We did it again! Off to Kelowna for the better part of a week for the tenth running of the Canadian Culinary Championships. The event has grown, to be sure, since the first iteration in Whistler, a decade ago. But it has stayed steadfastly true to the original idea – that it has to be a serious and seriously gruelling competition and as utterly fair as is humanly possible. Past champions have emerged from Winnipeg, Whistler, Calgary, twice from Montreal, from Ottawa, twice from Toronto and most recently from Edmonton. There is nothing else like it in the country. And, like everything to do with Gold Medal Plates, it is a proud celebration of Canadian Excellence.
That mandate extends especially to the team of judges joining me to adjudicate these Championships. I know what you’re asking: who could possibly possess the expertise and the moral authority to pass judgement on 11 of Canada’s finest chefs? The answer is: the Senior Judges from all the Gold Medal Plates cities – the best palates in the country. Starting in the East, from St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canadian Certified Chef, educator and owner of Chef To Go cooking school and catering company, BOB ARNIEL. From Halifax, the veteran restaurant critic of the Chronicle-Herald, BILL SPURR. From Montreal, restaurant critic, writer, lecturer and anthropologist, ROBERT BEAUCHEMIN. From Ottawa, author and broadcaster, restaurant critic and senior editor of Taste & Travel magazine, ANNE DESBRISAY. From Toronto, world class chef and the Director and Corporate Chef of the George Brown Chef School, JOHN HIGGINS. From Winnipeg, professional pastry chef, restaurateur and all-round gastronome extraordinaire, BARBARA O’HARA. From Saskatoon, food writer, journalist, sometime caterer and blogger at Amazoninthekitchen.ca, NOELLE CHORNEY. From Edmonton, wine, food and travel writer, certified sommelier and wine instructor, the founder of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium, MARY BAILEY. From Calgary, author, broadcaster and educator JOHN GILCHRIST. From Kelowna, the distinguished pastry chef and educator, chef instructor at Okanagan College, PERRY BENTLEY. From Vancouver, world-renowned wine and food judge and the wine and food guru for Western Living magazine, SID CROSS. And also from Vancouver, our Judge Invigilator, who enforces the rules of this competition, author, teacher, restaurant critic and editor-in-chief of Scout Magazine, ANDREW MORRISON.
We judges are treated most generously in Kelowna. On Wednesday evening, having just arrived, we were all invited to a slap-up winemakers’ dinner at Quails’ Gate winery’s excellent Old Vines restaurant, hosted by the British Columbia Wine Institute. Some delectable bottles were opened and we had the chance to chat with key personnel from Gray Monk Estate Winery, Clos du Soleil, Daydreamer Wines, Nk’Mip Cellars and Quails’ Gate Family Estate Winery itself (its 2013 Rosemary Block Chardonnay was stunning with a dish of rare arctic char, celeriac purée, neptune grapes and chamomile-and-hazelnut butter). Chef de Cuisine Nav Dhillon prepared the feast for us – a stellar and highly refined series of courses featuring superb local produce.
On Thursday we went to Sandhill winery for the opening reception of the Championships – a chance for sponsors, media and other guests to meet the chefs, their sous chefs, the judges and the students from Okanagan College who will assist the competitors. The chefs were in fine form. Each one of them, of course, won gold at his regional Gold Medal Plates event. This year, amazingly, no fewer than six of them have competed at the Championships before, but let me name them all, travelling, like the sun himself, across Canada from East to West. The St. John’s Champion, from Relish Gourmet Burgers, is Chef ROGER ANDREWS. Our Halifax champion, from Fleur de Sel in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, is Chef MARTÍN RUIZ SALVADOR. Our Montreal champion, from Les 400 Coups, is Chef GUILLAUME CANTIN. Our Ottawa-Gatineau champion, from Atelier, is Chef MARC LEPINE.Our champion from Toronto, from Byblos, is Chef STUART CAMERON. Our champion from Winnipeg, from The Cornerstone Bar & Restaurant, is Chef NORM PASTORIN. Our Regina champion, from Crave Kitchen + Wine Bar, is Chef JONATHAN THAUBERGER. Our Saskatoon champion, from the Riverside Country Club, is Chef DARREN CRADDOCK. Our Edmonton champion, from Solstice Seasonal Cuisine, is Chef JAN TRITTENBACH. Our Calgary champion, from The Nash Restaurant & Off Cut Bar, is Chef MATTHEW BATEY. Our last competitor, the champion from the Victoria Gold Medal Plates competition, representing British Columbia, from Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar in Vancouver, is Chef ALEX CHEN.
As ever, the Canadian Culinary Championships consists of three separate competitions, each of equal importance in terms of marking. On Saturday morning we hold the Black Box competition – very intense. Each chef has 60 minutes to devise and prepare a dish for the judges using all seven of the secret ingredients inside the black box. On Saturday evening we hold the Grand Finale – anything goes as the chefs present their signature dish to all our guests and the judges. But we begin on Friday night with the Wine Pairing Challenge. The rules are simple. On Thursday, during our party at Sandhill, each chef was given a bottle of the mystery wine, selected by Gold Medal Plates National Wine Advisor, David Lawrason. There are no labels on it, no writing on the cork to give a clue to its identity. The chefs had 24 hours to taste the wine, assess it, and create a dish that they felt was the best possible match for the wine. To make it a little harder, they had to cook their dishes for 400 people and there was a limit to what they were allowed to spend on ingredients – the paltry sum of $500. Plus $50 for cab fare. That’s about $1.25 a head (Could you cook dinner for a dinner party with a budget of $1.25 a head? I couldn’t.). They had to buy all their ingredients with that money and they had to do all their shopping in Kelowna.
Trailed by camera crews, the chefs and their sous chefs and apprentices (the latter eager culinary students from Okanagan College) were all up before dawn, waiting for the local shops to open. By Friday evening, they were at their stations in the Delta hotel with an eager crowd curious to find out what the mystery wine might be and to taste the chefs’ creations. The guests vote on a People’s Choice award – an honour for the winner that has no bearing on the official judges’ marks. The judges themselves were sequestered away in a quiet room. This year they would judge this part of the competition blind, without knowing who had cooked which dish. Marks were awarded for the quality of the wine match (30%), for taste (30%), visual presentation (20%), texture (10%) and wow factor (10%). The wine that had inspired these dishes turned out to be the Gamay Noir from Tawse winery in Niagara – a medium-bodied, versatile red with good acidity to lift its spicy red fruit.
This year, the judges tasted this competition blind, sequestered in a room far from the madding crowd. There was a happy diversity to the dishes and a high standard all round. If this were the first, swimming leg of an Olympic triathlon I’d say all competitors held their own but three of them emerged ahead of the pack at the end of the evening.
The first dish to appear, anonymously, was from Jonathan Thauberger. He proposed a single, tissue-thin rectangle of wagyu beef carpaccio, the colour of coral and with a natural sweetness. It was pretty cool to offer wagyu on such a minuscule budget! On top were crispy sliced mushrooms that tasted of brown butter, a teaspoonful of a runny gorgonzola dolce, dabs of a red fruit gelee that reached deep into the flavours of the wine, a cracker like a curved wand and a final grating of bottarga to boost the meat’s umami. Garnishes added to the textural variety – pomegranate seeds, fresh arugula leaves, a single peeled grape (a polite acknowledgement, perhaps, that we were in wine country). The whole dish was pretty as a picture.
Our second dish (Stuart Cameron) was a heartier affair and one of the best matches of the night. Here was a thick slice of bison tenderloin, medium-rare and full of juicy meat flavours. Beside it were mounds of purple beet chopped as finely as a risotto. Dabs of thick, rich parmesan custard adorened the plate and chef achieved a sweet-sour effect with a drizzle of pomegranate reduction and three rings of beet-stained, pickled shallot. A crisp shaft of brittle pastry echoed the parmesan flavour of the custard and a pinch of finishing salt brought out the full savour of the meat.
Matthew Batey’s dish was third up (the order had been chosen at random). It was a doozey, intricate and full of suprises. As a protein he had poached smoked ham hocks in chicken stock, ground the meat and pressed it into a well-seasoned terrine: a rectangular slice of it dominated one side of the plate. Beside it lay a sleek purple quenelle of cherry sorbet (a bold idea to play with temperatures that way!) decorated with crunchy, translucent slices of raw golden and candystripe beet and finely grated fennel and fennel fronds. Outside among the crowd, Chef was describing the rest of his dish as “Flavours of New World Noir” and indeed the garnishes were a smart call-out to various illusions he found in the wine – a salty molecular beet “caviar,” shredded shallot for piquancy, dots of thick mushroom purée as rich as foie gras.
Dish Four (Alex Chen) was visually stunning – a cylinder of meat in a crimson pool, two mounds of a Lincoln green purée, a bright yellow drum – the colours of Burgundian roof tiles or of a very sophisticated traffic light. The meat turned out to be oxtail, taken off the bone and reformed into a disc – perfectly cooked and textured, rich, tender and delicious. Its crimson pool was a borscht emulsion with a resonant flavour. The green dabs were a stiff purée of parsley and garlic that served as a fine condiment to the oxtail. The yellow drum was sculpted fom a golden beet. There were other elements – a hint of a smoked mayonnaise, a round cracker with a hole in the middle that had the sweet grain taste of a Graham cracker; a green dust that we couldn’t identify; a tiny white radish sitting on top of the oxtail like an elfin comet… The judges were mightily impressed.
Darren Craddock’s unnamed dish appeared next. He had taken the bold and unconventional step of offering a soup in a wine competition – a rich, silky squash velouté subtly spiked with “warm spices” and speckled with bright green chive oil. Across the rim of the bowl he balanced a long, delicate cracker – a bridge upon which were mounded a succession of treats. Here was a mound of crumbled cashews, there some cremini mushrooms topped with pickled shallot; a pea-sized dot of chevre mousse; a brunoise of pale root vegetables. Without chef in the rom to explain we tasted the soup then tipped the other ingredients into it to enjoy them to their fullest.
Our sixth dish came from Guillaume Cantin who chose to work with chicken, using two sturdy discs of firm red beet as a base. Upon them was mounded tender and flavourful pulled chicken meat dressed with a sapid, glossy, perfectly textured reduction of chicken stock. Chef had taken the chicken skin, crisped it and then crumbled it as finely as panko crumbs, which he scattered over everything. There were delicately sliced white mushrooms to be seen and a fine dust of pink peppercorn powdered the plate. Tiny purple basil leaves were the finishing garnish.
Dish number seven (Jan Trittenbach) was beautiful to behold. A circular cracker was set on its side, hooping up over a generous chunk of braised beef that was set on a little round plinth of firm polenta, crisply bronzed in the pan on one side. A yellow gastrique served as sauce. Beside this little sculpture stood a tiny ribbon of zucchini, turned into a hollow cylinder and filled with goat cheese mousse. Dime-sized discs of red and golden beet picked out a sweet earthy note in the wine.
Our next candidate (Roger Andrews) sent in a creation that looked just like a rectangular slice of an ice cream sandwich, but it wasn’t ice cream. Chef had made a pressing of goat cheese and cut out a substantial block, topping it with a slim sablé of graham cracker and cinnamon. On top he mounded a salad of toasted hazelnuts and shaved celery ribbons tossed with fragments of jelly made with cherry blossom honey. The plate was decoarted with large dots of a tangy beet and lingonberry sauce that formed a clever bridge into the Gamay.
Martín Ruiz Salvador’s creation was the ninth of the evening and it set off in a very original and visually beautiful direction. A roll shaped like a canneloni was wrapped in smoked salmon and contained a generous amount of Dungeness crab meat. This tube lay on a pool of smoked parsnip fumet with the texture of a light purée. On top of it was a teaspoonful of Acadian sturgeon caviar, which chef had acquired at a most advantageous price, showing his bargaining skills. Firm celery root, diced compressed beets and morsels of crisped bread paid court to the salmon roll.
Our tenth dish came from Marc Lepine. Introducing it to the crowd in the ballroom he called it simply “Surf and Turf” but there was quite a lot more than that going on. Hopops of crisp, impossibly delicate fried potato rose above the plate, held in place by a firm chunk of seared, salt-cured ling cod. Beside it was a mound of pulled oxtail, moist and flavourful from its slow braise. There were cubes of beet and cubes of potato, dainty rings of leek. The dish was finished tableside by the servers (and I should interrupt here to say that the servers waiting upon the judges throughout the weekend were impeccable in every way). They poured on a hot beef broth, deeply but subtly flavoured with a mixture of spices of which only star anise stood out in any individual way. A smudge of umebashi paint was allowed to seep into this broth adding a moment of sharpness. Yes, there was a lot going on, but the dish’s internal harmonies were finely judged and the wine match subtle but most effective.
For our final consideration, Norm Pastorin sent out a single ravioli stuffed with venison, the pasta nicely judged in terms of tenderness, the meat deliciously seasoned. The dark sauce that dressed it seemed to echo the flavour of the braise. Dabs of a blue cheese mousse contributed richness and depth; a mound of eggplant caponata added refreshment and a valuable vegetable balance, as did the peppery arugula leaves scattered on top. A sweet crumble of candied pine nuts finished the idea.
The judges sat back and the conversation began, the marks were crunched into the computer program that would compile them across the weekend to come. We agreed it was a strong showing, full of variety and imagination. Three front runners had emerged – first out of the water and onto their bikes in the culinary triathlon – Alex Chen (whose dish also won the People’s Choice award that evening), Stuart Cameron and, ahead by a neck, Marc Lepine.