Was there ever a better-organized party than the Gold Medal Plates gala in Toronto last night? Long before the VIP reception began, every i had been dotted and every t crossed. Those of us who usually bustle about asking for last-minute things to happen had nothing to do but wait for the fun to begin. And the fun was intense. Alongside Edmonton, this was the biggest party GMP has ever thrown, with 775 guests in attendance in two of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s vast halls. We began the VIP reception with a super selection of Canadian bubblies chosen by National Wine Advisor, David Lawrason, and two delectable little dishes from last year’s champion, David Lee, one of them an awesome boudin noir and beans, the other a reprise of his famous chicken-skin-and-cartilege sensation from last year.
Meanwhile, the chefs had set up their stations in the adjoining hall, some of them going to enormous decorative lengths. But it was the food on the plates that counted where the judges were concerned. The dishes generated a great deal of discussion and the overall vote for the gold and silver contenders was by no means unanimous. In the end, however, our worthy gold medallist had both the majority of the judges’ opinions and the highest marks, albeit by a narrow margin.
Taking the bronze medal was chef Michael Steh of Reds Bistro & Wine Bar who credited his mother and also one of the judges, chef David Lee, his former boss, as his inspirations. Chef Steh worked with rabbit in a number of ways. He made a ballontine of the saddle, stuffed with a soft spicy blood sausage, and set a slice of it on the plate beside a slice of firm, garlicky smoked rabbit kolbasa. A third “round” was a confit as soft as rillettes which he formed into a tiny puck, coated in breadcrumbs and fried. Baby vegetables glazed with verjus freshened the flavours and a sliver of armagnac-poached prune was an unforgettable condiment. Baby chanterelles starred in a rich, dark sauce flavoured with Madeira and mustard seeds. Chef Steh’s chosen wine was a particularly successful match, the 2007 Baco Noir Reserve from Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery in Niagara, Ontario.
Our silver medal was awarded to chef Lorenzo Loseto of George, who also won silver in 2007. He built his dish around a slice of Tamworth pork belly, impeccably cooked, crisp on the surface and meltingly soft fat beneath it. The same textural contrast was echoed by some exquisite baby artichokes, soft and yielding inside a crispy crust. Matsutake mushrooms provided a different mouthfeel as did perfect little ricotta cavatelli while the sauces were a reduction of juiced red pepper with a hit of miso and an elderberry compote. It was a luxe and extremely delicious plateful and Chef’s chosen wine, the 2008 Estate Chardonnay from Hidden Bench Vineyards & Winery in Niagara, Ontario, served as a delectable antidote to the richness.
Our gold medal winner was Chef Frank Dodd of Hillebrand Winery Restaurant in Niagara. He drew on his long-standing relationship with local meat supplier Dingo Farms to present a trio of pork preparations, one hot, one cold, and one frozen. The hot element was very hot indeed, a demitasse sealed with pastry and containing a beautifully lightweight broth made from ham hocks and prosciutto with diced yellow squash adding its own earthy sweetness to the recipe. Beside it was a triangular slice of dense, meaty head cheese wrapped in prosciutto, the light and dark meat in attractive contrast. The third element was a bacon ice cream served on a teaspoon and crowned with a tissue of bacon sugar. Simultaneously sweet and savoury, the ice cream drew murmurs of admiration from the judges, not least because Chef Dodd somehow prevented it from melting even though it stood next to the piping hot demitasse. Not surprisingly, he paired his dish (very successively) with a Hillebrand wine – the 2008 Trius Red, an elegant blend of Bordeaux varieties – and reduced some of it to a syrup to serve as a sauce for the terrine. So now we have five champions eager to compete at the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna next February. Three cities remain: Calgary, Ottawa-Gatineau and St. John’s. I can’t wait to see what transpires.