Banff in February 2009

I was in Banff last November for a flying visit, scoping locations for the upcoming Canadian Culinary Championship. It was my first visit and I was gobsmacked by the beauty of the place. Calgary had been glum and foggy, the overcast skies as bruised and swollen as Mickey Rourke as we drove across the last of the prairies towards the rearing curtain of the Rockies. We was me and John Gilchrist, writer, bon viveur, critic and teacher and the senior judge for Calgary’s Gold Medal Plates fundraiser. He taught for years in Banff and knows the road intimately. The sun burst through as we entered the mountains and was blazing out of a cloudless periwinkle sky by the time we reached Canmore. The splendour of those mountains astonished me! Whole continents of rock upended, sheer, impossible, caped in snow! And then we were in Banff and the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel loomed up against the trees like the Scottish schloss of some mad Austrian laird. I could see at once that this was exactly the right place for the Canadian Culinary Championship – unique, eccentric, intense, larger than life and entirely Canadian. At dusk, when the temperature fell and the silence of the surrounding mountains reached down into the valley, a pair of elk wandered across the car park of the hotel, pausing to admire a Chrysler LeBaron convertible. I made a mental note not to include elk in the black box of ingredients that forms part of the CCC competitions.

So we will be going back there on Thursday, February 19 to prepare those same bouts. They will take place over the course of the weekend, February 20 and 21, the festivities starting on Friday before teatime with a leisurely exploration of a number of fine whiskies in some quiet turret of the hotel (I’m still putting together the list of bottles I intend to crack, but they will be drawn from a list of my favourites). By then the chefs will have arrived at the hotel – the victors of the Gold Medal Plates events held across Canada last fall. In alphabetical order, they are David Cruz from Sage, outside Edmonton; Deff Haupt from Renoir in Montreal; Patrick Lin from Senses in Toronto; Hayato Okamitsu from Catch in Calgary; Frank Pabst from Blue Water Café in Vancouver; and Charles Part from Les Fougères in Quebec, who won the Ottawa-Gatineau competition.

On Thursday night, we will give each chef a bottle of wine with no label and a blank cork. We also give them a small sum of money. The first leg of the competition involves them tasting the wine, coming up with a dish that will perfectly match it, shopping for ingredients (using only the paltry sum allotted), cooking their dish for the judges and also for the guests (anything between 125 to 200) who will attend the event on Friday night. We don’t make it easy. The guests get to taste the wine, all the dishes and vote on a “people’s favourite” award that will be handed out that night by the host for the weekend, Olympic gold, silver and bronze medallist and all-round star, Adam van Koeverden (who also knows better, dirtier jokes than anyone I’ve ever met). The judges will put together their own scores but will hold their counsel until the end of the weekend. Those judges, by the way, are, in my opinion, Canada’s top palates: Julian Armstrong from Montreal, Sasha Chapman from Toronto, Anne Desbrisay from Ottawa, Sid Cross from Vancouver, Clayton Folkers from Edmonton, John Gilchrist from Calgary and Andrew Morrison from Vancouver who is the Culinary Referee for the entire event, making sure rules are obeyed to the last letter of the law.

The chefs will barely have recovered from that Olympic effort when we startle them from their beds and rush them down to the infamous black box competition. Here our guests get a chance to mill about in the kitchen with the chefs as they open the black box, discover what they have to work with and then labour to create two spectacular dishes, all within the space of a precisely timed hour. I should mention that the entire weekend is being filmed by the six brilliant crews from Lively Media and it will be broadcast in the spring as the culmination to the seven-part series, Gold Medal Plates: The Quest for Canada’s Best Chef.

Staggering away from this gruelling gladiatorial cookfest, the chefs must now prepare for the Grand Finale on Saturday night, each cooking his signature dish for the judges and hundreds of excited guests. In their regional heats, the chefs chose a Canadian wine to acompany their dish. They will work with the same winery on Saturday night and a percentage of the marks their dishes receive will have to do with the genius of the wine and food match.

The whole weekend couldn’t be more exciting if it tried. And the winning chef will be crowned Canadian Culinary Champion on Saturday night. Victory in previous years has seemed to change the winner’s life. Last year’s champion, Melissa Craig of Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, went around the world – I even ran into her in Beijing in August. The 2007 Champion, Makoto Ono, left the suburban Winnipeg restaurant where he was working and ended up opening a super-glamorous restaurant in Beijing called Makoto’s (which was where I ran into Melissa, come to think of it). He was on his way to Hong Kong to open another, the last I heard.

For me, a lot of the fun about the CCC is the opportunity to meet dedicated Canadian food-lovers and spend time with them and the chefs over an intense but amazing weekend. For the guests, there is the fun of getting up close and personal with Canada’s top chefs, Olympic athletes and food writers, plus the dazzling surroundings of Banff with all its skiing and spaing and other winter sports. If anyone would like to join us there is still room. Just go to www.goldmedalplates.com, follow the path to Canadian Culinary Championship and climb aboard. I very much look forward to seeing you in Banff. We will have a blast.

Oh yes – the first person to buy a ticket to the weekend because they read about it on this blog will become my special lieutenant and foreman of the culinary jury for the people’s choice award on Friday night. I hope they don’t mind being on tv – or elk in the car park.

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