The Canadian Culinary Championships 2019 The Grand Finale

This year’s Grand Finale was, by all accounts, a most spectacular affair, with Bill Henderson leading Chilliwack in all its glory as they performed their greatest hits – the rock soundtrack Canada grew up with. The eloquent emcee was Dominick Gauthier, COO of B2ten (one of the Kitchen Party’s three beneficiaries) and coach to gold medalists in freestyle skiing Jennifer Heil and Alexandre Bilodeau. You will have to find out more about the event from another source because we judges were hidden away in our fortress of solitude, the better to judge the final dishes of our eleven competing chefs. Having awarded all these chefs a gold in their respective regional events, I knew we were in for a serious gastronomical evening. Several of the dishes had evolved since I last encountered them and one or two were entirely new. I was not disappointed and neither were my fellow judges. It was a dazzling end to the weekend.

Chef Jason Morris

The first chef to bring his dish to us was Chef Jason Morris of Pastel in Montreal. Seven separate elements adorned his plate most elegantly, four of them cauliflower – tiny, perfectly textured florets of purple, green and yellow varieties, and a dab of silky, buttery white cauliflower purée. But duck was the dish’s principal ingredient. Chef created a ballotine by setting strips of duck breast in a matrix of puréed chanterelles, truffles and duck jus, cooking it sous vide then finishing it on the grill. A round slice cut from the cylinder had the appearance of a mosaic and Chef Morris sauced it at the table, pouring on a jus made from the duck bones enriched with a little foie gras. More foie gras was turned into a creamy torchon – a dainty cylinder half an inch long and no thicker than my pinkie – wrapped in a red skin of cranberry gelee. A golden sphere the size of a golf ball turned out to be a cromesquis of juicy confited duck leg seasoned with burned thyme, sage and burned onion, mouthwateringly tender beneath a crunchy crust of fried potato flakes. The duck mosaic had a pleasingly firm texture – nothing pasty at all – and the flavours were all lucid and true. The chosen beverage was the bold, fruity, unfiltered Izumi genshu junmai sake produced in Toronto’s Distillery District, its creamy weight nicely judged against the textures of the dish, its floral nose working particularly well with the multicoloured cauliflower jewels.

           The second dish was the work of Chef Takashi Ito of AURA in Victoria. He presented a generous grouping of west coast seafood, starting with a dramatic, sculptural whole prawn head karaage, fried to a crunch, that shattered like puff pastry between the teeth. It stood secure on a little tagarashi aïoli that also striped the plate, beside a second aïoli flavoured with red pepper and gochujang and dots of a third – a black garlic purée packed with umami. Beside the shrimp head was a very thin slice of pressed octopus “sheet” full of the flavour of the creature. A second cluster of treats on the plate was based upon a slim quilt of okonomiyaki pancake stuffed with shrimp, Taiwanese cabbage and tenkasu, expertly achieved, its base crispy, its centre soft. A shiso leaf formed a division between this and the seafood arranged on top – half a butter-seared scallop that had been deglazed with sake and was garnished with fish roe, a tender spot prawn poached in sake, and half a soft-boiled quail’s egg. 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.

photo” Ben Champoux

The third presentation was from Chef Jesse Friesen of The Merchant Kitchen in Winnipeg. He took lobster tail, poached it in serrano chili oil then glazed it with squid ink, turning it a dramatic midnight blue. He smoked Manitoba pickerel cheeks over cherrywood. Then he took the lobster and the cheeks and set them in a classic scallop mousseline, snow-white and fluffy. Under this monochromatic drum of sea flavours, we found a warm creamy purée of celeriac, potato, citrus and horseradish. Three green gnudi dumplings made with ricotta and arugula pesto were the second main component, bordered with juicy, earthy shimeji mushrooms. Three little garnishing ideas provided the dish’s umami component – motes of smoked pork belly, a shaving of truffle, and a little Spanish herring caviar. Dill fronds and fragments of a delicately brittle saffron tuille were scattered over the plate, then Chef poured on a rich lobster bisque spiced with a hint of cumin and cinnamon. His chosen wine was the crisp brut bubbly from the Okanagan, Blue Mountain Gold Label Brut.

           Chef Thomas Carey of Fresh Twenty One in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, offered a splendid evocation of the terroir of the Maritimes. At its base was a rectangular slice of braised oxtail terrine that tasted entirely of the rich pulled meat, pressed into compaction. On top of this was an oyster poached so briefly it hadn’t seized at all. On either side of this, sharing its succulent texture were two slices of foie gras torchon cured in dulse. I have no idea how Chef Carey gets his torchon to keep such a trembling texture – much more like pan-seared foie gras than cured! Thin slices of pickled jerusalem artichoke added freshness and crunch while curved spines of crisp potato tuille undulated across the top of the dish. Celery shoots and chervil microgreens were the coup de grace and Chef finished the dish by spooning on a foamy sunchoke soubise from a saucepan. The wine match was one of the best of the evening, the minerality of the dulse and the oyster embracing similar characteristics in the bone-dry, complex 2017 Wild Ferment Cabernet Franc Rosé from Benjamin Bridge in Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Valley – a star if ever there was.

           The fifth dish we tasted was the work of Chef Davina Moraiko from RGE RD in Edmonton. A firm pork boudin noir was its principal protein, the lighty spiced sausage given extra richness and texture by the inclusion of cured pork lardo and pearl barley. It sat atop a spoonful cider-sweetened hollandaise as rich and golden as egg yolk. Freshness came in from several directions – from a brunoise of fresh honeycrisp apple; from crunchy, lightly fermented green cabbage, chopped as finely as any slaw; and from a kale and roasted onion fluid gel. A fine green dusting on the plate was made from dehydrated, powdered kale and grated, cured pork heart. Pork crackling chicharrons provided ethereal crunch and a scattering red and pink flower petals added a pretty visual touch. I loved how the cider in the hollandaise reached out to the apple aromas of Chef’s chosen wine, the 2016 Riesling from Red Rooster on  B.C.’s Naramata Bench.


photo”Ben Champoux

Chef Elia Herrera of Colibri in Toronto was our next competitor. A generous slab of pork belly was the centrepiece of her creation, the meat cured three separate ways over three days then slow-cooked sous-vide for 14 hours before it was cut and its surfaces were crisped in a pan. On top of the pork we found a small quenelle of a smooth greeny-brown purée that Chef described as a Yucatan-style salsa of ground pumpkin seed spiked with habanero chilies and garlic. “Spread it over the meat,” she advised and we obeyed. Too fiery to eat on its own, it was a perfectly judged amount to work as a condiment when carefully spread, adding delightful heat and complexity. Chef’s sauce was a superb Oaxacan-style mole negro containing 48 separate ingredients; glossy, smooth and almost black it seethed with the dark, smoky flavours of various chilies and bitter chocolate. The pork sat on a slice of corn tamal, its texture turned from a polenta into something as smooth as a mousseline by the addition of pork fat. It had also picked up a little extra flavour from being wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf. Cutting these riches was a supreme of fresh orange marinated in orange flower water and a suggestion of cinnamon. Chef had chosen a lovely rosé from Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara as her match but Air Canada managed to freeze the shipment somehow and the wine was ruined. An hour before the event a local Okanagan producer stepped in with a very generous donation of his own delectable rosé, Misconduct Wine Co.’s 2015 Massacre Rosé, a gogeously fruity blend of seven different varieties. It was a lovely pairing.

            Chef Christopher Hill of Taste Restaurant Group in Saskatoon won his regional gold medal with a dish he called “After The Fire” and he recreated it for us tonight. The inspiration was the way in which nature recreates itself after a fire and Chef introduced the idea by bringing a tray of smouldering cherrywood under a belljar to give us an olfactory hint. At the heart of the dish was a roulade of lightly cured, lightly smoked duck leg, confited and rolled with wild boar sausage, the meat blessed with a wonderfully juicy toothsome texture. Beside it Chef piped an aerated foie gras mousse with an ethereal texture, its surface tinted red with beet powder. Here was a parsnip purée, subtly flavoured with rosemary, there a whole morel sautéed in butter, and there a small mound of tender-crunchy smoked cabbage. A hank of crispy reindeer moss spoke of the woods while dots of intense sour cherry syrup recalled the orchard. A strip of chewy “bark” was made of salsify cooked in birch syrup, adding an intriguingly dark and bitter note to the spectrum of flavours. Juniper jus and flower petals finished the dish. A whisp of smoke from the belljar hung in the air – as it once did over the vineyard that produced the wine Chef chose, the 2017 Pinot Noir from Meyer Family Vineyards in the Okanagan Valley, a mouthful of spicy cherries. In that year, wild fires raged over the surrounding hills, though the grapes survived untouched.

            Dish number eight was the masterful work of Chef Dave Bohati of Murrieta’s in Calgary. He chose to work with Brant Lake wagyu beef cheek, first brining it like pastrami for 72 hours then smoking it, crusting it, slow-cooking it sous vide and finally braising it. The result was astonishingly tender meat that fell apart at the touch of a fork, subtly flavoured with sweet smoke and thyme, star anise and black pepper. Chef paired it with four different preparations of Jerusalem artichoke – a rich purée, small roasted nuggets of the root, crunchy crisps and dime-sized slices of raw sunchoke that he briefly acidulated and vacuum-packed to keep them fresh and firm. Kabocha squash was the other major ingredient, used as a second purée, as a tender brunoise and also to make lovely little gnocchi, finished in a sauté pan with some roasted bone marrow and shaved fresh Burgundy truffles. Saskatoon berries served as a condiment, macerated in Chef’s chosen Pinot Noir but still whole and juicy. A little green herb oil was the finishing touch, bringing colour to the plate. That Pinot Noir, the 2016 Tantalus from Kelowna, BC, was an inspired choice made, Chef Bohati explained, because of the wine’s peppery notes and unusually high alcohol.

            Chef Yannick LaSalle’s Grand Finale dish – the ninth we tasted – was another triumph. At its heart were several silky slices of cured and dried duck breast, beautifully fringed with sweet fat. First drawing the eye, however, was a dried fennel crisp, made by cutting a wafer-thin cross-section of a fennel bulb and turning it into a chip. The chip is then dipped into a simple syrup made with fennel juice, absinthe and sugar, dusted with fennel pollen and fennel salt and dehydrated to become a unique and flavourful garnish. The duck-fennel relationship was strengthened by a paste-like “sofrito” of fennel, duck jelly, onion, garlic, coriander seeds and fennel seeds, saffron and Chef’s chosen wine. Fragments of crispy duck skin were strewn over the top. Fresh celery leaves, chopped hazelnuts and a wee pool of hazelnut oil brought their own sweet, herbal and nutty aromas to the plate. The last touch was a powerful sauce made of tart sea buckthorn berries, fennel scraps and chili, bolstered by a brunoise of pickled fennel, ginger, onions and tarragon. In all, it was a complex but utterly harmonious affair – a homage to fennel more than anything else. It worked perfectly with Chef’s chosen wine, the gently oaked, lively 2016 Barrel Select Chardonnay from Meldville Wines in Beamsville, Niagara.

            “It’s a taste of our garden,” said Chef Katie Hayes as she introduced her dish – the cherished ocean-side gardens that surround her restaurant, Bonavista Social Club near East Amherst Cove, Newfoundland. Chef’s protein was local pré-salé mousse, towit a slice of superbly tender loin, drizzled with a pure mousse jus, and a spoonful of hearty mousse stew hidden inside a dainty little flaky pastry puff. A layered pavé of tissue-thin potato, turnip and marigold beet really were from her own vegetable beds while pearls turned from more root vegetables were glazed with raw honey from her father’s apiary on the property. A big swoop of parsnip purée linked the two meaty elements and partridgeberries provided useful acidity. A crispy garlic chip and a sprin kle of smoked juniper sea salt were the final touches. Chef’s chosen wine worked in several contrasting and effective ways, to the delight of the judges. It was the 2015 Grower’s Blend Cabernet Franc from Tawse in Niagara.

           And now we had reached the grand finale of the Grand Finale, the final dish of the weekend, courtesy of Chef Irwin MacKinnon of Papa Joe’s in Charlottetown, P.E.I. Surf and Turf is an island tradition, he explained, but I doubt it is usually achieved with such panache. He presented his medley of elements most dramatically, setting them between two vivid green asparagus spears and flooding the space with a rich, dark demi-glace. Here was a piece of juicy, sapid Certified Island Beef short rib topped with mustard seed. And there a perfectly textured slice of lobster tail with dots of lobster bisque serving s a second sauce. More beef was present in the form of Blue Dot Reserve tenderloin carpaccio, wrapped around a delicate lobster mousseline. Three layers of vegetable mousse – yellow, white and spinach green – were cut into a triangle, while a heart of cheddar cheese lurked inside a sturdy croquette of pulled beef. P.E.I. potato crisps added a final crunch. Chef had chosen a fine P.E.I. I.P.A. to go with his dish and UPSTREET Craft Brewery had brewed a special batch just for the Kelowna competition. Alas, Air Canada froze half the consignment and lost the rest. With the help of one of the Kitchen Party team, Scott Gurney, a local beer was found and again the substitute showed very well indeed – Four Winds Featherweight IPA.

While the party went into overdrive in the ballroom, we judges totted up our scores and fed them into the master program on my computer. We have never had a Championship where the marks were so closely grouped with all eleven of the competitors still in a pack at the finish line. Chef Ito had won the Grand Finale with his masterful dish of west coast seafood but it was not enough to push him onto the podium. When all was said and done, Chef Dave Bohati won the bronze medal, Chef Christopher Hill the silver, and the new Canadian Culinary Champion was Chef Yannick LaSalle of Les Fougères in Chelsea, Quebec, representing Ottawa-Gatineau – a hugely popular and well-deserved victor who had made hundreds of friends over the weekend.





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