What a rush! And I don’t mean dashing from the finale of our Toronto Kitchen Party to the other side of this vast country to stage another Party just 20 hours later. After six triumphant years in Victoria, we have moved the Kitchen Party back to Vancouver, and our intention was to announce our return with a suitably spectacular show in our old digs at the Westin Bayshore hotel. It was a year in the planning, then, just last week, we learned that industrial action was planned at the hotel and we had to find a new venue! By an amazing series of coincidences, and a fantastic show of support from the Committee Co-chairs and their friends in the local community, we ended up in a truly extraordinary location, building our show on the very ice where the Vancouver Canucks play in the Rogers Arena. The KP team had to reinvent everything, find scores of additional volunteers, alert our guests, redesign the entire event – and they did it – triumphantly. Huge thanks are owed to Michael Doyle, President of the Toptable Group and the man in charge at the Arena, whose entire team welcomed us so hospitably.
And how cool it was to stage our concert in that space! Jim Cuddy assembled another super-powered band with guest stars Barney Bentall, Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, Neil Osborne of 54-40, Geoffrey Kelly of Spirit of the West, Anne Lindsay on violin, Devin Cuddy on keyboards and Sam Polley on guitar, with Barney’s red hot rhythm section of Kirby Barber on bass and Joe Hicks on drums. Perhaps it was the many veiled references to the success of our Toronto event the night before, but it was apparent from the very first moments that Vancouver was going to rise to the challenge. Our emcee was freestyle skiing legend Jennifer Heil and she whipped up the energy in the vast arena, as literally hundreds of guests started dancing and welcoming the dozens of athletes who took the stage, cheering them to the roof. There were Olympians and Paralympians galore and of course a full squad of legends from the Vancouver Canucks’ glory days. Even those of us who count ourselves die-hard Maple Leafs fans were forced to admit that last night, in that place, “we were all Canucks!” I have never seen Vancouver so inspired – our trips selling like hot cakes! And one more reason was the quality of the dishes presented by the all-star line-up of chefs for our delectation.
With co-Senior Judge Sid Cross on sabbatical this year, our judiciary panel was downright lean and mean. Here, self-described in their own immortal words, are the members of the jury who joined me in the rigorous isolation of the judges’ lair: Andrew Morrison, co-Senior Judge, restaurant industry veteran, food and travel writer, editor of Scout and Islandist; Joie Alvaro Kent, food writer for NUVO, MONTECRISTO and Vancouver magazines, cookbook author, cocktail devotée; and Joe Chaput, chef, cheesemonger, co-owner Les Amis du FROMAGE.
Predictably, in a city of such prodigious gastronomical talent, our job was far from easy. In the end a mere 0.25% separated our bronze from our silver medallists, but the winner was unanimous. Here’s how it went down.
We awarded the bronze medal to Christian Kuehnel of Bauhaus. His dish had an elegant European sophistication in the organisation of its flavours, all centred around thick slices of impeccably tender duck breast, its skin crisp and perfectly seasoned. Beside it was a raviolo that Chef made as a homage to the quark dumplings his grandmother used to serve with pea soup, back home in Frankfurt. Quark is not available in B.C., apparently, so Chef made his own using sour cream and mascarpone that oozed voluptuously onto the plate when we cut into the raviolo. Instead of his gran’s pea soup, we found fresh peas, briefly sautéed, a garnish of pea shoots and a spoonful of pea foam. Whole hazelnuts added crunch and gorgeous local chanterelles spoke most eloquently for themselves. Finished with a classic duck jus, it was a seductively harmonious dish, brilliantly paired with the lush and oaky 2017 Qwam Qwmt Pinot Noir from Nk’Mip Cellars in the Okanagan.
Our silver plate was also inspired by nostalgia and tradition – in this case, for pasta carbonara, the favourite dish of the family of chef Alessandro Vianello of Pourhouse. He gave us a disciplined, minimalist but opulently flavourful version of the idea – a single round raviolo, all alone on a large white plate. The pasta was very much in the Roman style – thin but relatively firm; the stuffing was a meaty, well-seasoned farce of guanciale and ricotta. The raviolo was placed on a circle of egg-yolk-and-pecorino-romano custard, wonderfully rich and sapid, that was edged by a suggestion of green parsley oil. Snow white guanciale powder was sprinkled on top alongside fragments of crisp tapioca chips flavoured with black pepper – the other essential ingredient in a classic carbonara. The whole conception was bold but effective, domestic but also suavely avant-garde, and the judges loved it. Chef’s wine match was also a triumph – the vibrant 2017 Tantalus Flagship Chardonnay, its oak and fruit resonating delightfully with the egg yolk in the dish.
Roger Ma of Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar won the gold medal with a meticulously detailed, almost intellectual exploration of B.C.’s coastal terroir. There were many small but perfect elements on the plate. Leading the way was a single honey mussel, farmed on Lasqueti Island. Chef steamed it then gratinéed it with a miso butter crust and a hint of preserved sansho pepper. A caramel-coloured disc of custard turned out to be made from sea urchin cooked with dashi and set with carrageenan; dots of meyer lemon purée and three salmon eggs, like tiny rubies, flattered the custard most charmingly. “This is my version of “surf and turf” said Chef, indicating a slice of potato and scallion terrine set in a broth of clam and mussel nectar. Its heart was a quarter-sized cirle of Yukon Gold that had been poached in an umami-rich shellfish stock then wrapped with bull kelp. More of the wild, hand-harvested kelp garnished the dish, some lightly pickled, other fronds marinated in soy then fried to a crisp, The finishing touch was a lightweight, milky nage made from clam and mussel juice mixed with a dashi flavoured with dried local scallop skirts, Dijon mustard, nigori sake and fig leaf oil. It was a fascinating symphony of flavours, every mouthful bringing a uniquely different experience. Chef’s wine match was exceptionally well chosen – the bright, sturdy 2018 Unicus Grüner Veltliner from Culmina Family Estate Winery.
Huge congratulations to Chef Ma on his victory – amd to the Vancouver Kitchen Party team for an incredibly enjoyable evening. Can any other city come close to matching it? We shall see next Thursday in Edmonton…