Oh the excitement! The 14th Canadian Culinary Championships burst upon us as January eased into February, not in Kelowna (its home for the last nine very happy years) but in the Nation’s Capital. It really is the right place to hold Canada’s most important gastronomical competition and the city of Ottawa certainly welcomed us ever so warmly.
We felt the love on Thursday evening for the opening ceremonies – an event we call the Winners’ Circle, where the chefs and judges are introduced to the gathered VIP guests, sponsors and media. We held it in the spacious atrium of Ottawa’s City Hall, and it was a most convivial gathering. The food provided was incredible thanks to a galaxy of past Ottawa-Gatineau Kitchen Party champions, each serving up sensational little treats from their stations. Here was Chef Michael Blackie, who won gold in 2006, Chef Michael Moffatt who won gold twice – in 2007 and 2010, Chef Patrick Garland who won gold in 2014, Chef Joe Thottungal who won gold in 2016, and Chef Daniela Manrique who won bronze in 2019 and silver the year before. They were all brought together to delight us and to feed us by Sheila Whyte who owns Thyme & Again, Ottawa’s finest catering company, and is one of the Great Kitchen Party’s judges in Ottawa-Gatineau. It was a splendid way to start the evening and to remind ourselves of the level of talent in Ottawa-Gatineau, the only region of Canada to have won the Championship three times.
Meanwhile, Chef Charles Part, who won gold in Ottawa-Gatineau in 2008, was also in the room, together with his wife, Jennifer Warren Part. They own Les Fougères in Chelsea, Quebec, where last year’s Canadian Culinary Champion, Yannick LaSalle, is chef. On Wednesday night he had hosted the Farewell Feast at his restaurant for guests across the country who were wise enough to buy the “Canada’s Ultimate Foodie Experience and CCC” trip. It was a stunningly delicious meal, paired with splendid wines from the cellar at Les Fougères – and very much a love-in for Yannick who has been a wonderfully committed and charming champion all year long. Who better to lead in this year’s competitors on Thursday evening, carrying the great trophy and walking alongside a piper from the RCMP pipe band, to kick everything off with an unforgettable skurl?
And here came the chefs. Representing, St. John’s, Kyle Puddester from Fork in Mobile, Newfoundland. Representng Halifax, Barry Mooney of Fresh Twenty One, in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Representing New Brunswick and PEI, Matt Pennell from Legends, in Moncton, New Brunswick. Representing Montreal, Marc-André Jetté from Hoogan & Beaufort. Representing Ottawa-Gatineau, Ian Carswell from black tartan kitchen, in Carleton Place, Ontario. Representing Toronto, Keith Pears from W hotel, in Toronto. Representing Winnipeg, Emily Butcher from deer + almond. Representing Saskatoon, Darren Craddock from Village Bistro. Representing Calgary, Jenny M. Kang from Shokunin Izakaya. Representing Edmonton, J P Dublado from River Cree Casino and Resort. Representing Kelowna, Kai Koroll from BLOCK ONE on the 50th Parallel Estate in Kelowna. And representing Vancouver, Roger Ma from Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar.
Who could possibly possess the sensory acumen and moral courage to pass judgement on these superb chefs? Only our extraordinary judiciary – the Senior Judges from each of the cities where we throw Canada’s Great Kitchen Party. From St. John’s, chef, medal-winning Culinary Olympian and a past Gold Medal Plates gold medallist and CCC competitor, Chef Roary Macpherson. From Halifax, perfectly seasoned journalist, food and wine writer and restaurant critic extraordinaire, Bill Spurr. From Moncton, chef, restaurateur and currently Chef Instructor at New Brunswick Community College, Chef Emmanuel Charretier. From Montreal, writer, journalist, restaurant critic and broadcaster, Gildas Meneu. From Ottawa, author and broadcaster, senior editor of Taste & Travel Magazine and former restaurant critic of The Ottawa Citizen, Anne DesBrisay. From Toronto, writer and editor, food scholar and intrepid explorer of the industrial food complex, Sasha Chapman. From Winnipeg, chef, pastry chef, restaurateur and educator, Chef Barbara O’Hara. From Saskatoon, writer, journalist, dining critic, edgewalker and all-round food guru, Noelle Chorney. From Edmonton, wine, food and travel writer, certified sommelier and wine instructor, the founder of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium, Mary Bailey. From Calgary, teacher, broadcaster, author and former restaurant columnist for The Calgary Herald, John Gilchrist. From Kelowna, chef, educator and passionate culinary mentor, Chef Bernard Casavant. From Vancouver, world-renowned wine and food judge and the wine and food voice for Western Living magazine, Sid Cross. And also from Vancouver, author, teacher, restaurant critic, and the editor-in-chief of Scout Magazine and The Islandist, our revered Judge Invigilator, Andrew Morrison.
It was a pleasure to introduce my fellow judges to the guests – and to bring each chef and her or his sous chef up to the stage where they met the students from Algonquin College who would help them throughut the competition. I also had a chance to mention the amazing prizes for the three chefs who reach the podium on Saturday night. The chef who wins bronze wins a superb Mcusta Zanmai 210mm Gyuto custom knife from Knifewear and a custom cutting board from Joseph Henri Cutting & Serving Boards. The chef who wins silver wins a five-night holiday for four people to the luxurious Windjammer Landing resort in St. Lucia in the Caribbean and the chance to cook one dinner as guest chef with Windjammer’s own Executive Chef. And whoever becomes the new Canadian Culinary Champion gets an exceedingly sleek and beautiful motor car, the new Lexus IS 350. He or she will receive a two-year lease on the vehicle, courtesy of the great generosity of Kitchen Party supporters Josh and Erin Ens, owners of Ens Lexus in Saskatoon and Edmonton, who stepped up to supply this vehicle.
Prizes worth cooking for! And as Thursday evening drew to a close, the first competition began. Each chef was given an unmarked, unlabelled bottle of the Mystery Wine, chosen by Canada’s Great Kitchen Party National Wine Advisor, the great David Lawrason. They would have about 22 hours to taste and ponder the vino, to go shopping and to create a dish that matched the wine perfectly. They would need enough to serve 320 guests and they could only spend $1.25 a head – with all their receipts scrutinized by Andrew Morrison’s ever-vigilant eye. The chefs departed with their bottles, their envelopes of cash and their teams, heading off into the chilly night. The judges moseyed down Elgin Street to the excellent Citizen restaurant, where chef-patron Marc Doiron had stayed open to provide us with a truly splendid feast – just what we all needed to properly calibrate our palates.
There was much to discuss, including our competing chef from Newfoundland, Kyle Puddester. It is true that we try to make things challenging for the CCC chefs. Sometimes, other forces up the ante to an unnecessarily difficult degree. Kyle Puddester’s rural restaurant is on the Avalon peninsular in Newfoundland and for many days prior to the CCC he was completely snowed in by the worst blizzard to hit the Rock in living memory. Unable to shop or get out of his driveway, he had to prepare the elements of his Grand Finale dish as best he could. Finally, the state of emergency was lifted and he set off for Ottawa with his containers of food and equipment, only for West Jet to lose almost all of it – including his knife kit, clothes and personal luggage. The CCC team rallied round, rules were changed to allow him to begin prepping his grand finale dish again from scratch, his fellow competitors offered equipment, ingredients and sympathy, and Tourism Ottawa very generously donated a new set of clothes for him to wear. His luggage did eventually turn up (his vac-packs of Newfoundland blueberries had burst, staining his chefs’ uniform an interesting purple colour). Through it all, Chef Puddester valiantly carried on, putting a very brave face on the situation.
The Mystery Wine Competition
Now it can be told. The mystery wine was a 2017 Pinot Noir from Closson Chase in Prince Edward County, as racy and elegant as a Regency beau, with complex aromas that reminded me of mushroom and clove, dark chocolate and cherries – undeniably versatile from a culinary point of view. Our chefs spent the first part of Friday morning shopping then set to work in the well-equipped teaching kitchens at Algonquin College. At 4:00 p.m. their food was loaded into vehciles and shipped to our venue, Ottawa’s amazing Canada Aviation and Space Museum. There, stations had been set up among the spectacular collection of historical aircraft and the chefs finished their dishes while the crowd of guests enjoyed oysters and many other local delicacies as they waited for the action to begin.
The judges tasted this leg of the competition blind, secreted away at the side of the museum, behind a magnificent World War II Lancaster bomber. We received the dishes in random order, not knowing who had cooked what. Here is what we tasted.
First up was Chef Jenny M. Kang (Calgary). She gave us a “duck galbi” – essentially a meatball made of ground duck and pork and stuffed with foie gras. It was moist, soft and rich with a beguiling crust from the pan and, frankly, I could have eaten half a dozen of them. On top of the rissole was a slice of mushroom, battered and fried as a crisp tempura. She had used cream to mitigate the rootiness of a silky parsnip purée and, for freshness, tossed finely chopped kohlrabi, green apple and mint. Scattered puffed quinoa, no bigger than pinheads, provided almost subconscious crunch while five dots of a viscous nitsume glaze of sweetened soy boosted the dish’s umame. A sweet-sour kale crisp was the coup de grace. For me, the duck and the mushroom formed a broad bridge into the wine.
Chef Barry Mooney (Halifax) sent us our second dish. He made a moist, rich and meaty terrine from beef short rib that he braised in the wine itself, with beef stock, onions, garlic, thyme and bay, forked asunder and then pressed and sliced. Everyone got a dainty rectangle of the terrine, topped with teaspoonfuls of a dark, sweet purèe of dates, bitter cocoa, leeks and garlic. Strewn over it were refreshing moments of lightly pickled carrot chopped as a brunoise, tissue-thin slices of raw cremini mushroom, tiny drums of charred leek hearts, and fragments of shaved fennel. As a sauce, Chef made a classic soubise, scenting the pale cream with a forthright hit of vanilla. It was a big dish and the wine’s acidity was a fine contrast to its richness, but I felt the wine was playing second fiddle to the beef.
Our third dish was the work of Chef Roger Ma (Vancouver). He surprised me by describing his dish as a “duck cassoulet” but his interpretation of that heartiest of casseroles was amazingly refined and deconstructed. He began with ducks, to be sure, which he seared, then braised with onions, garlic, a stock from the ducks’ bones, vegetable mirepoiix, cloves and cinnamon. Then he shredded the meat, stirred in the chopped crisped duck skin and gave each guest a teaspoon-sized quenelle of what had essentially been transformed into lusciously spiced rillettes. This he posed on a spoonful of navy beans cooked down with a brunoise of double-smoked bacon and confited tomato and carrot. Tucked up against it was a purée of spiced beans while crunchy pickled fennel and onion added some acidity. Chef Ma made a fine crumble of toasted sourdough and wild rice to allude to the crust on a properly baked cassoulet, and scattered it hither and yon. As a dramatic garnish, he made crispy and ethereal potato tuiles like tangled shoelaces, dusted with powdered thyme and parsley. A single red-veined sorrel leaf and a splash of green herb oil finished the plate. What was the bridge into the wine? For me it was the tomato confit and the warm spices in the duck braise – subtle but oh so effective.
Chef Emily Butcher (Winnipeg) was next. She had found mushroom in the Pinot Noir and the revelation guided her. She sourced a great quantity of gorgeous, fresh maitake (hen of the woods) mushrooms and centred each plate with a clump of it, lightly smoked to accentuate the mushroom’s natural woodsy aroma and taste. Then she enhanced it and doubled its umame by glazing it with a thick lacquer she made from mussels and smoked oysters. She paired this with a thick, rich parsnip purée and some crisply fried parsnip ribbons and topped the dish with a little blue cheese aïoli. A cardamom and black tea vinaigrette echoed other nuances she detected in the wine while chunks of charred orange picked out the wine’s sly but important fruity side. Green herb oil balanced the colours on the plate and added an extra touch of herbaceousness. I liked the way this dish found different avenues into the Pinot – mushroom, to be sure, but also citrus and grassy herbs.
The fifth dish we received was sent out by Chef Matt Pennell (New Brunswick and PEI). He rubbed pork belly with salt, sugar and coriander then slow-roasted it: everyone got a beautiful little slice of crisp-crusted, juicy meat sprinkled with smoked Maldon salt. Beside it was a cylinder of crepe wrapped around julienned mushrooms that had been cooked in duck fat with a touch of fennel seed. A swoop of chicken liver mousse, enriched with duck fat, Cognac, red wine and butter in the classic way added a different kind of richness (but did it make the wine seem momentarily bitter?). Fresh peas cooked just long enough to pop on your tongue were tossed with enoki mushroom heads like tiny white dots and a little orange juice – a deliciously fresh touch. For crunch, Chef mixed popped rice and a dukkah mix of seeds, nuts and spices. All these treats had been arranged in a circle to encompass a jus of meat stock, cherry and cherry bitters that met the fruit in the wine head on in a most delectable way. Very high marks for Chef Pennell!
Sixth to the table was the dish from Chef Keith Pears (Toronto). His gorgeously colourful presentation also centred on pork belly, oven-braised in chicken stock with vegetable mirepoix and hints of five spice, cardamom and thyme. He reduced some of this aromatic liquid to make a glaze for the soft, unctuous belly and used the rest of it as a jus gras, enriched with bacon fat and more cardamom and studded with poached cranberries like tart little rubies. Beside the meat was a portion of a weighty, toothsome risotto, made with farro not rice, and studded with sautéed oyster mushroom, bacon, Parmesan and parsley. The acidity in the wine countermanded the richness of the dish, as did strips of pickled radish. What looked like a rasher of bacon turned out to be an ethereally crisp sweet potato chip. Miniature pork chicharons provided further crunch and Chef had spent some of his tiny budget on edible flowers (violas, I think) to add even more colour.
Chef JP Dublado (Edmonton) ceated the next offering. He had detected nuances of mushroom in the Pinot Noir, as so many chefs did, and shopped accordingly. The main event on his dainty and impeccably presented dish were morels stuffed with a sturdy farce of shaoxing chicken that had been braised in the Chinese rice wine. Each guest got two doll-sized slices of the stuffed morel and found, nestled between them, a tender soy-cooked chicken heart. Chef Dublado bathed his bowl with a deconstructed dashi broth flavoured with diced shiitaki mushrooms and ribbons of seaweed he had lightly smoked over applewood. Whole shimoji mushrooms added a pickly ginger hit and the dish was finished with dashi pearls and little shards of chewy tempura batter. Every component was in harmony – delightfully refined – and worked well with the mystery wine.
Our eighth dish was the work of Chef Darren Craddock (Saskatoon). He made a tasty roulade of diced rabbit and chicken thighs, adding chopped shiitake and double-smoked bacon to the mix and spooning some more over the top as an umame-packed garnish. A buttery purée of carrot, parsnip and fennel added vivid colour and sweetly earthy flavour while a forthright cranberry preserve sweetened with honey and orange was an ideal condiment for the roulade (but perhaps a bit too powerful for the wine). There was more orange in a salad of lightly roasted beet and fennel and a spoonful of crumble made with hemp seed, panko and crushed chicken skin was sprinkled over the top. Shaved smoked almonds and fennel fronds – and a touch of green herb oil – finished the plate nicely.
Chef Kyle Puddester (Newfoundland) was up ninth. He took an entirely different approach to the wine, curing fillets of rainbow trout with fennel, ginger, salt, sugar and blood orange zest then briefly poaching them sous vide. Each guest received a thumb-sized fillet of the succulent fish which was set beside a pool of creamy buttermilk, fennel and vanilla sauce, dotted with reduced blood orange juice. Sharing the plate were slices of Anjou pear, lightly pickled with pear juice, red wine, fennel and lemon. Here and there were fresh raspberries and also shallots that had been pickled and torched. Walnut praline lent a sweet, chewy nuttiness to the array of impressions while fresh supreme of blood orange added acidity. All the nuances of sweetness (including the flesh of the trout) and the various fruit components found things in the Pinot Noir that other dishes did not.
Dish number ten came from Chef Kai Koroll (Kelowna). He made a beautiful beef tartare, nestling a truffled raw egg yolk over its heart and capping it with a disc of citrus soy gelee. A smoked black garlic aïoli begged to be mopped up with the tartare while soy-pickled enoki mushrooms and daikon added tangy umame of their own. For crunch, Chef made a crisp of wild rice and nori and a spoonful of pickled mustrdseed was the final touch. That mustard was greatr with the tartare but many of the judges felt it was too powerful for the wine.
Our penultimate plate was sent out by Chef Ian Carswell (Ottawa-Gatineau). He spent his meagre allowance on shulder and leg of wild boar from a local farm called Trillium Meadows, and coked it down into smooth rillettes seasoned with allspice and porcini dust. He also baked a buttery brioche, toasted it, and set a quenelle of the rillettes on top, drizzling it with a tiny amount of cherry and red wine gastrique. A brunoise of red beet had been poached in the mystery wine with a touch more allspice and the tiny cubes decorated the plate. For freshness he made a dainty slaw of kohlrabi, fennel and green apple. A white purée of cauliflower and cep, flavoured with fennel and allspice, was piped onto the plate in Chef’s signature patern of an ‘S’ with three dots. It was certainly the most precise and delicate presentation of the night and as a wine match I thought it worked extremely well.
Last but by no means least, the offering from Chef Marc-André Jetté (Montreal) was set before us. To him, the wine had sung of mushrooms with a beet beat and his dish harmonized with it most delectably. It’s a challenge to make pasta for hundreds of people but Chef achieved it with a supple agnolotti filled with mushroom purée. More of the buttery purée appeared on the plate, beside a juicy slice of grilled king oyster mushroom. There were two sauces – one a red beet reduction spiked with vinegar, salt and pepper, the other a reduced chicken jus. For textural variety, Chef Jetté made a colourful crumble of buckwheat, finely chopped chanterelles, diced beets, chopped chives and crispy chicken skin which he spooned over the top. It was a lovely way to finish our evening.
There is a People’s Choice award at each of our evening events and tonight Chef JP Dublado’s dish won that particular accolade. The judges’ scores are not revealed but we all agreed the standard of quality, particularly where presentation was concerned, was higher than it has ever been. When the numbers were crunched, we found six chefs in a very tight pack, all separated by less than five percent, and the other six nipping at their heels. No one had crashed and burned; no one had surged ahead. But how would they fare with the dreaded Black Box?
To be continued…