With the remnants of Hurricane Patricia pushing us towards the Atlantic, the Gold Medal Plates team had a bumpy ride to Halifax but horizontal rain and a gusting gale couldn’t dampen the warmth of our welcome. Nor did it deter the jubilant crowd who filled the Cunard Centre last Thursday night, ready to taste, listen, bid, and finally rock with our brilliant house band of Jim Cuddy, Danny Michel, Anne Lindsay, Colin Cripps and Jim’s two sons, Devin Cuddy and Sam Polley. Curt Harnett and Nancy Regan shared the MC duties, keeping the mood merry and the energy levels high. Meanwhile we judges had our hands full with one of the strongest line-ups of Nova Scotian chefs we have ever brought together. Joining me were Halifax Senior Judge Bill Spurr, the restaurant critic for the Chronicle-Herald; chef, author and educator, the Kilted Chef, Alain Bossé; sommelier, educator and passionate culinarian Amy Savoury; chef and educator, currently the Hospitality chair at the Nova Scotia Community College, Ted Grant; chef and local gastronomy advocate Jason Lynch; and last year’s Halifax Gold Medalist, the Feisty Chef herself, Renée Lavallée of The Canteen.
Pork belly was much in evidence at the chefs’ stations but prepared in delectably different ways, and we were treated to a wide variety of local marine life, not to mention some of Nova Scotia’s finest wines. And while the marks were very close between our second, third and fourth favourites, our gold medallist was a clear and unanimous victor.
We awarded the bronze medal to Chef Ardon Mofford of Governor’s Pub & Eatery in Sydney. His dish offered a lively contrast of rich and tangy flavours and a double-whammy in terms of protein with an impeccably seared scallop and a deliciously caramelized slab of slow-cooked pork belly that still retained its textural integrity. A stripe of butternut squash purée, spiked with maple syrup, picked up and amplified the natural sweetness of the pork and the scallop. Acidity was provided at three levels of sharpness with dots of a smoked chorizo-tomato gel, a forthright kale chimichurri and a disc of pickled candystripe beet the size of a quarter. A candied tomato chip leaned jauntily against the pork belly and the final flourishes included a scattering of pea shoots and a sprinkle of powder made from pumpkin seed and brown butter. Chef Mofford chose his matching wine for its racy acidity and citrus notes – the 2014 Reserve Riesling from Domaine de Grand Pré in Grand Pré, Nova Scotia.
Chef Thomas Carey from Fresh Twenty One in Dartmouth won the silver medal with a dish of relatively simple but perfectly pitched harmonies. He too chose to work with pork belly, cooking it sous-vide for 48 hours and glazing it with peanut and sweet chili. A mound of crunchy white kimchee was more pickled than fermented, tart little ribbons of cabbage that contrasted beautifully with the pork. A ginger-apricot purée proved a gentler, fruitier condiment and the dish was finished with a dusting of onion ash and some delicious puffed pork shreds as a garnish. Chef Carey chose a Select Late Harvest wine, its sweetness working beautifully with the pork in one of the evening’s most successful pairings – the 2013 Martock Select Late Harvest Vidal from Avondale Sky Winery in Newport Station, Nova Scotia.
The gold medal was awarded to Chef Martín Ruiz Salvador of Fleur de Sel in Lunenburg – the third time he has won Gold Medal Plates Halifax. His was a dish of great sophistication and ambition, dazzlingly well executed and satisfying on every level. It was inspired by Chef’s chosen wine, the 2013 Ancienne Chardonnay from Lightfoot and Wolfville winery in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Aged in French oak in the Burgundian style it nonetheless showed the crisp acidity and minerality of Nova Scotia’s vineyards, and Chef decided to take that as his theme, bringing classic French dishes to his plate but giving them a decidedly Nova Scotian twist. There were four principal elements grouped under the title “Rabbit and Snails,” though the snails in question were whelks from the Atlantic shore. Chef’s Maritime take on a traditional French ham hock and parsley terrine used not ham but the rabbit’s shoulder, brined and confited and seasoned with sea parsley, then topped with a dab of bone marrow mayonnaise and a bonnet of soft green sea lettuce. The second component was a tiny drum of the rabbit loin stuffed with whelks and shallots and wrapped in bacon. Topped with slices of rabbit kidney and toasted breadcrumbs it was served with a whelk shell used as a vessel for a sensationally delicious sauce, a smooth cream of local ceps, Dijon mustard and white wine, to be poured over the loin. The third element was a “cassoulet,” interpreted by the rabbit leg stuffed with a moussy sausage and dressed with a scattering of bright green edamame beans. They had been tossed with rabbit “lardons” made by curing and smoking the rabbit bellies, cooking them sous-vide then sautéeing them. A pungent parsley root purée based this part of the dish. To finish, a doll-sized quenelle of rabbit liver parfait sweetened with a local apple brandy was set on a disc of apple that had been poached in wine and butter. A confit of onion, mustard seed and honey enhanced the light, creamy parfait and a tiny rabbit-suet chicharon provided the coup de grace. It was an extraordinarily complex dish, but every element made its own contribution to a seamless overall brilliance. And yes, it worked extremely well with that impressive Chardonnay.
So we have our fourth champion in Martín Ruiz Salvador. Like two of our other gold medallists this year, Jan Trittenbach from Edmonton and Jonathan Thauberger from Regina, he has competed in the Canadian Culinary Championship before. Just four cities into the campaign and already Kelowna is shaping up to be a clash of titans. Later this week, Calgary and Toronto!