THE BLACK BOX
Up with the lark to join the jostling, coffee-fuelled throng of chefs, sous chefs, judges and camera crews in the lobby of the hotel at 7:25. Two coaches took us all down to Okanagan College’s campus and the Culinary Arts building where the chefs would compete in the infamous black box competition. This year, in an effort to encourage imaginative thinking, I boosted the marks awarded for creativity and chose ingredients for the box that weren’t obviously connected but offered – indeed, demanded – thinking outside the box. Together with a very well-endowed communal pantry, these are the seven ingredients each chef found in his box. He had to use all seven in a single dish and make 13 plates of the dish…
Two pounds of ground elk meat, donated by Two Rivers Specialty Meats in B.C. Two pounds of whole squid, donated by Jon Crofts of Codfathers, the extraordinary fish and seafood store in Kelowna. The squid would have to be cleaned of innards, quill, ink sack, beak and eyes before they could be used. A bag of delicate, beautifully colourful Nova Scotian hana tsunomata seaweed, donated by Taste of Nova Scotia. One pound of red lentils donated by Story Farm in Saskatchewan and sourced by our judge, Noelle Chorney. One pound of roasted, unsalted jumbo peanuts, donated by the man who farmed them, John Picard of Picard’s Peanuts in Ontario. One jar of ox-eye daisy capers, foraged in the Gaspé and donated by Jonathan Forbes of Forbes Wild Foods. And finally two pounds of local salsify, donated by Mona Johannson of Sunshine Farms in Kelowna.
And so we began, with an audience of 120 crowded into the test kitchens and the close-up handiwork projected onto big screens and live across the country via the internet. There is room for three chefs at a time in the kitchen and a new one was brought in every 15 minutes and given an hour to devise and cook his dish. Here, in the broadest terms, is what they came up with.
Roger Andrews stuffed his whole squid with the elk and plated one elegant slice per judge. As a dressing he raided the pantry to make a fresh-tasting tomato and mint concassé. He fried the chunky squid tentacles and laid one on top. The lentils and peanuts became a well-textured braise and he turned the salsify and capers into a smooth cream alongside. The beautiful red and green seaweed, soft as snippets of silk, were tossed with shaved carrot ribbons and lightly dressed as a garnish.
Martín Ruiz Salvador cooked the ground elk with basil, garlic and tomato and then he too used it as a farce inside the squid. The slice each judge was given stood tall on the plate, based in a spoonful of creamy white salsify purée and dressed with a few drops of fragrant basil oil. A second, separate component on the plate was a scrumptious salad of fried squid tentacles, cooked lentils, mushrooms and fried capers. It lay in a gorgeous peanut broth enriched with tomatoes he roasted in the pan he had used for the squid, white wine, chive and garlic. The third element involved the seaweed, marinated in chive oil and red wine vinegar and tossed with crumbled peanuts. Visually stunning, the dish ticked every one of the judges’ boxes.
Norm Pastorin drew the third position. He made a loose sausage of the elk meat, flavouring it with ginger, garlic, onion, egg and panko. The elk was so lean it needed work if it wasn’t going to end up too tense and firm; chef Pastorin solved that problem! He combined the sausage with squid so that when sliced it presented itself as a pin wheel. Two very distinct purées pleased the judges: a rich lentil purée and a lighter, more liquid emulsion using the peanuts and capers. Chef lifted the seaweed with vinegar, baked it to a crisp and then crumbled it into a dust that decorated the plate. He pickled the salsify, cut into thick ribbons, and also turned it into tiny crisp chips to add crunch – the judges wished they had a bag of those crisps to take home. Whole pickled peanuts brought more textural variety… And there was bacon as an added delight.
Next up, Jan Trittenbach used his elk to make a kind of loonie-sized empanada in a chewy pasta crust. A ring of poached squid proved beguilingly tender, posed at a jaunty angle over lentil and peanut granola. Caper beurre blanc had a lovely, gentle tang and chef’s salsify purée was creamy and super-smooth. Lightly pickled seaweed was involved with the other ingredients, not set far away and the elegant dish was finished with fresh chives and a single baby spinach leaf.
Matthew Batey took an altogether different approach. Inspired by the idea of raw, lean ground meat and capers, he made a dense tartare and baked a crisp, salty cracker to eat it with. Instead of adding egg to the tartare he quickly cured an egg yolk in soy, just enough so it kept its shape. The judges broke theirs and used the runny yolk as a sauce. Using judicious knife skills he roasted slices of the squid until it curled (its tenderness brought oohs and ahs from the judges) and crusted it with powdered peanut and lentil. A sauté of the seaweed with leek and garlic was most innovative and there were dabs of a yummy salsify purée on the rim of the plate. Why up there? Because chef finished the dish tableside by pouring on a little “umami broth” made from chicken stock, mushroom, spices and a suggestion of soy.
Alex Chen made a large meatball – one per judge – using the elk and the seaweed that turned out to be firm on the outside, almost raw inside. He used the juices from the pan to braise his lentils and set the meatball on top of them, crowning it with a petal of carrot. Keeping a polite distance lay a firm piece of knife-scored squid sautéed with lemon and – over there – a purée of caper and salsify spiked with miso. Crisply fried salsify ribbons were predictably delicious and two watercress leaves reminded us of his masterful sense of colour.
What would Guillaume Cantin do with his seven ingredients? He too made elk meatballs, but one third the size of chef Chen’s. His seared squid was among the morning’s most tender renditions and both it and the meatballs were set over a ragout of crushed peanuts, seaweed and lentils, cooked al dente. The creamiest of salsify purées was a major crowd-pleaser and the dish was moistened with a caper vinaigrette enriched by the cooking juices from the elk. Lemon zest and parsley leaves were the final garnish.
Stuart Cameron’s dish was fascinating. He decided to make dumplings, filling the tender wrapper with the elk meat, spiced up with chili and cumin – lovely flavours that had the judges nodding. The dumpling rose like a pale mountain from a landscape of braised lentils (their tenderness very welcome) while the morsels of crispy fried squid seemed made for dipping into a vibrant green mojo verde sauce, as tangy as it was vividly green. But the squid already had a dipping partner in a lovely seaweed aïoli. Chef had poached the salsify in a classic way, cutting the roots into buttery little drums that showed off their ephemeral flavour perfectly. A sweet peanut crumble finished the dish. It scored highly with all the judges so it was something of a tragedy when we learned that Chef Cameron had gone over time by a substantial two and a half minutes, incurring a 20-percent penalty. Time management is one of the raisons d’être of this competition – hence the harsh penalty. It was the only mishap of the day, and it promised to be horribly influential on the final results.
Next up was Marc Lepine. He made elk meatballs – tender, perfectly cooked and glazed with a yummy sweet-and-sour sauce. Each judge got two alongside a third sphere – a dense, rather dry falafel made with the lentils that had been tossed in a salsa verde spiked with the capers’ pickling juice. A spoonful of squid and seaweed salad was a demure sidekick to the meatballs and a peanut and miso sauce was available as a thick condiment to the elk. The salsify made two appearances – as a purée and as crispy fried ribbon fringed with black (chef had not peeled the root) and perforated to add visual interest. A caper gastrique, coriander leaves and soft fronds of the seaweed finished the plate.
Darren Craddock sent forth our penultimate plate. He had cooked the elk into a ragout and tucked it up against braised lentils – al dente – that were studded with bacon. The squid was marinated in lemon juice, olive and cilantro then battered and fried. A strip of its body and a tentacle lay on top of the lentils, their contrasting textures giving the judges plenty to talk about. Salsa verde made with caper juice had a lively, tangy flavour that perked up the dish nicely. A dot of carrot purée stood as the younger sibling to the main event of salsify purée; Chef used the peanuts as a finishing crumble for a salad of watercress and chopped capers while the seaweed was tossed in a caper lemon vinaigrette.
Jonathan Thauberger rounded off a long morning with an elk sausage studded with peanuts – a pretty presentation and the morning’s most successful use of the elk. Perhaps he sensed the judges might be weary of braised lentils so he puréed his with a little goat cheese and used them as the stuffing for a wee pastry puff. He chose to pickle the squid with fried capers (it was markedly tender) and made a fine julienne of salsify which he tossed into a salad with the seaweed and the smaller tentacles from the squid. Dime-sized slices of beet and a drizzle of beet gastrique provided refreshing acidity while dots of a green parsley-spinach oil added contrasting colour.
So there we were, we judges, weighed down by lentils but otherwise most impressed. We had hoped for creativity and we certainly found it. We crunched the numbers. The back of the pack from the previous evening had caught up well. Chef Cameron had slipped back thanks to his time penalty. Chefs Batey, Thauberger and Pastorin were pushing up the ranks and now pedaled alongside the leaders. But the top marks for the Black Box went, once again, to Marc Lepine. Would he – could he – be caught?
THE GRAND FINALE
I will leave it to others who were there to describe the jubilant mood, the great music, the compelling speeches, the general splendour of the Grand Finale. We judges were busy in our private room, addressing our minds and palates to the eleven signature works of art presented by our chefs. Ten of them were the dishes that had won gold in their respective cities, pondered and finessed and reprised for us tonight. I had tasted them all during the fall campaign and knew their manifold strengths. Only Alex Chen decided to create a new dish since many of his ingredients from the Victoria Gold Medal Plates competition were autumnal and Chen’s views on seasonal food are strongly held. Without further ado, here’s how it went down.
Matthew Batey, Calgary. A slice of octopus terrine is a beautiful thing, the circles of white tentacle of different sizes set in a sapid purple matrix like a polished surface of rare porphyry marble seen through a microscope. That was the base of Chef Batey’s dish, a sheet of octopus pressé limned with a pale yellow jelly made from chosen wine. On top of it sat a hefty cube of alder-smoked sablefish, firm but juicy and full of flavour. At one end was a crisp-coated croquette of mashed potato dressed with a yellow sabayon flavoured with sea urchin and garnished with a teaspoonful of Northern Divine sturgeon caviar. At the other, tangy cubes of pickled apple. Moments of orange jelly brought a citrus component; a softer red beet jell showed as a line of dime-sized dots. It was a dish of fine balances, sudden intensities of flavour and interesting textures. Chef’s wine, Road 13 2011 sparkling Chenin Blanc from Oliver, B.C., was a fine, tight, acidic brut bubbly that refreshed the palate with every sip.
Roger Andrews, St. John’s. He called his dish “Eggs on Toast” and described it as a play on the elements of a classic caviar service. Visually, it was stunning, like a display drawer of specimens in a Victorian natural history museum, each component equally spaced, each one a perfect example of its species. Three generous mounds of Acadian sturgeon caviar. Two pieces of shallot-scented toast, as crisp and thin as elfin melbas. Two leaves from the oyster plant that look like lamb’s quarters but taste, miraculously, like an oyster. A frond of sea asparagus with its natural, Neptune-given saltiness. A single perfect meringue representing the egg white of a caviar service, scented with pink peppercorn. Two elements stood for the egg yolk, the first being two mounds of bright orange, crumbly powder made by drying scallop roes and then grating them as a sort of bottarga: their flavour was benthic, eggy, marine. The second yolky moment were the three pools of lemon curd sour cream. We haven’t even come to the main event – two quenelles of sea urchin bavarian giving another exotic, distinctive taste of the ocean. Then there were individual grains of buckwheat toasted to a crunch and a final sprinkling of a green herb that looked like rosemary but tasted far more subtle. It was an extraordinary dish, full of flavours and aromas, true to its theme and beautifully matched with a smashing Nova Scotian bubbly, Benjamin Bridge 2014 Tidal Bay from the Gaspereau Valley.
Jonathan Thauberger, Regina. “Fruits de mer in dashi…” One expects a soup, but no. Chef’s dashi was a reduction of rabbit, chicken and duck stocks, flavoured with bonito and dulse and then fined and refined until it was as clear as a topaz and a firm jelly at room temperature. Before it solidified, however, chef hid treasure inside – a plump, juicy sidestripe shrimp. This jelly was set as a hollow square shape, the perfect receptacle for a delicate turmeric aïoli. On top of it lay a single, small octopus tentacle, poached six or seven times until it was beyond tender then marinated. Beside this sat three thick slices of very rare scallop, its edges stained with beet juice. The third element was a perfect croquette of lobster mousse, its surface golden and crisp, its secret heart a surprise of caviar. A lightweight, super-crispy salmon skin chicharron finished the dish. No starch. No mitigating purée. Pure deliciousness – and a very good match with the wine of the competition, Le Vieux Pin’s 2014 Ava, a Rhône-like blend of Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne from the South Okanagan.
Norm Pastorin, Winnipeg. What happens when you confit salmon fillet in shallot-infused oil? It ends up like this – soft, slippery, densely textured and delectable. Chef cut us a thick piece and set it over his version of tamagoyaki – no mere omelette, but a perfect yellow disc of yolk, a millimetre thick, no more, so that it almost looked like a pattern on the plate. On top of the salmon was a heavenly crumble of salmon roe, minced bacon and quinoa. Pickled shallot rings gave tangy acidity; a soy-ginger-anise glaze boosted the already potent umami. A mound of delicate, fresh, un-massaged green kale leaves were dressed with a ginger-onion-garlic-sesame dressing. The last flourish was seaweed, brushed with mirin and vinegar then toasted and ground to powder until nothing remained of it but a pinch of dust scattered the white expanse of the plate. “Few wines can work with this sort of soy umami,” opined chef as he presented the dish, but he had found one that could in Burrowing Owl Estate Winery’s 2013 Chardonnay from the Okanagan.
Martín Ruiz Salvador, Halifax. Chef’s wine, the elegant, oaky, impressive 2013 Ancienne Chardonnay from Lightfoot & Wolfville Vineyards in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, was his inspiration, with its classic French style and local fruit. So he presented a Nova Scotian take on four classical French dishes, each self-contained and involving rabbit and whelks (those delicious maritime “escargots”). His interpretation of a ham hock and parsley terrine used confited rabbit shoulder and sea parsley topped with a dab of bone marrow remoulade and a bonnet of soft sea lettuce. A drum of rabbit loin, wrapped in bacon and stuffed with chopped whelk had its own sauce presented in a hollow whelk shell – a gorgeous concoction of ceps, Dijon mustard, cream and rabbit stock. The third element was a “cassoulet” – rabbit leg stuffed with a ragout of white beans set on a parsnip purée and scattered with green edamame beans and lardons of smoked rabbit belly. To finish, he gave us a teaspoonful of rabbit liver parfait on a piece of poached McIntosh apple topped with a confit of onion, mustard seed and honey. A tiny rabbit-suet chicharron was the scrunchy envoi. Such a refined and intricate dish and a sound match for that Chardonnay!
Marc Lepine, Ottawa-Gatineau. Serving his dish in a bowl with a poured-on broth allowed Chef to be sure that the many flavours and textures of his dish reached our palates in groups rather than on their own. The result was an ambrosial mosaic of sweet and smoky effects. Front and centre was a cube of succulent applewood-smoked steelhead trout, stickily glazed with miso, molasses and Newfoundland screech. Its weight anchored a soaring hoop the size of a bracelet made of a tuile batter scented with toasted fennel and coriander seed. Lurking in the bowl were other treats – nameko mushrooms, little fronds of dill weed, fennel pollen, yellow beet, pieces of cured and confited pork belly and a loose porridge of barley and corn. Over this, chef poured a clear broth brewed in a spirit-heated cona and infused with corn cobs, miso and smoked carrot “bonito” flakes. The hot liquid brought all the elements together, the whole greater than the sum of the parts, and a beautiful compliment to Le Clos Jordanne 2012 Chardonnay from Niagara’s Twenty Mile Bench.
Stuart Cameron, Toronto. Here was a stunning dish in a different flavour key than we are accustomed to, full of subtle, exotic Levantine aromatics. At its heart were two quail breasts pressed together to form a single piece of meat, cooked sous vide most precisely and glazed golden with a jus made of the quail bones scented with orange flower water. Beside it lay a cigar-shaped borek of crisp pastry filled with almost liquid foie gras mousse. Next to that, Chef had mounded a gremolata of Iranian pistachios with fried chili flowers, orange, viola petals and ras el hanout spices. A dab of rose petal jam brought its own perfumed sweetness. The wine match was sublime – Benjamin Bridge 2013 Nova 7 from the Gaspereau Valley in Nova Scotia, an off-dry sparkling wine made from seven different varieties of muscat and heady with the aromas of grapes and gardenia.
Darren Craddock, Saskatoon. Wild boar from Golden Prairies, Saskatchewan, was Chef Craddock’s chosen protein and he presented two cuts. The first was a wee drum of the neck meat, cooked sous vide and scented with Indian spices. The second was a slice of unctuous belly glazed in pungent birch syrup. As accompaniments, he played with textures of apple, sunchoke and cherry in a umber of ways. Here were cubes of compressed crabapple poached in his chosen wine; there were molecular pearls made from those ultra-flavourful Saskatchewan cherries and another cherry marvel – a sparkling powder like Christmas glitter. The sunchoke appeared as a smooth purée under the meat and again as crispy little chips. Off to one side was a mound of mustard seeds infused with the wine, which found many entrees into the dish, most notably with the crab apple. It was the 2014 Old Vines Block Trebbiano from Hester Creek Estate Winery in the Okanagan and it proved an impressive match.
Alex Chen, British Columbia. What can a master chef do with chicken and celery? Alex Chen shows us. First, he made a tender ballotine of juicy chicken meat stuffed with sticks of black truffle and tarragon that only seemed to lift the aroma of the truffle higher off the plate. A wand of crisp, bacon-like chicken skin lay across the timbale like a drumstick on a drum. Beside it was a form of celeriac fondant (where one might have expected potato) and on either side was a finger of celery, its hollow stuffed with a lightweight foie gras mousse. Shavings of radish and truffle lay on top. Chef finished the dish with a broth that he knew would steal the show – a translucent consommé like liquid umami made from older chicken, oxtail and charred celeriac then boosted in its later stages with dried porcini. Together with the truffles and the complex fats of the chicken skin it formed a broad and stately bridge into the chosen wine, the mature Foxtrot Vineyards 2009 Pinot Noir from the Naramata, a match that many of the judges deemed “awesome.”
Jan Trittenbach, Edmonton. Imagine a piglet rooting about for mushrooms on a forest floor… This dish seemed to illustrate the moment. Chef Trittenbach turned to pork for his Grand Finale, starting with a juicy roulade stuffed with ricotta and wrapped in a skin of leek. Beside it stood a slice of the belly, soft and luxe beneath a bronzed surface. Between them towered a giant mushroom – but no, the cremini cap (lightly marinated in soy, sesame and vinegar) sat on top of a stalk made from a porcini tuile tube filled with bacon “caviar.” Mushroom duxelles was also on stage, hidden inside a cylinder of sweet potato ribbon. Dots of golden beet purée and spinach purée added colour and earthy flavours but the real “earth” was a soil made from powdered beets and pistachio that soaked up the juices from the pork. As a finishing touch, chef scattered edible flowers and microgreens, turning the “forest” into a garden. His wine match was a complex red blend from the Okanagan, Sandhill 2012 Small Lots Three.
Guillaume Cantin, Montreal. Our last dish of the weekend provided us with the most flawless beverage match of all, an amber ale called À Table!, brewed with 16 spices and fruits by Brasseurs du Monde de Saint-Hyacinthe. It has a citrussy, hoppy complexity that Chef Cantin used as inspiration for his dish. At its heart stood a cylindrical piece of the shoulder muscle of a suckling piglet from the renowned St. Canut. Even without its maple syrup glaze, the meat was beguilingly sweet and tender. A little puck of boudin noir was marvellously moist inside its nicely darkened crust. As a take on “pork and beans” we were given “pois au lard,” firmish field peas baked to a traditional recipe with bacon lardons cured from the piglet’s cheek. On top of the pork was a coarse “ketchup” of saskatoon berries, its gentle tang cutting the sweetness of the maple and some pale discs of turnip lightly pickled with tarragon. Tarragon was another flavour chef had found in his ale and he had strewn the plate with it alongside anise and butternuts that tasted like mild-mannered walnuts. As I found in Montreal when I first tasted it, this was a surprisingly complex dish but its true quality emerged when you put a bit of everything on the fork and tucked in.
Eh bien… We had tasted everything. It only remained to gather in the marks and see who would be summoned to the podium. Four chefs that evening had scored in the 80s – Messrs Chen, Batey, Cameron and Lepine and once again Marc Lepine had won this particular leg of the competition, just as he had won the Black Box and the Mystery Wine Pairing. And so we called our three medallists up on stage. Chef Alex Chen won bronze. Chef Matthew Batey won silver. Chef Marc Lepine, an artist at the top of his form, is once again the Canadian Culinary Champion.
Thank you to all the chefs who competed, to all the judges who judged, the sous chefs and students who assisted their chefs, the wineries and winemakers and the brewery and brewer, our loyal audience in the Okanagan and across Canada, Lisa Pasin and her team, the Delta Grand Okanagan, all the volunteers and everyone else who helped to create such a splendid event.