Summer always seems to linger a little longer in the west. We ran nto snow in Nova Scotia last week, but in Victoria the rose gardens were still in bloom around the grand old Empress hotel as we unpacked the Kitchen Party for our British Columbian event. Next year, we move to Vancouver, so this was a sweet farewell to a city that has been a splendid host over the years. Olympic gold-medallist and bold adventurer, rower Adam Kreek was our inspiring emcee – and who better to introduce a parade of renowned athletes, including Dom Gauthier (freestyle skiing and COO of one of our three beneficiaries, B2ten), hockey legends Russ and Geoff Courtnall, triathlete Simon Whitfield and dozens of other stars. And what would a kitchen party be without music? Our band in Victoria was amazing, like a rock festival distilled into a single evening, headlined by Jim Cuddy (Blue Rodeo), Neil Osborne (54-40), Barney Bentall (Legendary Hearts) and Geoffrey Kelly (Spirit of the West), with Anne Lindsay on fiddle, Daniel Lapp on trumpet and fiddle, Devin Cuddy on keyboards, Sam Polley on rhythm guitar, and Geoff Hicks and Rob Becker anchoring it all on drums and bass. They had the crowd on its feet with their very first number and there were hundreds dancing as the band played on late into the night. By then, star auctioneer Bill Brown had done his duty, selling a ton of trips with admirable speed and efficiency.
Victoria’s Great Kitchen Party draws on the whole of B.C. to find its competitors, a task that is made a little easier by having two Senior Judges – Sid Cross, one of Canada’s great authorities on food and wine and the global Honorary President of the International Wine & Food Sciety, and Andrew Morrison, author, restaurant critic and editor-in-chief of Scout Magazine. Tonight we were joined by chef, restaurateur and culinary mentor Peter Zambri and, of course, by last year’s gold-medal winner, the man who went on to win everything at the CCC in Kelowna, the reigning Canadian Culinary Champion, Chef Alex Chen of Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar in Vancouver. As always in this city, the gastronomical standards were dizzyingly high and this year many of the dishes made use of the latest local treasure – black truffles that are now being harvested on the island from a grove of inoculated hazelnut trees..
Marks were extremely close but the judges all agreed on the final placings. Interestingly, no chef from Vancouver made it onto the podium this year – all three medals stayed on the Island. We gave the bronze to Gabe Fayerman-Hansen from Little Jumbo in Victoria. He made excellent use of B.C. lamb short loin, curing and roasting the meat medium-rare and leaving enough fat on the cut to perfume the entire plate. Chef grows his own kabocha squash and he prepared them as a silky mousse (three teaspoon-sized mounds, carefully positioned) and as a fine pavé, its top nicely crusted from the grill. Chef is also an avid forager and he fermented some wild plums he found in an abandoned orchard and turned them into an intensely flavourful purée, spiked with cinnamon and other spices to echo flavours he found in his wine. Foraged wild chanterelles were the final component, sautéed in butter with a suggestion of garlic, shallots and resinous herbs. A jus from the lamb bones was enhanced by black truffles – these ones from France – that added a wonderfully earthy, woodsy savour to the meat. It was a straightforward dish, full of bold, true flavours and attractive textures, very well paired with a super 2016 Pinot Noir from Emandare Vineyard in Duncan, B.C.
Our silver medallist was Paul Moran from 1909 Kitchen in Tofino, another dedicated forager and a chef who believes strongly in using ingredients that are often overlooked or discarded. He presented us with a slice of paté of extraordinary richness and with a texture that seemed as much of a jelly or a cream as a solid. It was made from calves’ liver enhanced by pork jowl which Chef smoked over alder wood then slow-cooked with sweet onions and finally emulsified. Such a bold, offally flavour! As a contrast, Chef presented wild Cornelian cherries that grow on a species of dogwood. Each plate was given two or three of them that had been preserved whole in kirsch and rosé wine; others were turned into a scarlet coulis that brought bright acidity and tannin to the dish and cut the richness of the paté. Tiny raw pine mushrooms were sliced tissue-thin while a frond of watercress added colour and pepperiness. A tiny pinch of powder made of salt and long pepper dusted the plate and the paté was finished with three small crackers made from dehydrated red river cereals. Chef chose a gorgeous rosé wine – the same one he used to preserve the Cornelian cherries – the 2017 Saignée Rosé from Culmina, in Oliver, B.C.
This year’s gold medallist is Takashi Ito from AURA waterfront restaurant + patio in Victoria. He presented a little orchestra of local seafood, starting with a dramatic, sculptural whole prawn head karaage, fried to a crunch, that shattered like puff pastry when one bit into it. Beside it was a very thin slice of pressed octopus “sheet” powerfully seasoned with sea salt while various sauces formed a delta of strong flavours across the plate – a black garlic aïoli, another aïoli flavoured with red pepper and gochujang and a togarashi mayonnaise. The second cluster of treats on the plate was based upon a slim quilt of okonomiyaki pancake stuffed with shrimp, Taiwanese cabbage and tenkasu, topped with shiso leaf and a delicate onion and soy salad. Neatly lined up on this busy bed was half a butter-seared scallop that had been deglazed with sake, a tender spot prawn poached in sake, half a soft-boiled quail’s egg garnished with fish roe, and a morsel of a soft, sweet Dungeness crab terrine. A tiny pipette of soy sauce was provided to give a final umame spritz but it really wasn’t needed – the flavours were big and brave, speaking most eloquently of the sea. Chef chose sake for his pairing – an admirable decision: it was the pungent, fruity, unfiltered Renaissance Fraser Valler Junmai Nigori sake from Osake, made on Granville Island in Vancouver.
So Chef Ito will make the journey to Kelowna next February. We of the Kitchen Party, meanwhile, turn our backs on the ocean and head for the prairies, arriving tomorrow in Saskatoon to throw another jamboree on Saturday. I can’t wait!