I have a soft spot for Regina’s Conexus Arts Centre, despite its somewhat Brutalist concrete demeanour. They built it beside a lake in a rural setting on the edge of town and yesterday evening it looked splendid amidst the trees, bathed in warm prairie sunshine. We use a most imaginative set-up there, with the chefs’ stations constructed on various levels of the theatre foyers and the lavishly decorated tables for the sit-down celebration placed on the actual stage. There we build a stage-upon-a-stage for our parades of chefs and athletes, our dignitaries and our auctioneer, our unflappable and hilarious MC, Curt Harnett, and of course our awe-inspiring musical show, last night starring Colin Cripps, Geoffrey Kelly and Matthew Harder of Spirit of the West, Devin Cuddy, Sam Polley and the incomparable Anne Lindsay whose violin solo in Five Days in May brought the entire crowd to its feet for a spontaneous standing ovation.
Before all that, we judges mingled with the VIPs during the reception then retired to a private chamber to taste and make our deep decisions led by our Senior Judge for Regina, author, photographer, broadcaster and journalist C J Katz, together with Execuitive Chef of the Regina Legislature and captain of the Saskatchewan Culinary Team at the 2000 Culinary Olympics, Trent Brears; chef and educator Thomas Rush; writer, blogger, restaurant columnist and television producer Aidan Morgan; and last year’s gold medallist, Chef Milton Rebello of Wascana Country Club.
It was a fine array of dishes this year, starting with ethereal Japanese flavours paired with sake and finishing with a rich harmony of chicken liver taco and mixed sweet and savoury elements matched with a hearty oatmeal stout. The dish that won the bronze medal for Chef Leo Pantel of the Conexus Art Centre was well towards the meaty end of this spectrum. It centred upon a generous slab of juicy Berkshire pork belly, cooked sous vide and then seared with a sweet crust of panko and pomegranate molasses. Two incredibly dainty rye and gruyère crisps crowned the meat, topped with a sprinkling of red amaranth microgreens. A dark raisin sauce echoed the sweetness of the glaze, as did slivers of port-infused figs, while a piquant pickled ramp, pinked with beet juice, added crunch and sharpness. Chef Pantel’s wine match was very successful – the 2012 Norman Hardie Pinot Noir from Prince Edward County, Ontario, its minerality and acid structure in lively contrast to the richness of the pork.
Chef David Straub of Flip Eatery and Drink won our silver medal with a dish he called “Freshly Dug Potatoes.” “It’s a play on my growing up as a farm boy,” he explained, and indeed his plating had a touch of the farm pond landscape about it. Three turned parisienne potatoes about three-quarters of an inch in diameter were placed in a pool of intensely flavourful duck demi-glace, banked around with a piped ring of goose foie gras mousse – a trio of umame-rich elements that delighted the judges. Strewn across them was a scattering of “soil” made by dehydrating roasted parsnip, celeriac and sunchoke, roasting them again to caramelize the surface and then crumbling all to powder. A broad green stripe of asparagus, dill and chive emulsion brought freshness to the party and the plate was finished with some perfect, tissue-thin salt-and-vinegar potato chips to use as scoops for the foie and the demi. Chef Straub’s wine match – the 2014 Chenin Blanc from Quail’s Gate Estate Winery in the Okanagan – was deliberately integrated into the concept of the dish, balancing the richness with a dry, grassy coolness.
Our gold-medal winner has won it before – Chef Jonathan Thauberger of Crave Kitchen & Wine Bar. He too had a name for his dish – “A Trip to the Beach.” Elegantly plated, it began with a crescent of “sand” made with dried brioche breadcrumbs tossed with pulverized seaweed and powdered dehydrated mussels and scallops with some finely chopped chives for colour. Lying across this delicious shoreline was a piece of “driftwood” – actually a crisp tempura scallion. Beside it lay some silky-soft slices of lightly poached diver scallops, their rims stained mauve with beet juice and their sweet, rich flavour sparked by a scattering of green tobiko roe. The pièce de resistance of the dish was a dome of jellied dashi broth, set not with gelatin but with the natural collagen of fish bones in the stock. Transfixed inside was a miniature pansy blossom and various fruits de mer – morsels of king crab, langoustines, peeled Pacific shrimp – and a raw quail’s egg yolk that oozed out as a sauce when my fork pierced the dome. Beside this treasure trove were dots of “sea foam” – in fact a tasty béarnaise sauce dotted with dark green arugula purée. It was a marvellous dish, sensitively paired with a subtly aromatic, full-bodied white blend of Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne called Ava, made by Le Vieux Pin in the South Okanagan.
So Chef Thauberger will return to Kelowna next February, a very worthy local champion bearing the hopes of Regina on his shoulders. Next week, we move on to Halifax!