab of aïoli. A delectable puré of lotus, cauliflower and cashew nuzzled up to the lotus; a blueberry and blackberry gastrique that was almost jelly-like in its consistency echoed the fruit flavours Chef found in the wine. The finishing touch was a wafer-thin fin of translucent potato slices sandwiching flecks of cherry and beet sprout. He called this dish “Illusion.”
Chef Eligh was next, introducing his dish by saying he “wanted to keep it simple.” He chose to work with duck, a Yarrow Meadows duck breast, to be precise, perfectly tender and spiced with star anise, cinnamon, allspice and fennel – a single perfect slice of the meat lay upermost on the dish, fringed with fat and a nicely crisped skin. Beneath it was a mound of impeccably textured lentils dressed with a rich bacon vinaigrette while parsnip manned the flanks, on the left as a silky purée, on the right as crispy shards. Fronds of fresh fennel weed brought fresh, aniseedy flavour. It was a multi-faceted approach to the earthy spice of the wine that paid dividends while the Pinotage itself provided the dish with a fruity element that so often flatters duck.
Chef Hill also gave us duck, smoking the breast and presenting a slice of it pink and medium-rare. Showing impressive skills as a shopper, he bought four lobes of foie gras with much of the rest of his budget and spread them among the multitude by turning them into a mousse stretched with emulsified agar-agar and egg yolk. It tasted beautifully of foie and had the desired effect of taming the tannin in the wine. Beet also played a role – as a broad stripe of red beet purée and shards of golden beet on top of the duck. Pungent micro-arugula and hazelnut dust added more colour to Chef’s flavour palette while camolina oil, with its pleasing grassy note, and leeks confited in duck fat further boosted the richness of the dish. The most successful link into the wine remained the smokiness of the duck and the fatty, salty umami that lurked all over the plate.
Chef Park turned to pork and blood to tame the wine, cooking a soft boudin noir flecked with slightly firmer mini-dice of pork belly: the whole pudding looked disarmingly like a chocolate brownie. Jerusalem artichokes were everywhere – as crispy chips and also as a luxe, caramelized purée invigorated by puréed Granny Smith apple and hidden inside a crispy shell. Roasted vanilla oat crumble was strewn like granola and a second crumble of salty bacon added to the overall intensity of flavour. A smudge of vanilla dust kept its distance on the edge of the plate, in case we decided the granola needed reinforcements.
Chef Bohati decided chilled, nose-to-tail pork would provide the necessary fattiness to match the Pinotage. He made an oniony pork-belly rillette shaped like a sausage and flavoured with five-spice then set it over an aïoli of smoked ham hock sweetened with vanilla bean. A crispy blood wonton furthered the porcine cause, as did crispy deep-fried pig ear dusted with five spice powder. Earthiness came courtesy of marinated enoki and shiitake mushrooms; freshness was provided by a tissue-thin slice of compressed pear, prepared with some of the wine, lemon, cinnamon and sugar.
Chef Garland nailed the identity of the wine, characterizing it as “hot, with ripe fruit, warm spices, potent…” and matching it with juicy, shredded braised lamb shank. Those warm spices were echoed by white and black pepper, vanilla, clove and cinnamon in the braising liquid and by the black pepper and rosemary in a delicate biscuit. Fennel, tarragon and pea shoot salad with a walnut vinaigrette offered big fresh flavours and another line of approach into the wine. Crispy leeks were perfumed with sage and a smoked ham hock and red wine reduction was an extra sauce on the plate.
Chef Jean gave us a dramatic presentation with his elements artfully arranged on just one side of the plate. His main protein was a coffee-rubbed short rib, seared and medium rare in the Korean style then sliced as if it were tenderloin. Beneath this was a white navy bean purée and a jumble various delectable things – brussels sprout leaves tossed with butter and speck, caramelized pearl onions, crunchy hazelnuts – all making significant contributions of taste and texture. A tangy wild blueberry gastrique worked well with the Pinotage and an unexpected hit of gorgonzola on the plate was a star turn, nicely meeting the rough-and-ready charm of the wine.
Chef McCrowe’s dish was the last one the judges tasted. He also worked with beef short ribs but in a more conventional manner, braising them until they were gorgeously tender then glazing them with a subtle mix of spiced rum and molasses. A generous spoonful of cherry compote flirted outrageously with the fruit in the wine while tart, crunchy, thinly sliced slivers of pickled plum handled its acidity. A salad of radisn and Italian parsley brought freshness and crispy parsnip chips were a final flourish. The judges admired the wine match – and so did the crowd of 480, who awarded Chef McCrowe the People’s Choice prize.
Meanwhile the judges pondered as their marks were processed. There had been plenty of different ideas and some boldly imaginative moments. No one had floundered and in the early stages of the weekend nine of the chefs were running in a close pack. Out in front of them, however, and by a respectable margin, were two pacemakers – Chef Eligh and Chef O’Flynn. In just a few hours, the second part of the competition, the dreaded Black Box, would begin.