We left Edmonton a couple of hours after the triumphant Gold Medal Plates event there finished, rushing to the distant airport to catch the only flights (via Toronto) that would land us in St. John’s in time for our most eastern gala. The newly refurbished Convention Centre is vast and spiffy, offering ample elbow-room, and the party was a triumph. Our dazzling Master of Ceremonies, Olympian Heather Moyse, had the audience hanging on her every word, while the house band of Jim Cuddy, Anne Lindsay, Colin Cripps, Devin Cuddy and Sam Polley set them dancing in the aisles.
The chefs took full advantage of the SJCC’s generous space to set up their stations; the judges, no longer sequestered, spread out around a large round table for all to see. We were a powerful crew led by St. John’s Senior Judge, chef and educator Bob Arniel of Chef to Go. With us was food writer and blogger for the Independent, Nicholas Gardner, home economist and international trade professional Deborah Youden, Chef, caterer and restaurant critic Peter Gard, and food writer and cooking columnist, Cynthia Stone. Last year’s gold-medal winner, Chef Roger Andrews, could not be with us to judge so his place was taken on the judging panel – and as the creator of our VIP canapés – by a long-time competitor and friend of GMP, chef Roary Macpherson. By the end of the evening, as we took stock of the dishes we’d tasted and started to tally our scores, it became clear that two chefs were going to be sprinting for gold and silver while the anyone from the pack behind them could snatch the bronze. Here’s how it turned out.
Takling the bronze medal was Chris Chafe from The Gypsy Tea Room and evoo In The Courtyard. He chose to work with prime Newfoundland lamb, preparing it three different ways. First there was a moist, juicy “lambchetta” – a roulade of the fatty lamb belly cooked sous-vide for eight hours. At the top of the plate stood a slab of a terrine made of pulled lamb pressed with lamb fat and tangy sour cherry and topped with crumbled pistachios. At three o’clock Chef posed a mound of aerated lamb liver mousseline, crowned with a crisp tuile hoop made from tapioca and squash. Three very distinct lamb treatments with admirably contrasted textures! Meanwhile, a spiced squash purée striped the plate, mingling deliciously with a rich sour-cherry demi glace. The finishing touches included dots of a sour cherry coulis, candied squash seeds and a tiny dune of powdered lamb fat and pistachio. The wine match worked well with the cherry and autumn spice notes in the dish – the Small Lot 2011 Sangiovese from Sandhill Wines in the Okanagan.
Past champion Shaun Hussey of Chinched Bistro won the silver medal with a dish that delighted the crowd and the judges alike. Chef Hussey is a formidable technician and his “chicken four ways” was a tour de force. Here was a roulade of the thighs, as moist and tender as you could wish for, held together by its crispy skin – the flavour elicited the judges’ loudest Wow! of the evening. Leaning nonchalantly against the thigh was a light-textured, poached sausage of cold-smoked chicken and pistachio, its flavour subtly smoky. Chef had taken the chicken liver, coated it with grated potato and deep-fried it, creating a crisp croquette with a soft, pink heart. Finally he confited the chicken hearts, cut them in half and placed them around the plate as if they were pitted olives. As a shared canvas for these four elements, he made a gentle parsnip purée then he added delectably charred Brussels sprouts that everyone found irresistible. Two sauces finished the dish. The first was a stripe of a tangy blackcurrant reduction; the second started out with chef Hussey’s house-made n’duja, loosened by oil and spread about as a sort of vinaigrette (though the only acid in it came from the n’duja’s meaty fermentation). It was a terrific dish and well matched to the 2012 Oldfield Cabernet Franc from Tinhorn Creek in Oliver BC, a wine that showed a fresh acidity but not too many tannins to challenge the chicken.
Chef Ruth Wigman of Oppidan won the gold medal with a very brave and technically ambitious dish. Some of the guests chose not to taste it – their loss! The judges were blown away. Chef Wigman set herself a big challenge, choosing to fry chicken feet at her station. The feet were her dish’s principal component, first simmered in stock with ginger, lemongrass and garlic then deep fried for four minutes, leaving the skin crisp and golden and ready to be dusted with citrus salt. As a counterpart, but continuing her Cantonese theme, she made glazed dumplings filled with soft ground pork quickened with a well-judged amount of Sichuan spices, and set two of them onto every plate. Whelks are notorious for ending up like lumps of rubber but Chef Wigman knew how to avoid that, cooking them sous vide and finishing them with a gentle pickle. Everything on the plate had a harmonic relevance as well as its own distinct and clear flavour. Dots of charred scallion purée served as a sort of green ketchup. A crustacean reduction was plated as three thick dots of umber colour and tasted like the grandfather of all bisques. Crumbled cashews provided textural contrast and the whole dish was topped with a hank of very gently pickled greens and sliced radish. All in all, it was a dish that could have ended disastrously but Chef Wigman mastered every one of the puzzles she set herself and was a unanimous winner on the judges’ score sheets. The wine she chose was a beauty – the elegant 2015 Gewürztraminer from Arrowleaf Cellars in the Okanagan Valley.
This year, the gold-medal-winning chef in St. John’s was gifted with a couple of extra prizes. Like the gold medallists in all our cities, Chef Wigman won a week’s stay for four people in the Vineyard Villa of Gold Medal Plate’s Italian home-from-home, Borgo San Felice in Tuscany. As well, she was handed a cheque for $5,000, a bursary donated by an anonymous local benefactor to help defer the costs of getting off the Rock and away to far Kelowna for the Canadian Culinary Championships. This prize will be awarded every year and we have named it after our revered Senior Judge Emeritus for St. John’s, Karl Wells, who came up on stage to do the honours.
So we have our first three champions: Ruth Wigman from St. John’s, Eric Hanson from Edmonton and Sophie Tabet from Montreal. As with our athletes in Rio, the women are in the ascendency… so far! Next week, a three night marathon – Halifax, Regina and Saskatoon. Game on!