Gold Medal Plates Victoria is really a gathering for the entire province of British Columbia, with chefs flying in from Kelowna, Vancouver, the islands and from as far north as Haïda Gwai to compete, last night delighting a sold-out crowd with their creations. Like moons in intersecting orbits, Scott Russell’s personal peregrinations frequently coincide with GMP’s and he was with us again to MC the gala with his customary wit and wisdom. We had a super-group on the stage, entertaining us with music and song – virtually an orchestra, comprised of Neil Osborne of 54/40, Matthew Harder of Spirit of the West, Rebecca Harder, Tobin Frank, Dustin Bentall, Devin Cuddy, Sam Polley and Daniel Lapp!
The food was sensational, marked by a particular sensitivity to the notion of terroir, with every chef eager to seek out and showcase uniquely local ingredients. This is true in the rest of the country these days, thank goodness, but especially so in B.C. Sharing the journey of culinary discovery with me was our brilliant team of local judges led by our Joint Chiefs of Staff for British Columbia, Senior Judge Sid Cross – one of Canada’s great authorities on food and wine – and Senior Judge Andrew Morrison, author, critic and editor-in-chief of Scout Magazine. With us was sommelier, chef, writer and founder of EAT magazine, Gary Hynes; food and wine writer and food editor of Western Living and Vancouver magazines, Neal McLennan; and last year’s gold-medal-winning chef, Jesse McCleery of Pilgrimme, on Galliano Island.
We awarded the bronze medal to Chef Ryan Zuvich of Hilltop Bistro in Nanaimo. The ingredients for his dish were all harvested from farms close to his restaurant within the last week – except for his garnish of nasturtium leaves which were snipped from live flats at his station last night. His central protein was a delicious chicken balotine (“old school” was how he described it) of exceptionally tasty chicken filets marinated in red wine, rolled in peppery leek ash and mushroom powder and then wrapped tightly in chicken skin. The thick slice each judge received looked like a pretty mosaic, perched on top of a medley of vegetables – purple carrot, tropea onion and Peruvian potatoes – each of which had been separately roasted with chicken fat, thyme and garlic and (by some miracle) reached us piping hot. A fluid gel of marionberry and currant added tang to the dish while crushed hazelnuts provided crunch. Chef’s sauce was a sort of Bordelaise, fortified by some of his chosen wine, a robust, rather rugged 2015 blend of Foch and Cabernet from Beaufort Vineyard & Estate in Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley. I thought it was one of the best matches of the night.
Chef Rob Cassels of Saveur in Victoria won the silver medal. His dish was dramatically colourful, centred around a small slab of layered beets, some of the shirts firm, others softer. Circling this well-seasoned, deeply purple moment was a tart ceviche of chopped scallop with lime juice and basil, the acidic contrast with the earthy, sweetly savoury beets very nicely achieved. Apple gelee and popcorn sauce echoed the juxtaposition while dabs of pickled mustard seed sent reinforcements to the sharp side. Scattered on top of the ceviche was a third surprise – crunchy goat cheese puffs dusted with powdered goat cheese (the judges agreed we all wanted to take home a bag of the little beauties). As the outer ring of the presentation, Chef drizzled another sauce made from the scallop scraps and a little cold-smoked goat butter. It was an imaginative, bold, unconventional dish and the wine match was a triumph, neatly bridging the ceviche and the beet – the beautifully balanced 2016 Gamay Noir Rosé from Haywire in Oliver, B.C.
Our gold medallist was the unanimous choice of the judges and he won by a very considerable margin, just as he did in 2015: Alex Chen of Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar in Vancouver. He chose to create his dish inside an empty tin of Northern Divine caviar which he set on a bed of seaweed at the centre of the competition plate. Inside the tin was a treasure trove of wild B.C. shellfish meticulously set in a rich custardy chowder which was then topped with a translucent layer of golden gelee. “It’s all about umami and fun,” explained Chef Chen. That gelee was made from a stock of geoduck and sturgeon bones, the natural colagen causing it to set. Chef chose five kinds of shellfish – Dungeness crab, horse clam, side stripe shrimp, geoduck clam and sea urchin – and topped three of them with a little Northern Divine sturgeon caviar. He finished the dish with an ethereal coral cracker dyed black and flavoured with squid ink and a small green sponge of brioche that used clam juice and bull kelp. So labour intensive! But so delicious! Chef’s wine choice was excellent and provided a cleansing acidity to all the rich, umami pleasures of the food – the light, tangy, suavely aromatic 2016 Ortega from Sea Star on Pender Island.
So Chef Chen will return to Kelowna next February. He finished third in the Canadian Culinary Championships in 2016. From the look in his eye, I’d say he feels he has unfinished business. Tomorrow, Saskatoon.