Saturday morning – up with the lark to meet the chefs and sous chefs in the hotel lobby at 7:25. Most of the judges had left earlier to power-walk the 40-minute hike to Okanagan College. We stage our Black Box competition in the kitchen of the College’s Culinary Arts department where there’s enough space for three chefs at a time to cook and for the eager crowd to stand and watch them work. Students provide excellent breakfast/brunch in the cafeteria dining room and some of Kelowna’s finest culinary artisans bring their wares to delight our guests. Judge Andrew Morrison provides a most entertaining commentary and the whole morning is broadcast live on the net.
The rules are strict. Each chef must make one dish using all seven ingredients hidden inside the black box and plate it for all the judges. If they go even a single second over the allotted hour, they are heavily penalized. This year the black box contained the following: a whole skinned rabbit from Fraser Valley Rabbitry, British Columbia, with its liver in a separate bag (chefs could use both components, or either); a bag of frozen Zweigelt Icewine Grapes from Summerhill Pyramid Winery, British Columbia; some Cripps Pink Apples from BC Tree Fruits, British Columbia; Kohlrabi from Wise Earth Farms, British Columbia; Balkan Style Feta from Coteau Hills Creamery, Saskatchewan; a bag of Milled Flaxseed from Prairie Flax Products, Manitoba; and 18 beautiful Beausoleil Oysters from New Brunswick. Forty percent of the marks are awarded for creativity and I always try to collate ingredients that can be used in a wide variety of ways. There is also a generous communal pantry upon which the chefs can draw. This year, I was delighted with the imaginative solutions the chefs discovered and most impressed by the beauty of all the presentations.
Chef Nick Jewczyk (St. J) was the first competitor. He pan-seared the rabbit saddle until it was cooked through but still juicy and tender and set a small piece on top of a salad of very thinly sliced radish and kohlrabi. The icewine grapes became a sweet, intensely flavourful sauce that he dotted sparingly onto the plate. He crusted the rabbit liver with flax seed and fried it to a nice crispness then topped it with a raw oyster, dressing the Beausoleil with an apple, kohlrabi and jalapeño mignonette. A little crumbled feta finished that side of the dish.
Chef Briana Kim (Ott) came next with a dramatically contrasted red and green presentation. She stuffed the rabbit loin with its chopped liver and feta then rolled it in panko crumbs to make a popper which she pan-fried. The crust was crispy, the meat inside rare, the flavour excellent. Chef chose to add parsley to the oysters and turn them into a bright green cream, one of three sauces for the popper. The other two were a crimson sweet-sour sauce that used the apple and the icewine grapes, and a savoury kohlrabi jam. She toasted the flax seed, tossed it with salted oats and made a sort of granola to garnish the plate, finishing it with some fronds of watercress.
Chef James McFarland (Sas) also made splendid use of colour on his plate with a bold, bright yellow stripe of deliciously tangy purée made with apple, feta and carrot. A dot of beet purée was vividly pink, while another sauce turned out to be a sabayon that Chef made with the icewine grapes, shallots and egg yolks – a great way to tame the sweetness of the grapes. He made a mousse with the rabbit liver and used it to stuff the loin which he coated with flax and pan-fried. The oyster was also fried, delectably crusted in cornmeal. Chef julienned the kohlrabi and lightly pickled it – its crunch added another lively texture to the dish.
Chef Blake Flann (Cal) started by combining the rabbit liver and some of the grapes into a gorgeous paté which he spread across the centre of the plate. He stuffed the rabbit loin with chopped apple and crumbled feta, rolled it in flax seed and fried it to a perfect tenderness, setting it on some chopped bacon in the middle of the paté. The oyster, marinated in lime and mint with chopped kohlrabi, was placed on top. More of the icewine grapes became a syrupy reduction spooned beside the paté, with dots of a herbed oil and a mint leaf as garnish.
Chef Barry Mooney (Hal) was one of several chefs who misidentified the milled flax seed as ground walnuts – quite understandable when you taste it. (The mistake incurs no penalty.) It was one of the ingredients he used with feta and chopped apple to stuff the rabbit loin which he then wrapped in pancetta from the pantry, seared and roasted to perfection. He crusted the oyster in cornmeal and pan-fried it for a moment then set it atop the slice of rabbit loin. He used the oyster liquor to season a beurre blanc made with white wine and the icewine grapes. Buttery little snippets of sautéed mushroom contributed richness while tissue-thin slices of apple and kohlrabi and a little watercress freshened up everything.
Chef Éric Gonzalez (Mon) seemed to have all the time in the world as he wrapped the rabbit loin around a little bacon and put it in the oven to slow roast. He used the rabbit bones to make a delectable jus and turned the liver into a stiff, creamy mousse. The oyster was deep-fried in cornmeal and perched on top of a mound of julienned apple, crumbled feta and icewine grapes. A remoulade of chopped kohlrabi, apple and chive was another creamy salad component (the judges could have eaten it all day long) and Chef completed the dish with a crispy rasher of bacon and a little dusting of roasted flax seed on the rabbit loin.
Chef Shane Chartrand (Edm) presented a jewel box of colour, flavour and texture. He made a fine-textured, boldly seasoned sausage out of the rabbit meat and glazed it with reduced chicken stock. He served the oyster raw, dressed with mignonette flavoured with the icewine grapes. He rolled pieces of feta in the flax seed, fried them, then rolled them in flax again for another treat then set out thin discs of lightly pickled kohlrabi. Three condiments were very well judged – a tangy apple jam, a delicious carrot purée and a drum of delicately confited leek.
Chef Mike Robins (Win) made a beer batter for deep-frying his oyster – a lovely idea – and also battered and fried chunks of feta cheese. The rabbit liver became a smooth, glossy mousse and the flax seed ended up as a crumble, mixed up with bacon and fermented black garlic. Chef made a pickle out of the apple, kohlrabi and icewine grapes, using beets and mirin vinegar and sauced the dish with a delicate, cadmium yellow aïoli.
Chef Lorenzo Loseto (Tor) produced a substantial dish of rabbit liver and fricaseed rabbit saddle rolled up in soft crepes like canneloni. Each judge got two of them, smothered with a jumble of roasted vegetables – kohlrabi, leek, carrot and potato – with a nicely judged variety of textures and flavours. A salad of mixed herbs and crumbled feta in a miso dressing crowned this little mountain. Chef made a green purée of the apple and oysters and turned the flax seed into a crumble with the help of some panko crumbs. A debonair purple stripe across the plate proved to be a piquant mustard sauce made by reducing the icewine grapes in red wine, brandy, garlic and mustard.
Chef Alex Chen (BC) took his hour to create a very dainty offering. He began by making a mousse of the rabbit leg meat and used it as the filling in a roulade of the rabbit loin and belly fat. This he steamed then wrapped in rosti potato before finishing it in the pan. He breaded the oyster with flax seed and panko and pan-fried it; the kohlrabi, apple and feta became a fresh, multi-textural slaw moistened with a red wine vinaigrette. The icewine grapes gave sweetness to a sweet-and-sour gastrique nudged by brown butter and flavoured with star anise, thyme, rosemary and garlic. He spooned two little pools of this onto empty parts of the plate.
Chef David Vinoya (Reg) was our final competitor and he took a unique approach to the morning’s challenge. He began by sculpting a dozen eggs into perfect hollow receptacles then used a knife to craft a dozen eggcups from the cardboard egg box. Chawan mushi was the first dish he ever mastered, long ago in his childhood, and that is what he made for us – a lightweight steamed egg custard that hid tiny amounts of each of the seven ingredients, all mixed up together. He laid sprigs of rosemary and thyme around his cardboard eggcup in a breathtakingly pretty way – and that was that!
It was a most successful Black Box with no chef incurring penalties for lateness or missed ingredients. Chefs Chen, Kim, Mooney, Gonzalez and Chartrand all scored within a very narrow margin of percentage points and as we looked forward to the Grand Finale that evening it was clear that Chef Chen was still in first place and Chef Gonzalez in second. Either one of them was catchable if they should happen to stumble. As for the bronze medal – it was there for anyone’s taking.
Huge thanks to Deon Nel Photography for all these images.