Saturday morning – round about 7:15 a.m. in the lobby of the Delta hotel… Chefs and sous chefs are standing around or pacing, each one holding tight to his or her knife sets. The judges are there (some of them having already scored the excellent coffees from nearby Gio Bean) and two luxurious buses wait to take everyone to Okanagan College’s Culinary Arts building and the preparation kitchens where the Black Box will take place.
The venue looks splendid – a large area decked out for the public with banners and breakfast omelette stations manned by students. Amber Piché from My Tea Blending Room is here brewing some excellent teas. Another room houses a “market” of local artisanal producers showing off their wares, including awesome chocolate-covered cherries from Knight’s Fine Chocolate and super granola bars from The Bench Artisan Food Market. The first half of the audience arrives and the chefs are introduced then stripped of their cell phones and other communication devices before being led off to an isolated room to wait until their name is called.
Menawhile we judges introduce the contents of the Black Box to the eager spectators:
Tart, livid sea-buckthorn berries donated by Betty Forbes, proprietor of Northern Vigor Berries, Kamsack, Saskatchewan, (www.nvigorate.ca).
Two live lobsters (a male and a female – a cock and a hen, as we used to say in England) for each chef, donated by Taste of Nova Scotia.
A big Rougie duck from Quebec, donated by Two Rivers Meats in B.C.
A bag of golden quinoa, grown in Saskatchewan and donated by NorQuin quinoa.
A bag of dried lavender, donated by Okanagan Lavender & Herb Farm, www.okanaganlavender.com
A tub of fresh ricotta cheese donated by Valoroso Fine Foods, www.valorosofoods.com
And, making up the complement of ingredients, are locally purchased turnips and yams, Honeycrisp and Granny Smith apples from Okanagan Packing House, Kelowna, and hazelnuts from Canadian Hazelnut Inc. of Agassiz, B.C.
In years gone by we have asked chefs to create two dishes using six ingredients, in one hour. Frankly, the whole contest sometimes devolved into a “beat-the-clock” plating ordeal. This year, we invite each chef to choose six of the 10 ingredients and create only one dish (13 plates of it, just for the judges). The idea is to stimulate creativity, to get the chefs going beyond the safe option, to raise overall quality – and it works. Okay, chefs who have competed for us in previous years, and are watching this year’s contest online on a live video feed, start texting us that it all looks much too easy. We will fine tune it again for next year.
Meanwhile, the first chef chosen is soon heads-down and deep in concentration with his sous. It’s Chef Luc Jean from Winnipeg. He announces his dish and the contest begins. Chef Jean decides to work with both duck breast and lobster (hooray). He pan-sears the duck with a touch of cumin, salt and pepper and presents a single tender slice over a rich purée of yam and carrot made with shallots and chicken stock from the communal pantry. The lobster is poached in butter with ginger and chives and though two lobsters barely furnish enough meat for 13 servings (something, we later learned, that deterred some chefs from using it), Chef Jean makes it go round. He uses the tart sea-buckthorn berries whole in a beurre blanc sauce for the lobster and finishes the dish with a slaw of apple and celery root, strewn with grated hazelnuts and topped with a wheel of green jalapeño chili. Presentation is more natural than fussy and the judges agree this is a very promising beginning.
Chef Hill is up next. He offers slices of seared duck breast in a presentation that looks fairly simple at first glance but in fact is a treasure trove of techniques and subtly used Asian flavours. Yam purée is spiked with miso, star anise, soy and sesame. Threads of the turnip are quickly pickled with rice wine vinegar and a blend of spices. A spoonful of lavender-scented sea-buckthorn gastrique is the colour of a desert sunset and brings the duck to life. An intense stock whipped up from the roasted duck bones and a little chicken stock serves as a second sauce. Hazelnut dust spiked with chili powder provides interesting texture and the dish is finished with a couple of watercress leaves and a trace of watercress oil. Balanced, accomplished… an excellent dish.
Chef Lavallée gives a little whoop of delight when she opens the box and sees lobsters from her home town among the ingredients. She cooks them perfectly (12 minutes then a plunge into ice-cold water), finishes them with a subtle lavender vinaigrette and uses their succulent meat as the crown for a fresh salad of julienned apples, celery root, turnip and watercress. The salad has its own dressing, thickened with the ricotta and cream, lemon, sesame oil and crushed hazelnuts. Crispy pancetta is crumbled over the top of the dish and beside it lies a light, crisp, salt-crusted cracker, baked using quinoa as flour.
Chef McCrowe is our fourth competitor. He has the happy idea of smoking the duck breast – but there is no smoker among the equipment available. So he McGyvers one out of a hotel pan and a handful of maple chips. The breast is juicy, tender and sweetly smoky – and he adds the hazelnuts into the smoker then crumbles them as a delicious garnish. We judges are becoming accustomed to puréed yam by now, but Chef McCrowe sparks his version with apple and smooths it out with miso, butter and sesame oil. For freshness he slices shiitake mushrooms from the pantry, gives them a light pickle and tosses them in a salad with turnip, mint, cilantro and pancetta. He uses the sea-buckthorn berries in the salad’s dressing, adding hazelnuts and a pinch of Asian spices.
Chef Bohati brings his plates into the judges’ room with the news that he loved the black box ingredients! The judges love the way he has thought outside the box with a dazzlingly creative dish that shows a lovely balance of flavours. He begins by making fresh pasta and uses it to make agnolotti. The filling is a mixture of puréed yam, ricotta and onion, loosened with chicken stock and stirred up with the claw and leg meat from the lobsters that he has lightly poached in a miso beurre blanc, touched by star anise. Morsels of the lobster tail meat nestle in amongst the angnolotti. On top are crisp, julienned apple, chives and watercress and a crumble made from hazlenuts and flecks of crispy duck skin, quickly fried in duck fat rendered down from the carcase. The duck fat also forms one of the fats in a delicate dressing for the apple salad, along with rice wine vinegar and grape seed oil. The final touch is a rich, pungent glaze made from the roasted lobster shells. Such interesting ideas!
Chef Park is the next to strut his stuff. “I call this surf and turf,” he jokes as he escorts the dishes in for judgement. He has made two dishes for us. The first is a bowl of miso soup, studded with sliced mushroom and tiny cubes of the firm ricotta in place of tofu. Minced chives add colour. The second is a tasting of nigiri sushi. There was no sticky sushi rice in the pantry so Chef Park improvised with a mixture of arborio and quinoa – it’s just dense enough to hold its shape as we lift the sushi to our mouths. On top of one nigiri is a very thin slice of duck breast, seared like tataki with salt and pepper and topped with shaved turnip (masquerading as daikon) and radish chimmichuri. The second piece of sushi features the lobster, poached in butter but very rare, and a morsel of raw onion that seems startlingly piquant in such subtle company. Two purées dot the lobster, one of yam, the other of sweet onion and carrot. There are two sauces – a dramatic green stripe of lime and jalapeño mayo down one side of the plate, and a dainty ponzu spiked with lime zest served in a separate saucer. The judges are delighted by such an imaginative creation.
Chef Horne is our seventh competitor. He works wonders with the duck breast, roasting it medium rare (so tender and juicy) with a fine lavender-honey glaze like a crispy lacquer. His apple-turnip purée is rich and smooth and the turnip reappears gently pickled as thiny sliced circular cut-outs. Soy-sesame jus is perfectly judged and the apple also does double duty, paired up with sea-buckthorn as a tangy chutney. Quinoa finally takes a major role, some puffed, but also boiled with herbs to let its own complex, grainy-sweet flavour shine. The dish scores highly with the judges.
Chef Garland roasts the duck breast rare, scenting it with “warm spices” such as star anise, fennel and cinnamon. He makes a sea-buckthorn gastrique for fruity acidity and a pretty apple and vegetable slaw for a different kind of brightness. His purée features turnip, ricotta and hazelnuts and is flecked with chives – rich, weighty and flavourful. Hazelnut and caramel brittle, scented with rosemary, adds crunch and sweetness and harmonizes effectively with the duck’s spices.
Chef O’Flynn’s dish is as pretty as a picture. He has roasted the duck breast, leaving a fringe of fat between the tender meat and the crisp skin. He has also dealt with the lobster, making a confit in butter, fish and chicken stocks, lemon and thyme. A juicy chunk lies against the slice of duck. Spiced yam purée is as sleek as satin while a comma of apple purée offers freshness and innocence. Chef has dealt with the turnip by turning it into perfect balls and poaching them in chicken stock, butter, lemon and cider vinegar. Two little wands of apple lie across the proteins like a bridge and the plate is finished with a duck fat vinagrette flecked with chives and toasted hazelnuts.
Chef Eligh’s dish is equally accomplished, his roasted duck breast becomingly tender and crisp-skinned. The presentation is tight and very beautiful with a tasty, super-smooth yam purée placed to one side of the meat. Beneath it is a breathtakingly tart sea-buckthorn vinaigrette enriched with bacon and mustard. The turnip has been turned, à la Parisienne, into chickpea-sized spheres and lightly pickled. And Chef has cut plectrums from the Granny Smith apples, letting the fruit’s natural acidity cut the fat of the duck. Wholly unexpected – a finesse from a completely different cuisine – are crisp, nicely salted, shallow-fried onion rings that demand to be eaten with our fingers. As do two perfect watercress leaves laid over all as a final flourish.
Chef Rebello is the last competitor of the morning. The inspiration for his dish is the Indian tali tray – three separate components on the plate, though all of them use apple. The first is ceviche of chopped lobster, apple, citrus and jalapeño, formed into a little drum and set over a slice of raw Granny Smith. It’s cool, crisp, not too tart – nicely judged. Element number two is a slice of spiced, seared duck breast laid over a dab of yam and ricotta purée and topped with apple cooked with brown sugar, star anise and pepper until they are halfway to being a chutney. The third component is a dessert – a yam and ricotta dumpling fried like a doughnut and tossed in sugar surrounded by candied hazelnuts, candied apple and a curved wand of lavender tuile. It’s a tasting menu in its own right and the judges are pleased.
It’s fascinating to tally the marks at this stage. Unlike other years, no penalties have been imposed. Though the judges felt they had seen too much duck breast and puréed yam, they were also happy to see plenty of variety and imagination on the plates. As each judge’s score is added into the program, we see that the pack has caught up with Chefs O’Flynn and Eligh. Chefs Park, Bohati, Horne and McCrowe have performed particularly well this morning but no one has streaked into a dramatic lead and no one is out of contention. Going into the final stage of the Championship – the Grand Finale – it is still, clearly, anyone’s race.