What a grand finale to the 2017 Gold Medal Plates campaign! Last night’s event in Toronto was simply stellar, with superb food and drink, a highly successful trip-auction, great conversation between our brilliant MC, Scott Russell and the athletes – Olympian bobby-dazzlers all. And of course the house band was on fire in front of the home crowd – heroic performances from the inimitable Jim Cuddy, Anne Lindsay, Danny Michel, Jeremy Fisher, Devin Cuddy and Sam Polley. Travelling with them this fall has been an absolute delight.
With such a multitude to feed (well over 750 guests) we felt it prudent to invite a couple of old friends to the show, lest anyone went hungry. Huge thanks to Afrim Pristine of Cheese Boutique who brought a splendid array of Canadian cheeses and prosciutto and to Hemant Bhagwani of Cateringwala who thrilled the guests with his suavely spiced treats. The line-up of competing chefs was particularly strong this year with two champions returning – former gold-medallist David Lee of Nota Bene and Canadian Culinary Champion emeritus Lorenzo Loseto of George – and the culinary standards on display were often breathtaking. Dish after dish excelled expectation and the judges, seated around their elevated table, quickly realized that finding only three to honour would be no picnic. We were led by Senior Judge for Toronto, writer, editor and food guru, Sasha Chapman; together with Canada’s own culinary interpretor, writer and educator, the Food Laureate at the University of Guelph, Anita Stewart; author, columnist, food editor and my longtime collaborator at Food & Drink magazine, Lucy Waverman; chef, entrepreneur and beloved broadcaster, Christine Cushing; author, food writer and proprietor of the delectable Rosen’s Cinnamon Buns, Amy Rosen; and, in my opinion, Canada’s greatest culinary educator, Chef John Higgins. Normally we would also be joined by last year’s gold-medal-winning chef – but Chef Amanda Ray is busy in Montreal with Oliver Bonacini’s sensational new venture, Bar George. We will induct her into the Gold Medal Plates hall of fame at a later date.
Meanwhile, we had our work cut out last night. The quality was so high that six dishes could easily have reached the podium and as we coordinated our individual scores it became clear that there was no immediate concensus about the winner. Three judges had Chef Lee in first place, three thought Chef Loseto’s dish deserved gold… Luckily we have seven judges.
The bronze medal went to Chef Jesse Vallins of Maple Leaf Tavern and PORT. His dish sounds deceptively simple but it was full of fascinating nuances, delightful variations in temperature and proved to be impeccably balanced. Its centrepiece was a perfect drum of Kennebec potato that had been blanched in salt water, confited in duck fat and finally fried in duck fat to give it a crisp golden crust. Hidden beneath this and providing an almost pickly acidity was a little chopped shallot, vinegared like a mignonette. Around the warm potato was a warm sauce – a truffle butter scented with shaved black truffles, its flavour simultaneously subtle and profound. On top of the potato were two slices of chilled foie gras torchon that had been briefly exposed to icewine vinegar, salt and sugar. Flavours crossed our palates in undulating waves of pleasure. Chef’s beverage was Agraria Modern Farmhouse Ale from Tooth & Nail Brewing Company, a beer created by the brewmaster and the chef to be the perfect accompaniment to this particular dish – a tad sour and funky from a hint of brett and with its creamy texture leavened by the use of Champagne yeast – a super match indeed!
Chef David Lee of Nota Bene won our silver medal with a dish he called simply “pork & porridge.” On top of it lay an irregularly shaped piece of what looked a bubbly crisp – a cracker made of crunchy tapioca. “Break it in pieces then muddle everything up and enjoy it together,” instructed Chef, and we did as were told. The “porridge” was a moist, creamy mass of expertly seasoned rye berries, flecked with soft red onion and finished with a sprinkling of powdered pork crackling. In its midst were small pieces of sensationally delicious pork belly, slow-cooked for 16 hours, sous vide. Chef Lee mastered sous vide cooking decades ago and is also an expert at barbecue: this tender, quite lean belly pork may be the best I have ever eaten. And the dish held a further secret surprise. Buried beneath the porridge were pieces of pork loin jerky in a rich, dark, spicy sauce that looked like hoisin but was far more interesting – more Indonesian than East Asian, we judges thought, with the sort of spicy heat associated with sambal. We discovered it was there about halfway through the dish and the entire experience was changed. Chef’s drink was a brilliant choice – a local Toronto cider called Batch: 1904 from Brickworks Ciderhouse. Made from Idared and McIntosh apples, it had a clean apple-juice-like acidity with hints of citrus and spice, reaching out to the sweetness of the pork and the flavour of the rye berries.
Chef Lorenzo Loseto won the gold medal. The principal element of his dish was a rectangular runway of toothsome, tender lentils, about a quarter of an inch high, spread with a sort of tartare made of lightly poached lobster chopped into a lemongrass mayo. The flavours of lobster and of lentil were notably vivid and bright and they went together delightfully well, enriched by a golden sprinkling of egg yolk that had been smoked, cured, dehydrated and finely grated over the dish. Lying across this soft, layered almost-terrine was an ethereally crisp anise wafer; beside it was a gathering of colourful vegetables. Heirloom carrots were presented four ways – an orange one roasted in a little parsley oil until it was soft and sweet; a yellow one treated the same way but cut into slightly firmer dice; a red one sliced into a ribbon and rolled around a bundle of juicy chives (less than an inch long it was almost too cute to eat); and fermented baby carrot cut into tiny coins as if by a hole-punch. There were crunchy rings of fennel and a scattering of fennel sprouts to echo the anise in the wafer, while a square of fresh fuji apple echoed dots of bright green, intensely flavourful apple jelly. A rich black garlic purée served as a sauce. It was the sort of composition Chef Loseto often creates at George – symphonic but never confused, with its own intricate harmonies working themselves out like a fugue of flavour on the tongue. Again, we were treated to an exceptional match with Chef’s choice of wine, the 2015 Chardonnay called ‘The Fifty’ from Leaning Post Wines in Niagara. Barrel-fermented but aged in steel, it offered rich texture but clean, unoaked aromatics, working equally well with the lobster and lemongrass and the earthy sweetness of the carrots.
Congratulations to Chef Loseto who will return to Kelowna next February, hoping to repeat his former victory at the Canadian Culinary Championships. He will have extremely stiff competition from our ten other regional champions. I can’t wait for it all to begin!