On Tuesday, Calgary gave us our first intimation of winter, temperatures well below zero as we drove in from the airport, the dun-coloured prairie grass rimed white with frost. But the city centre was bustling and the exhibition halls in the Telus Centre looked unusually glamorous as the team set up the show. In the event, it was downright amazing, emceed by Curt Harnett with his customary suavity and wit, with Olympic gold medallist Michelle Cameron Coulter interviewing the inspiring parade of no less than 29 elite Olympian athletes, and auctioneer Bill Brown coaxing the crowd into buying a gobsmacking number of trips. And then there was the music from our band of all-stars – Jim Cuddy, Barney Bentall, Anne Lindsay, Colin Cripps, Devin Cuddy and Sam Polley. Each song was greeted with an ovation, each solo brought people to their feet and there was way too much dancing in the aisles and at the front of the stage.
Last year, you may recall, our Calgary champion was chosen by a drive-around event for a trio of judges, so it was great to get the judiciary back to strength. The Calgary panel of judges is certainly one of the most illustrious in the country, led by Senior Judge, author, broadcaster, educator and culinary adventurer John Gilchrist with chef, culinary instructor and television star Michael Allemeier; chef, mentor and restaurateur Michael Noble; writer, traveller, editor and publisher of City Palate, Kathy Richardier; Red Seal Chef, caterer and entrepreneur Susan Pataky of J. Webb Market Wines; and last year’s gold medal winner, Chef Dave Bohati of The Fine Food Stop.
What no one was expecting was that we would make GMP history last night with a dead heat for the bronze medal. Two chefs scored 82.14% – Shaun Desaulniers of ChefBar and Kenny Kaechele of Workshop kitchen+culture. We judges debated, tried hard to find a reason why one of them was better than the other, and failed. So, for the first time in all our years and in all our cities, the two men shared the bronze podium, to the delight of the audience. In no particular order, here is what they cooked.
Shaun Desaulniers offered a slice of a classic crepinette of rabbit, the meat perfectly juicy and flavourful in a matrix of chanterelle mousse, held in place by the merest suggestion of cawl fat. Beneath the slender disc we found four or five miniature yam gnocchi, unabashedly substantial and finished ion the pan to give them a light crust. A truffled cauliflower purée was precisely that – a sort of ethereal cream in deliberate contrast to a couple of big chunks of Brussels sprout, candied with maple syrup and then tanned in the searing pan. A natural rabbit jus served as sauce and the whole dish was finished with a pretty garnish of sunflower seeds, celery leaf and a dime of peppered radish. All the flavours were lucid and true and the wine match was inspired – the 2012 Pinot Noir from Summerhill Winery in the Okanagan.
Scoring identical marks in total, though in widely different categories, Keny Kaechele started his dish by contemplating his wine, the 2012 Small Lots Malbec from Sandhill Estate Vineyard in the Okanagan. It’s an elegant, disciplined Malbec with delicate tannins and aromatic fruit and Chef decided that beef was the ideal match. He cooked rib eye steaks sous vide just long enough to leave them red at heart, marinated them briefly in a vibrant chimichurri then seared them to an ideal medium-rare level. Each plate received three slices. Beside that were two thick little sandwiches made by layering ridiculously tender, moist beef neck between crisped ground chickpea panisse, like a version of polenta. Almost stealing the show, a creamy sauce the colour of pistachio ice cream turned out to be an emulsion of charred leek soubise and smoked butter. Pickled turnips provided a nice edge, a simple veal stock reduction reinforced meaty flavour and a scattering of cilantro microgreens offered a fresh reference back to the chimichurri marinade.
Our silver medal went to Jinhee Lee of Raw Bar in the Hotel Arts. Chef Lee is an old friend of Gold Medal Plates, having come to Kelowna last year as sous chef to Calgary champion Duncan Ly, and her dish was spectacular, a deconstructed bánh mi inspired by the contemporary Vietnamese cooking one finds in her restaurant. The main protein was a slice of a meaty torchon made with the picked meat from a pork hock bound by rillettes and spiked with green onion and pickled thai red chilies. There was real heat in it – a risky step – but the judges were delighted. Beside the torchon we found a slice of supersoft, butter-rich parfait of chicken liver and foie gras topped with a bright green stripe of scallion butter. The chili idea popped up again in a dynamic jalapeño purée, matched by some tart crunchy little pickled vegetables and dots of unctuous satay sauce. In lieu of the bread you’d expect in a bánh mi, Chef Lee included tiny cut-out circles of crispy steamed bread and finished with a scattering of mint leaves and flower petals. There were some challenging elements for a wine in the dish – pickles, chilies, peanuts, etcetera, but Chef responded brilliantly with a sturdy, off-dry rosé, the 2014 Blanc de Noirs Rosé from Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery in Creston, B.C., which she deliberately presented at room temperature.
And our gold medalist? Matthew Batey of The Nash Restaurant & Off Cut Bar. Before anyone raises a hand to point out that one of the judges, Chef Miuchael Noble, happens to own Nash, let me reassure you that he was forbidden from marking Chef Batey. Instead, an average mark was calculated from the other judges’ scores and applied – something we do wherever there might be a perceived conflict of interest by critical eyes. Chef Batey’s dish was a popular winner with the crowd and the judges. It was remarkably delicate and technically flawless. Set apart from the rest of the plate stood a warm chunk of tender, juicy alder-smoked sablefish, as rich and soft a nugget as you could hope to find. Close by lay a thin but quite large rectangular slice of an octopus compression held together by its own juices and the merest hint of an aspic made from the accompanying wine. The octopus had a fine, faint flavour of the sea echoed in the hint of uni that Chef had beaten into a foamy sabayon. A spoonful of said sabayon sat like a mushroom cap on a wee drum of potato croquette flavoured with lemon zest and minced prosciutto. On top of it all was half a teaspoonful of Northern Divine sturgeon caviar. Various minutiae decorated the plate, all of them offering unexpectedly powerful flavours – dots of crimson mint and beetroot purée; flower petals; flecks of what could have been raw lemon but was more likely Asian pear soaked in lemon juice. It was a very accomplished dish and brilliantly matched with the dry but rich, acidic sparkling Chenin Blanc from Road 13 Vineyards in Oliver B.C.
Matthew Batey will be going to Kelowna in February for the Canadian Culinary Championship. We are half way through this year’s campaign and the bar is rising higher all the time. Tomorrow: Toronto!