The Canadian Culinary Championship 2008/9

Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championship was held at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel over the weekend of February 19 to 21. It was the ideal location for the competition – vast yet self-contained, with huge well-equipped kitchens and dramatic public rooms large enough to accommodate the hundreds of guests who came to observe and take part in the events. The hotel’s executive chef, Martin Luthi, was a most generous host, providing everything we asked for, from the exclusive use of his busy banquet kitchen for three days to a dozen apprentices.

The competitors were the chefs who had triumphed at the Gold Medal Plates regional events across the country in the autumn of 2008. Here are their names, in alphabetical order, with a little information about their backgrounds supplied by the senior judge from each chef’s respective city.

David Cruz is chef of Sage and won the Edmonton GMP event. David was destined to become a world-class chef. With both his mother and father accomplished chefs and restaurateurs, he was groomed from a young age in the culinary arts. His enthusiasm and passion for food and cooking eventually led him to the River Cree Resort and Casino’s fine-dining haven, Sage. Prior to this he worked at La Cote Basque, Boulevard, Mary Elaine’s, Evergreen and Simon Telluride, also at such restaurants as Masa’s, Tru, Charlie Trotter’s, Daniel, Motos, San Dominico, Spagos and La Folie. A key for David is respecting the source of the ingredients and keeping the chain from small growers and farmers to the restaurant table alive and well.

Deff Haupt is chef of Le Renoir at Le Sofitel hotel in Montreal. Born in Dortmund, Germany, Deff Haupt, age 42, apprenticed at the Hilton International in Mainz, Germany, and then worked for Emile Jung in Strasbourg, Paul Bocuse in Lyon, and Joel Robuchon in Paris before moving to Chile to work at a ski resort at Vallenevado. During that period, he trained the Brazilian team of chefs for the Bocuse d’Or culinary competition and married a Brazilian wife. Next stop was a ski resort at Val d’Isere, and then Berlin, where he was co-owner of a German-French brasserie near the Brandenburg Gate. Although his Berlin restaurant was a success and his guests at different times included George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger, he moved to Canada in 2005 with the dream of opening a small restaurant in Mont Tremblant, Quebec. Le Sofitel beckoned in 2006 before that dream became a reality. Now Executive Chef of Hotel Le Sofitel and Restaurant Renoir, Montreal, Haupt describes his cuisine as French-based with German touches. He avoids endangered fish species and serves as much local Quebec food as he can.

Patrick Lin is Executive Chef of Senses restaurant in Toronto, the jewel in the crown of the Metropolitan Hotel. Lin was born in Hong Kong, and has spent much of his career shuttling between Hong Kong and Toronto. Gray Kunz was an early mentor for him at the Regency Hotel, where he embarked on his career in 1980; a decade later, he immigrated to Canada and became the chef at Truffles restaurant at the Four Seasons during executive chef Susan Weaver’s tenure. Since then, he has returned to Hong Kong several times. In 2007, he came back to Toronto to take over the helm at Senses restaurant. He is best known for combining Asian ingredients with classic European techniques.

Hayato Okamitsu is chef of Catch Restaurant & Oyster Bar in Calgary. “The dreams of a young Japanese Chef can become a reality,” write Adam Geml and Pat Insole. “After six years of unstinting dedication to Catch Restaurant & Oyster Bar, Hayato Okamitsu was named Executive Chef in 2008. Hayato has created Japanese-influenced dishes such as Wonton Crusted Tempura Prawns with Togaroshi Dip which quickly became a Catch signature dish and is still the most popular appetizer after seven years on the menu. Hayato’s creativity shone through at Calgary’s Gold Medal Plates Competition when his dish was the most ambitious of the night in terms of complexity, but truly set a record when it became the first vegetarian dish to win the Gold Medal honour.”

Frank Pabst is chef of Blue Water Café in Vancouver
A master of local seafood, Frank Pabst came to Vancouver in 1993 after working in several Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe (among them Aachen’s Le Becasse, the Hotel Negresco in Cannes, and Antibes’ Restaurant de Bacon). He led the kitchen at Lumiere as chef de cuisine before opening Pastis in 2000, which won Best New Restaurant at that year’s Vancouver magazine restaurant awards. As the executive chef at Blue Water Café since 2003, Pabst is recognised in the industry as a leader in celebrating local producers and sustainable-savvy fishermen.

Charles Part is owner-chef of Les Fougères and won GMP’s Ottawa-Gatineau event. His first restaurant was in Toronto, a little gem in the Beaches called Loons. Together with his wife, Jennifer Warren-Part, Charles has been the chef-owner of Les Fougères in the village of Chelsea, Quebec (12 minutes from Parliament Hill) since 1993. Charles is British by birth, received his culinary training at the Westminster Hotel School and had his first restaurant experiences in London, UK. Charles and Jennifer’s 2008 book, A Year at Les Fougères, won gold in the Canadian Food Culture category at the 2008 Cuisine Canada’s Book Awards.

The chefs were all introduced at a small reception at the hotel on Thursday night. They introduced their sous chefs to the gathering (each chef was allowed to bring two from his restaurant, though Chef Cruz opted to bring only one friend). Then our host, Chef Luthi, introduced the apprentices who would assist each chef. It was also a chance for me to introduce my panel of judges…

From Montreal, Julian Armstrong, food writer for The Gazette and a founding member of both Cuisine Canada and the Association of Food Journalists. She is the author of A Taste of Quebec.

From Ottawa, Anne Desbrisay, restaurant critic of the Ottawa Citizen for the last 17 years. She writes about food, restaurants and travel for many publications and for CBC radio and is the author of Capital Dining, a Guide to restaurants in the National Capital Region.

From Toronto, Sasha Chapman, former food editor of Toronto Life who now writes regular columns about food in the Globe & Mail, Toronto Life and Report on Business Magazine as well as major U.S. and Canadian magazines such as Saveur and Chatelaine.

From Vancouver, Sid Cross is the wine and food guru for Western Living magazine and is a world-renowned wine and food judge. He has been honoured by the French and Italian governments and is the only Canadian to be awarded The Gourmet of the Year by The Society of Bacchus in the USA.

From Edmonton, Clayton Folkers is a world-class pastry chef, international judge and educator, and was the first pastry chef to captain the Canadian National Culinary Team. He has captained Culinary Team Alberta and Culinary Team Canada to gold medals, won the IKA Culinary Olympics and was twice named Canadian Chef of the Year.

From Calgary, John Gilchrist is a familiar voice on CBC Radio. He’s also the author of eight national best-sellers on dining in southern Alberta. He has a column in the Calgary Herald, writes for dozens of magazines and teaches Food and Culture programs for the University of Calgary.

Last but not least, from Vancouver, Andrew Morrison is the restaurant critic for the Westender newspaper, the editor of Scout Magazine, and a regular contributor to Western Living and Vancouver magazines. He had a special role this weekend as our culinary referee, making sure all rules were followed during and between the three competitions.

The Thursday evening reception was the start of the first of these three events, the Wine Pairing Challenge. Each chef was given a bottle of the same wine with no label and an unmarked stopper. All they knew about it was that it was Canadian and that GMP’s National Wine Advisor, David Lawrason, had selected it especially for the competition. The chefs were instructed to taste the wine and devise a dish that would perfectly match it. They had 24 hours to do this but there were certain added provisos that made the task a little more challenging. We asked them to make enough of their dish to feed 235 people (the number of guests at our Friday evening party) and we told them they were only allowed to spend a very small amount of money on ingredients – $350. They could go shopping wherever they wanted – in Banff, Canmore, Calgary – anywhere except in the hotel where we were staying. They could be as ingenious and creative as they wished with their shopping but they had to present us with receipts for everything they purchased. To mitigate things a little, we provided a communal pantry of basic seasonings, herbs, spices, oils and stocks, etcetera.

Friday afternoon – a cloudless sky of cerulean blue above the snow-capped peaks around the hotel. Some 25 of us gathered in the insanely glamorous Presidential Suite at the top of the hotel’s tallest tower for a casual whisky tasting. Maxxium had very kindly donated three rather magnificent offerings – A 15 Year Old Fine Oak version of the Macallan; an 18 Year Old Sherry Wood Macallan, by way of contrast; and a superb 25 Year Old Highland Park as rich and Christmasy as any Armagnac. Huge kudos to Maxxium for supporting the Gold Medal Plates cause (raising funds for Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes) in such a handsome way.

Seeing as how we were in Banff, Alberta, I had wanted to find a single malt from the Banff distillery in Scotland’s East Highlands, but that distillery was destroyed in 1985. I was moaning about this to John Maxwell, proprietor of Allen’s on the Danforth and he took pity on me. He found an incredibly rare item, a Signatory bottle of Banff distilled on March 18, 1980 and aged 20 years in wood. It was bottle number 80 of 702 drawn from butt number 604. With typical generosity, John Maxwell donated it to the tasting. I was speechless! Many glasses were raised to Mr. Maxwell and to Maxxium during the tasting.

The Wine Pairing Challenge
On Friday evening, the event took place in the baronial splendour of one of the hotel’s halls. The chefs’ stations were arranged around the room. The guests were able to taste the mystery wine (later revealed as Inniskillin Okanagan Malbec 2005) and each of the dishes.

Deff Haupt took everyone by surprise by deciding to match this dense, hearty red wine with fish. He cooked a fillet of red snapper perfectly, leaving it juicy and sweet under a savoury crust of cinnamon, an element he had detected in the wine. For a sauce he made a red wine butter and a white wine butter which swirled together on the plate, both of them with a lovely silky weight and a well-judged citrus edge. The two colours of purple and white were echoed throughout the dish. Tangy, acidulated, finely chopped beets formed another bridge into the wine. The dish was finished with a little wilted spinach on top. The sauces, beets and cinnamon worked admirably with the wine, but the flavour of the actual fish struggled to make itself apparent.

David Cruz braised pork shoulder, giving it a delicious sweet flavour and a variety of textures. Beneath it he set a semi-purée of Tuscan cannelini beans topped with juicy chopped chard and sautéed crimini mushrooms that were particularly good with the wine. A streak of yellow carrot purée lacked flavour and focus, as did a streak of green basil oil. Crunchy shallots were the final garnish. The general lack of edge and acidity in the flavours of the food actually brought out those qualities in the wine a little more, accentuating its fruitiness.

Hayato Okamitsu also chose to work with pork, roasting a pork shoulder to tender succulence then slicing it for the plate. Working within his budget, he made peppery hand-pressed gnocchi (he found considerable pepperiness in the wine, as did several of the chefs). His sauce was a rich brown butter spiked with finely chopped beets. Some judges felt he served a little too much sauce for the dish. A few leaves of arugula proved a refreshing little garnish. On top lay a bacon and thyme “maxime” like a crisp transparent tissue of herbed bacon that was utterly delicious. The dish worked well with the wine, its homespun flavours in a good balance with the wine’s intensity.

Patrick Lin prepared a relatively complex plate. He roasted a leg of lamb seasoned with garlic and cumin – it was delectably tender and sapid but perhaps a little too pungently “lamby” for the wine. Beside it he made a meat ball of miced pork stuffed with crab meat (subtle but fabulous and a better match than the lamb). The meatball was set on a disc of king oyster mushroom scored with a knife for textural interest. On top a single rasher of bacon had been crisped with honey. On the bottom two mustard greens provided green crunch and refreshment – lovely for the dish, irrelevent to the wine. The natural jus of the lamb was refreshed with diced granny smith apple.

Charles Part also chose lamb, carefully sourced from a farm outside Calgary. He cooked the shoulder sous vide, its flavour ending up a tad more subtle than Patrick Lin’s roast. The jus was enriched by whole cloves of roast garlic, blackcurrants and a brunoise of root vegetables. A minted pea risotto had a perfect texture and seemed like a breath of summer. On top of the lamb, a bright green teaspoonful of salsa verde made with fresh herbs and anchovy was a deliciously intense condiment. Presentation was pretty and the dish’s internal balances were very well achieved. Some judges felt it was too big a dish for the wine. If it had been a Cabernet Sauvignon, it would have been more successful but this soft Malbec turned out to be less powerful and structured than it appeared to be at first sniff.

Frank Pabst created a cabbage roll filled with a subtly flavoured mince of braised elk, pork shoulder and double smoked bacon. He bought two more bottles of the wine from Gold Medal Plates (at a price of $30 per bottle) and added them to the jus to create the dish’s sauce. A celeriac and apple purée had a lovely fresh, rooty flavour. A mix of black rice and carrot, interestingly, produced a flavour close to sweet corn. On top was a mound of crunchy purple beet “straw”.

The guests voted that night for a “people’s choice” favourite, an award that went to Charles Part, by a considerable margin. The judges kept their marks private but Hayato Okamitsu was in first place with three other chefs clustered a few percentage points behind him – Charles Part, Deff Haupt and Patrick Lin.

The Black Box
Saturday morning brought the intensity and drama of the Black Box competition, where each chef is given an identical group of secret ingredients. They must devise two dishes that will use these ingredients (all six must be used, though not necessarily in the same dish) and they have one hour to finish the dishes and plate one of each for each of the judges. Points would be deducted for failure to use all ingredients, for going over the allotted time by even a few seconds and for failing to provide the requisite number of dishes. Each chef was allowed to use only one assistant.

There was room in the hotel’s banquet kitchen for three chefs to work at one time and for the crowd of fifty guests and camera crews, but we staggered the chefs working time to allow a 15-minute gap between each start time and a longer break in the middle so there were never more than three chefs competing at any one time. While the judges sat apart in the kitchen’s servery, the chefs set to work.

The six mystery ingredients had been chosen by Gold Medal Plates regional senior judge, John Gilchrist. They had to be local Alberta product and we asked for a meat, a fish, a grain, a fruit, a vegetable and a dairy product. His selection was challenging indeed – a kilo of organically raised Alberta pork tenderloin with a good fat cap on it; three farmed rainbow trout, gutted but with heads on; a bag of rolled oats; a bottle of saskatoonberry syrup (fresh local fruit being impossible to find in Alberta in February); a bag of fabulously swet, crunchy organic carrots; a substantial wedge of a local gouda cheese, recently voted the fourth best gouda in the world at the cheese championship in Wisconsin.

First up was chef David Cruz. He filleted his trout, rolled the fillets in ground oats and served it with the carrots which he had prepared two ways, candied and as a deliciously spiced savoury purée with some real chili heat. For his second dish, he roasted the pork medium rare, sliced it and sauced it with a beurre spiked by the saskatoonberry syrup. He turned the gouda into a golden crisp that he used to garnish the pork.

Chef Hayato Okamitsu was next. He mixed the oatmeal with sesame and used it as a crust for the trout fillets. He turned the carrots into a purée scented with ginger from the communal pantry, added some wilted spinach and a rich brown butter sauce spiked with soy, clove and the saskatoonberry syrup. Visually, it was an exceptionally pretty dish. His herb-rubbed roast pork loin was sliced and set over a ragout of finely diced potato flavoured with shallots and the gouda and sharpened with a dash of a mustard and sherry vinaigrette.

Chef Charles Part was the third competitor. He rolled his trout fillets in the oats and pan-fried them, timing them to a perfect point of juiciness. He also borrowed pantry items, serving the fish with spinach and a confit of lemons that brightened the plate and the palate. For his second dish, he cut the pork into escalopes and sandwiched gouda in between then rolled the meat in panko crumbs and pan-fried it until the cheese melted. He used the saskatoonberry syrup carrots and other pantry vegetables to create a pickle that he served with the pork and crowned it with a perfectly timed poached egg. Its runny yolk formed the sauce for the pork dish.

Chef Patrick Lin aced the texture of the trout which he served as a sort of melt, crowned with molten gouda. Butter-sautéed spinach shared the plate and he sauced it with a lightweight tomato-herb bouillon. For his pork dish he pounded the meat into schnitzels, coated them with oats and deep-fried them, fisnishing the plate with a sauce meuniere and carrots spiked with the saskatoonberry syrup.

Chef Deff Haupt stuffed the pork tenderloin with gouda and fines herbes and roasted it off, slicing it and crowning the plate with a gouda crisp. He braised the carrots and scented them with curry spices, saucing the dish with a beef stock and rosemary jus spiked with saskatoonberry syrup. The trout fillets were simply pan-seared, which brought out their flavour beautifully, then set atop a sturdy galette of grated potato and oat flakes. He opted to make a version of the classic sauce Albertine using the pantry stocks hit with butter and herbs.

Chef Frank Pabst finished the competition. He coolly brined his pork loin for 20 minutes to tenderize the meat and served it with a delicious saskatoonberry gastrique sharpened with sherry vinegar, thyme and shallots. He used the gouda as a subtle component of a classic Pommes Anna, the tissue-thin potatoes fanned and pan-fried. Braised baby carrots picked up hints of ginger and shallot from their braising liquid. His trout fillets arrived crusted with mustard-spiked oatmeal then panfried. He set the fish over a delectable onion soubise, a little baby spinach and topped it with a clever crisp of the fried trout skin.

The judges were impressed by all the dishes, though they wondered why no one had thought to use the oats as a biscuit or be a tad more creative with the pork. Three chefs scored particularly highly in the black box competition: Hayato Okamitsu, Frank Pabst and Deff Haupt. But going into the third and final element of the competition it was still anyone’s race.

The Grand Finale
For this event, each chef was allowed to create any dish he wished, the limits set only by his own imagination and the fact that he only had Saturday afternoon to pull the masterpiece together. He could bring in whatever ingredients he wished but he had to prepare enough to serve 300 guests and he could only be assisted by his two sous chefs (one in David Cruz’s case) and his two hotel apprentices. Wine pairing was again a component. Each chef was instructed to work with the same winery he had chosen to pair with during the regional events, though not restricted to the same wine.

Chef Deff Haupt presented three ethereal cornmeal gnocchi, light as any mousseline, smothered in a nutmeg-spiked parmesan sabayon and strewn with crispy little nuggets of pan-fried sweetbreads. Black winter truffle was grated over the dish and it was finished with a dramatic spiral of sweet tuile and some whisps of wheatgrass. His wine was from Prince Edward County, Ontario – Black Prince Winery’s First Crush unoaked Chardonnay 2005.

Chef Frank Pabst chose to showcase the great seafood of the west coast. His plate consisted of three elements – the first a gorgeous raw kushi oyster, out of its shell and set on a mound of chopped cucumber jelly, topped with horseradish foam. A slice of raw Qualicum Bay scallop was turned into a delicate ceviche, its natural sweetness perfectly balanced against the tart citrus of the dressing. Beneath it was a spoonful of salad made from green seaweed and fine shavings of Humboldt squid. The third element was a cold parfait of sea urchin, its marine pungency mitigated by a cap of ponzu jelly. Dotted here and there were tiny amounts of green onion, preserved watermelon rind, black dots of a sauce made from sake, soy and nori, and a dab of tangy yuzu-sake “pudding”. Chef Pabst paired his dish with Sumac Ridge Stella’s Jay Brut 2004 sparkling wine from B.C.

Chef Hayato Okamitsu also presented a triptych. The first component looked like a cube-shaped chocolate smothered in a glossy black sauce. It turned out to be Alberta beef short rib braised sukiyake-style with a profound soy-based sauce. A finger of Quebec foie gras torchon gained extra flavour from a light soy cure; Chef served it on a tiny morsel of toast. A demitasse held a spectacularly rich and intense lobster bisque. Across the rim of the cup a lattice sesame crisp supported a shiso-scented B.C. spot prawn, out-of-season but still charming to most of the judges. A dab of ginger-yuzu “pudding” was as intense as any of the powerful flavours on the plate. Sumac Ridge Private Reserve Merlot 2005 was a fine match for the beef.

Chef David Cruz began with flatiron steak cut from Alberta kobe cattle. He grilled it rare and sliced it delicately – it proved surprisngly tender. On top he laid a julienne of carrot, apple, radish and micro greens. Two sauces competed for attention – a tangy lime emulsion and a rich dark shiitake sweet-and-sour sauce, made even more irresistible with brown sugar, garlic and Szechuan pepper. He astonished the judges by pairing it with See Ya Later Ranch Chardonnay 2007, a coup that proved surprisingly successful.

Chef Charles Part presented a dish he described as the dish he would choose for his last meal – “it means that much to me…” Its principal was a generous helping of confited Quebec moulard duck, rich, tender and moist with a skin that was crisp where it needed to be and fatty elsewhere. The flavour was wonderful, the sweetness enhanced by threads of orange zest. It sat on a thick disc of cooked pear with a spoonful of soft, tangy chevre cheese at its hollowed heart. Beneath that was an Agria potato rösti. The dish was finished with some forthright spinach and a delicious sauce of New Brunswick partridgeberries zapped with vinegar to become a classy ketchup. This dish was honest-to-goodness bistro taken to the bistro extreme. Some judges loved its democratic lack of fuss; others found it too plain. Chef Part paired it with a Prince Edward County wine, Huff Estates Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2005, made with Niagara grapes.

Chef Patrick Lin also offered duck – an extraordinary and complex five-part treatment of Ontario King Cole duck, to be precise. On a silver spoon was a sliver of sweet, cured, oolong-tea-smoked duck breast. A round slice of duck galantine using the duck’s neck was garnished with a dot of kumquat compote and a slender lotus root crisp. Cured duck breast appeared with a Thai-style fruit salad all arranged on a round disc of iceberg lettuce – a refreshing, texturally complex mouthful that played with the fresh sweetness and tartness of the fruits and the salty fat of the cured duck. A foie gras ball had been rolled in a crust of crushed candied walnuts and then set on a cone of crisp wonton wrapper like some angelic ice cream cornet. The final iteration of the canard was a hollowed eggshell filled with a loose, lightweight foie gras custard brûlée topped with a sugestion of dried tangerine peel. The last component was amazingly delicious with the chosen Inniskillin Niagara Cabernet Franc Icewine 2006 – the weekend’s most obvious wine-food epiphany. Chef Lin also presented a second wine – Jackson Triggs Okanagan Grande Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 that worked well with the smoked breast.

Opinion was divided about Chef Lin’s dish. Some of us felt it was a three-Michelin-star effort; others found it too much, with one or two elements too many. When the scores were fed into the number cruncher, however, Chef Lin’s dish won the day at the Grande Finale. Would that be enough to win the entire Championship? The judges retired to a quiet room and the math was done. The honour fell to me to return to the crowded ball room and make the announcement. First, I invited the retiring champion, Chef Melissa Craig, up on stage. Melissa had travelled across the country with us during the 2008 Gold Medal Plates campaign, cooking for the VIP reception in each city, and had proved a delightful companion, a great sport (even when half her crabs were left out of the refrigerator in Calgary) and a true champion. I speak for the entire GMP organisation when I say that she will always be part of our team.

Joining us on stage was GMP CEO, Stephen Leckie and representatives of our two title sponsors, Denise Carpenter of Epcor and Mark Toner of GE. Then came the moment of truth. When all the numbers were crunched, the bronze medal went to Deff Haupt of Le Renoir in the Sofitel hotel, Montreal. The silver medal went to Frank Pabst of Blue Water Café in Vancouver. And the gold medal was awarded to Hayato Okamitsu of Catch in Calgary. He becomes the new Canadian Culinary Champion.

A huge thank you to the judges, organizers, volunteers, Olympic athletes, sponsors and everyone else who contributed so much to the weekend. Gobsmacked admiration to all the chefs who competed… Above all, most sincere congratulations to Chef Hayato Okamitsu. We’ll see you soon, Champion!

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