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The Canadian Culinary Championships 2014 report

10 Feb

Podium at CCC

Let the competition begin! Famous last words on Thursday night as each of our competing champion chefs was given his or her bottle of mystery wine, a pair of culinary students from Okanagan College’s Culinary Arts program to complete her or his brigade of two (or in one case, one) sous chefs, and sent off into the night to start working on a perfectly paired dish. The wine (personally selected by our National Wine Advisor, David Lawrason, its identity a secret so closely guarded that he would have had to kill me if he’d told me in advance) could be seen to be white, but that was all any of us knew. The chefs’ task was made more difficult because they had to prepare their dish for 425 guests as well as the judges and they were obliged to spend no more than their allowance of $550 in total. Try throwing a dinner party and spending $1.22 on each guest! Furthermore, everything, from salt and oil up, had to be purchased in Kelowna on Friday morning. During the afternoon, our culinary referee checked every receipt and received back any unspent coins. Jonathan Thauberger of Regina spent all but $6; Marysol Foucault of Ottawa-Gatineau handed back a record $170 surplus! Then the chefs and their sous chefs and their dishes were ferried from the prep kitchens at Okanagan College’s Culinary Arts faculty to the Delta Grand.

            Excitement on the evening was intense. The crowd oohed and aahed at the magnificent new BMW that is this year’s bonus prize for the ultimate winner of the CCC and they listened intently as each chef took the stage before we began and described their dish and the thinking behind it. The wine, incidentally, turned out to be a fascinating white blend of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris with a splash of Viognier – Laughing Stock’s 2012 “Blind Trust” from B.C.’s Naramata Bench. An aromatic wine with a hint of oak and bright acidity, it softened and broadened considerably in the glass, a change which may have thrown some of the chefs off their matches a tad. The Mystery wine flowed freely among the crowd who moved from chef’s station to station, tasting and evaluating. They filled out their own score cards and produced their own People’s Choice award at the end of the evening, giving their prize to Chef Duncan Ly of Yellow Door Bistro in Calgary. Meanwhile, the judges, holding their peace, took their seats at a perfectly illuminated table outside the main event and waited for what might come.

            First up, From Calgary, Chef Duncan Ly of Yellow Door Bistro, a chef who has competed at the CCC before and certainly knows the ropes. “I set out to play off the acidity and the wine’s herbal and fruity notes,” he explained. His dish was a dainty quintet of Japanese refinement, five upright tubes of cucumber ribbon, some filled with finely chopped ahi tuna, Asian pear and fresh roe, others with pomelo and dried apple. Textures were ethereal but flavours deep. The little tubes were scattered with a minuscule crumble of peanut and puffed quinoa while the plate was decorated with shaved radish, tiny mint leaves and hints of cilantro. A pool of clear liquid turned out to be citrus spiked with fish sauce, precisely matched to the texture and intensity of the wine.

From Ottawa-Gatineau, Chef Marysol Foucault of Edgar, in Gatineau, showed next, her dish dramatically plated far to one side, allowing her to finish it at the judges’ table by pouring on her sauce. She had found baked apple in the wine and so tossed some morsels of caramelized pickled apple with the spaetzle that lay beside her main protein of delectably tender pulled chicken confit. Other components included grainy mustard, thyme, brussels sprout leaves, smoky bacon, pungent little threads of charred meyer lemon zest, grated hazelnuts, shards of crispy chicken skin and charred shallots. And the sauce she finished it with was a rich, Quebecois smoked pork hock broth. Such a delicious mosaic of flavours to complement the richness of the wine.

From St. John’s, Chef Roger Andrews of Relish Gourmet Burgers created a dish of three separate components. The first was a block of maple-lacquered, smoked pork belly, awesomely delicious and perfectly textured. Beside it was a mound of mushroom ragout made from chopped chanterelle and crimini mushrooms cooked with chicken stock, garlic and shallots that worked particularly well with the wine. Balanced on the ragout, a crunchy slice of garlic toast was topped with aerated goat yoghurt. The third element was a whole olive-oil-poached tomato – basically a juice-and-flavour bomb that was a brilliant complement to the rest of the dish and unexpectedly well matched to the wine.

From Edmonton, Chef Paul Shufelt of Century Hospitality Group also gave us pork belly, the meat slow-braised then quickly seared, glazed with honey, soy and lemongrass. He set the tasty meat on a hank of rice vermicelli tossed with julienned Granny Smith apple, baby radish, pea tendrils, fresh mint, pistachios and some pickled red onion, all moistened by a honey gastrique and by a squeeze of the lime wedge he included on the plate. The overall effect was like a highly sophisticated, deconstructed Vietnamese roll – very refreshing and a good match with the wine.

From Regina, Chef Jonathan Thauberger of Crave Kitchen + Wine Bar created a spectacular little burger-shaped creation, baking a miniature peach-and-yam bagel that he instructed us to eat with our fingers. Inside was a slice of perfectly cooked veal sweetbreads, some subtle bacon torchon and a vanilla-scented ricotta cheese that chef made himself during the morning. There was apple slaw and yam purée on the plate, both reflecting aspects Chef had found in the wine, and some yummy sunchoke chips for crunch. The big surprise was a pickled smelt on a skewer. Cured in a citrus escabeche and topped with kumquat, its tangy fishiness was decidedly forthright and some judges felt a bit too much for the wine. But this was the slider from heaven.

Fom Montreal, Chef Danny St. Pierre of Auguste, in Sherbrooke, Que., found plenty of minerality in the wine and reflected this with a fluid gel of grapefruit and by spiking his purée of parsnips with an intense mussel jus. Both were fine accompaniments to his main event, a trout tartare flavoured with saffron-infused fennel and garnished with trout roe, white corn and parsnip chips. The tartare was a splendid match for the mystery wine, the musselly purée a touch too powerful, but the overall effect was most impressive.

From Saskatoon, Chef Trevor Robertson of Aroma Rest-bar in the Radisson Hotel presented a block of succulent pork belly, cooked sous vide and glazed with a chili honey. He used green apple and fresh fennel to build a flavour bridge into the wine, strengthening the relationship with a green apple gel, garnishes of radish and baby tomato and a dainty ricepaper crisp. The biggest flavour on the plate was an intense, sapid tomato fennel jam that came dangerously close to pushing the wine around.

Representing British Columbia, Chef Brian Skinner of The Acorn, in Vancouver, offered a brilliant and accurate analysis of the wine, finding minerality and oaky vanilla in its complex personality and admiring the length of its finish. Seeking to match not trump the vino, he proposed “a trio of cauliflower cheese” in keeping with the vegetarian mandate of his restaurant. The dish looked absolutely spectacular, its elements arranged in a circle like a carved Grinling Gibbons garland. Cauliflower had been dealt with three ways – seared in juniper oil; puréed with brown butter and dijon mustard; and pickled with bay, cumin and chili. The cheesy purée alluded to cauliflower cheese while opaque white petals of organic Similkameen shallots, poached in a vegetable court bouillon, added another contrasting texture and taste to the plate. Matchsticks of tart apple dyed purple with beet juice referred to the earthiness Chef found in the wine.

From Winnipeg, Chef Kelly Cattani of Elements the Restaurant, also had a very clear vision of the wine, identifying the viognier in the blend. Her dish wowed the judges – raw scallops cured for three hours in sake and mirin and paired with miso butter sauce. A salad of Asian flavours included wakame, baby kale, green onion, sesame and pickled Asian pear with tobiko roe for colour and saltiness. A slice of serrano chili sealed the deal. Textures were amazing, the balance of components very strong but several of the judges felt the dish changed the taste of the wine.

From Toronto, Chef Lorenzo Loseto of George Restaurant created a sensory mosaic of carefully interlocking flavours and textures. At its heart was a fluffy goat cheese mousse served on a broad ribbon of yellow beet carpaccio. A salad of julienned fuji apple and truffle-scented black trumpet mushrooms was topped with a mere suggestion of smoked bacon and Chef also used bacon fat as a subtle brush on an olive bread crisp. There were brussels sprout leaves, scattered beet crumble and brown dots of a reduced jelly of beet and aged balsamic – all perfectly harmonious and precisely in tune with the wine.

From Halifax, Chef Martin Ruiz Salvador of Fleur de Sel, in Lunenburg, presented our final plate of the evening, and it was splendid. Here was a salad of diced smoked strugeon with fennel and cucumber garnished with fennel fronds and drizzled with a clove-and-orange-juice cream. Chef had formed it into a ring that held a pool of green fennel and leek vichyssoise. White leek fondue added a second soft rich texture, spooned onto the vichyssoise. There was more of the salad in the centre of the pool, an island upon which lay a gorgeous, pan-seared oyster that picked up the minerality in the wine very nicely indeed.

The judges retired to their deliberation room and added up their scores. It was like watching the beginning of a long-distance race, the athletes all in a bunch with no one prepared to take the lead. The six leading chefs were only separated by three percentage points; the other five almost as close. This was absolutely anyone’s game.

 

Saturday morning. The Black Box competition. Over the years of the CCC, we have tried to flummox the chefs by filling the black box of mystery ingredients with such arcane items as wild liquorice root, dulse or live crabs, or else we have given them a meat that is exceptionally difficult to cook in less than an hour. This year, I thought we might take a different route, giving them much more everyday things to work with, things we can all cook, hoping they would come up with spectacular, imaginative and different solutions to the competition. So we started our list of six components with a chicken – a whole, 8-lb organic chicken from Sterling Springs farm near Kelowna, introduced by the farmer herself, Lisa Dueck. A bunch of local parsnips from Greencroft Gardens in Grindrod, B.C. A container of Cornect Family Farm honey butter from Nova Scotia, one of many generous donations to our weekend from Taste of Nova Scotia. A bag of gorgeous, intensely flavourful Saskatchewan cherries from Dean Kreutzer of Over the Hill Orchards in Saskatchewan. Two perfect, whole, gutted but otherwise immaculate trout from West Creek Farms in B.C. And finally a bag of fresh lion’s mane fungus that looked like white pompoms, from Champignons Le Coprin in Gatineau. All these Canadian culinary treasures were donated and on behalf of Gold Medal Plates and the Canadian Culinary Championships I’d like to thank the donors profusely.

Each chef had to use these ingredients in one or other of two plates they had to devise and prepare for the judges and they had precisely an hour to do it. Lateness or failure to use one of the ingredients would be severely penalized. Alas, two of our competitors incurred penalties. Kelly Cattani was more than a minute and half late plating her second dish. Martin Ruiz Salvador, standing describing his dishes for the judges, realized with horror that he had forgotten to put the fungus he had cooked onto his plate. Our hearts went out to them both, but the rules are written in stone.

I won’t list each of the 22 dishes we received. There was a great deal of repetition. Most chefs decided to fillet and pan-sear their trout. Most chefs chose to purée their parsnips. Only Danny St. Pierre used the bones of his chicken to supercharge the chicken stock from the pantry; hardly anyone worked with the fowl’s dark meat… But every dish had moments to delight us!

Thank you, Trevor Robertson, for a great lemon and honey-butter beurre blanc and for using the cherries with the thyme-scented chicken forcemeat you put inside the breast.

Thank you, Martin Ruiz Salvador, for the delectable little cilantro-studded mushu pancake under your roast chicken breast.

Kelly Cattani, thanks for the awesome, gingery broth in your trout hot pot.

Merci, Danny St. Pierre, for getting crisp skin onto your trout fillet and for mashing, not puréeing your parsnips.

Thank you, Brian Skinner for a chicken mousseline quenelle with the texture of a cloud.

Thanks to you, Lorenzo Loseto, for putting colour on your beautiful plates and for marinating your trout instead of cooking it.

Jonathan Thauberger, it was a great idea to do a cold dish and a hot one, and to warm the plate! Thank you for the yummy trout tartare and the chicken breast roulade.

Merci, Marysol Foucault, for the spare perfection of your presentation and for the delectable cherry gastrique (the best use of the cherries in the entire competition), the garlicky lemon aioli and the parsnip rösti.

Thank you Duncan Ly for giving us crunchy brunoise of parsnip in your red wine gastrique and for the chicken leg meat in the beautiful little dumpling.

Thank you, Roger Andrews, for the delicious herbed potato “bar” and for figuring out that cutting up the fungus and sautéeing it hard meant it wouldn’t soak up so much liquid.

And thank you, Paul Shufelt, for the great dijon spaetzle you made so fast to go with your chicken and for roasting off your parsnips in the honey butter.

So, where did we stand after the Black Box? That front-running pack of chefs had changed personnel a little and there was a hint of daylight beginning to show between the first four or five and the rest of the field. Who was out in front? By a nose, Danny St. Pierre, with Duncan Ly and Lorenzo Loseto right on his heels. But it was still impossible to call. Everything would depend on the Grand Finale.

 

Saturday night. The Grand Finale.

Chefs often go to great lengths to create their signature dish for the Grand Finale. Martin Ruiz Salvador may have trumped them all in putting together his contribution, a very different idea from the refined version of a breakfast collation that had won him gold in Halifax. He sent a fisherman out to sea, 35 miles into the Atlantic to harvest 70 gallons of pure sea water. He froze some of it around the gorgeous South Shore lobsters he shipped out to Kelowna, and brought the rest to poach the lobsters to a perfect state of quivering rarity. There were two principal accompaniments, both soft, weighty textures and both exotically flavoured. One was a white corn polenta stirred with parsnip and topped with two squares of tofu in a shallot-parsley-lemon zest dressing. The other was a mayo made with rendered bone marrow and chopped seaweed for a dazzling taste of the seashore. Shredded radishes, that Chef had fermented in sea water for three months, added a unique tang, and a strewing of pork scrunchions for richness and crunch delighted everyone. The final garnish was a rosette of hana tsunomata seaweed. I found it a brilliant dish, beautifully matched to his wine, the Benjamin Bridge Tidal Bay 2012, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Vidal grown in Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Valley.

Brian Skinner showed next, with a dish that wowed the judges with its gorgeous aromas and flavours. Cylinders of different sizes turned out to be different things – drums of smoked king oyster mushroom or of confited potato. Quartered, roasted purple heirloom carrots lay across them while big petals of braised shallot brought a different kind of sweetness. Dazzlingly orange, tissue-thin shards of peppery carrot meringue were intensely flavourful. A thick, rich mushroom jus united the spectrum of tastes like a thrown blanket while little dots of jelly made from 20-year-old sherry (the only ingredient that came from farther than 100 miles from Chef’s restaurant) provided an edge of acidity. The wine match was impeccable – Clos du Soleil Chegwin & Baessler Pinot Blanc 2012 from B.C.’s Similkameen Valley.

 

Lorenzo Loseto

Lorenzo Loseto

Third up was Lorenzo Loseto, presenting a slimmed-down version of his golden Toronto dish. At its heart were thick slices of superb ahi tuna that had been rolled in potato threads and deep-fried for the seconds needed to crisp them. The tuna itself remained essentially raw, glossy and dark as a polished Indian ruby. Carrot and pear were the accompanying components. Some of the carrots had been roasted in butter and transformed by tapioca and multidextrin into little marshmallow-textured nubbins of flavour. A finely chopped salad of carrot and pear was dressed with a gingered jasmine reduction. Radish provided moments of subtle heat, while a beet-stained, tartly pickled, obliquely cut slice of fennel added an unexpected tang. Drops of highly seasoned peppercorn mayo stood as an optional condiment for the tuna and a flourish of fennel pollen and pistachio powder finished the dish. 2010 Old Vine Riesling from Kew Vineyards on Niagara’s Beamsville Bench, a wine full of the aromas of petrol and lemon zest, was an inspired match.

Chef Marysol Foucault catapulted herself into the frontrunners with a fabulous dish. Her original intention had been to serve bear meat but instead she settled for a combination of wild boar belly, cooked sous vide for 36 hours then wrapped around rabbit loin with pink peppercrons and cooked for eight hours more. Tender, moist and flavourful, this chunk of meat was set over a dense chestnut purée that had been spiked with double-smoked bacon and strewn with fragments of chestnut, lemon and espalette pepper. A sweet parsnip puff and parsnip chips reprised the weekend’s inescapable ingredient and there were other delicious elements to be found, including a rabbit liver brown butter, two sauces using beets – one yellow, another a dark gastrique. Maintaining the boreal theme, Chef had soaked lichen in sortilège whisky and fried it to crispness. This beautifully conceived dish was well paired with Clossen Chase “The Brock” Chardonnay 2011 from Ontario’s Niagara River.

Chef Duncan Ly presented the dish that had won him victory in Calgary – a slim slice of a superb terrine made with side stripe prawns and pig’s ear set in a matrix of firm, finely textured braised and ground pork neck, cheek and jowl. Once sliced, the prawns showed as white circles against the meat while the pig’s ear (amazingly tender) was a narrow white stripe curving across the surface. A mint-apple gelée created a slim green rim to the slice. On one corner, Chef left a small mound of soft powder made from peanut and pork floss. To brighten the richness of the terrine, he made a crisp, fresh salad of finely julienned apple spiked with mint and a discreet sweet-sour dressing. An “Asian hot mustard and garlic sauce” turned out to be more of a gently spiced aïoli while the dish’s garnishes – a miniature rice crisp and some viola petals – looked as pretty as a picture. Chef’s wine match was remarkably successful – the Peller Estates NV Ice Cuvée rosé sparkler from Niagara, its off-dry fruitiness and sly acidity enhancing all the flavours on the plate.

Sixth to the table was Chef Roger Andrews. He chose to work with squab, stuffing the double breast with whole pistachios and chanterelles, cooking it sous vide and then finishing it in a hot pan to rendeer the fat and crisp the skin. The meat was awe-inspiringly delicious, as was its sauce, made from the reduced juices quickened with a hit of a low-lying shrub called Labrador tea. The second component garnered rave reviews from the public and from many of the judges – a salad of crunchy-soft puffed wild rice, cloudberries, lowbush blueberries and flower petals moistened with a hibiscus vinaigrette. Then there was a silky squash purée spiced with cumin and cayenne to match the pepperiness in the wine, and a moment of maple-scented apple compressed with green onion. Chef matched his squab very nicely indeed with the Norman Hardie 2012 Pinot Noir from Prince Edward County, Ont.

Chef Kelly Cattani played with local ingredients but Asian flavours for her signature dish. The star of the plate was a tataki-style treatment of Manitoban elk, seared very briefly in avocado oil then sliced remarkably thinly. She laid it over cool, delicious soba noodles and spread a half moon of roughly puréed edamame beans across the plate. Pickled carrots and ginger added zing to the soba salad while crimson microgreens proved a subtly earthy garnish. Chili oil added more pizzazz and a togarashu rice crisp was the final touch. The elk worked well with the bright, fresh 2011 Blue Mountain Pinot Noir from Okanagan Falls, B.C.

Chef Trevor Robertson presenting a plate that looked like a Joan Miro painting – stunningly colourful and graphic. Above a thin purple line of haskap berry gastrique, we found slices of his “duck press,” a finely textured Muscovy duck terrine studded with squares of foie gras, black truffle and shiitake under a pistachio crust. Pale yellow streaks of Morden corn beurre blanc underlay the terrine beside apricot pearls and cut-out circles of glossy corn gel. Twists of duck breast prosciutto reinforced the protein component while a scoop of smoked corn sorbet turned everything on its head with a weird and woodsy wow factor. Nk’Mip Winemaker’s Series 2012 Pinot Noir from Osoyoos, B.C. was Chef’s choice, a wine that worked particularly well with the duck prosciutto.

Chef Jonathan Thauberger prepared rabbit for us – the deboned loin and saddle stuffed with baby leek and carrot and a forcemeat made with sour cherries and cooked sous vide. He set this tender ballotine on a piece of brioche toast partially hidden beneath a piping of rabbit stock compound butter. Meanwhile a deep, dark reduction of the rabbit jus throbbed flavour like a fretless bass guitar in the hands of Roger Waters. Nasturtiums from Chef’s own garden became a sweetish jelly and also a seasoning powder while a single orange nasturtium petal and leaf were the elegant garnish. A miniature salad of cat tails and a sour cherry reduction finished the plate. The wine match was a light-on-its-feet 2010 Bordeaux blend called Two Hoots from Fairview Cellars in Oliver, B.C.

Chef Danny St. Pierre presented a fascinating warm salad of braised beef tongue, thinly sliced and arranged on the plate as a flat oblong of meat, almost like carpaccio. A savoury glaze of soy, fish sauce, maple, balsamic and sesame oil added gloss and cohesion to the tongue. Organized on top were other elements designed, like the glaze and the tongue itself, to harmonize impeccably with the wine. Instants of a clove-scented confited-cranberry purée mimicked the wine’s flavour. Onion drizzled with horseradish added its own piquancy as did the cool heat of thinly sliced radish. A fried quail egg sat on top, its runny yolk released by one’s fork to become a rich sauce and the egg itself was strewn with very finely cut marrowbone croutons, their crunch contrasting with the softness of the tongue. Perhaps it was the egg yolk that disturbed some of Chef’s careful harmonies. The wine he chose, even before he created the dish to go with it, was Vignoble Carone Venice 2011 Cabernet Severnyi from Lanoraie, Que.

Chef Paul Shufelt was our final competitor. He had taken all the off-cuts of Tangle Ridge Ranch lamb and braised them for six to eight hours in a light veal stock with Syrah, pomegranate and fresh mint. Then he pulled the meat apart and laid it over a “risotto” of faro grains cooked in stock from the roasted lamb bones . Yellowfoot chanterelles sautéed with shallots and garlic were one garnish; another was thin slices of pickled candystripe beets, lending dramatic colour and refreshing acidity. Crispy leeks and micro mint seedlings added pop while whole pomegranate seeds looked like jewels on the plate. It was a dish of true “rustic refinement” as Chef intended, well matched with Mission Hill Select Lot Collection Syrah 2011 from the Okanagan Valley, B.C.

So there you have it… To be sure, the Grand Finale truly lived up to its billing, with all the chefs pushing their pace up to maximum and much jockeying for position as we finally crossed the line. It would be safe to say that every competitor this weekend performed like a star but only three toques can fit on the podium. Danny St. Pierre won our bronze medal. Duncan Ly won the silver. Lorenzo Loseto won gold and becomes our new Canadian Culinary Champion. Congratulations to all the chefs and judges who worked so hard this weekend to find our new Champion.

 

The Canadian Culinary Championship 2014 – Prelude

07 Feb

 

The view from Tantalus

The view from Tantalus

 

As Canada’s Olympic athletes have shown us, the road to victory can be arduous. That was also the case for many of the judges making their way from Eastern Canada to Kelowna, B.C., to serve on the judiciary panel of the Canadian Culinary Championships. Thirteen hours door-to-door, in my case, thanks to the weather at Pearson and missed connections. Which made our ultimate rendezvous all the sweeter. Across the street from our hotel, the lovely Eldorado, stands a comfortable, cool, contemporary restaurant called Cabana. It was there we gathered, to be greeted by a glass of Bella sparkling chardonnay and an array of other brilliant wines very generously donated by Lindsay Kelm of the British Columbia Wine Institute.

            We are 13 judges this year. Travelling, like the sun himself, from east to west, they are: from St. John’s, Newfoundland, broadcaster, food columnist for the Telegram, author and host of his own tv show, One Chef One Critic. KARL WELLS; from Halifax, journalist and restaurant critic for the Chronicle-Herald, who overcame his fear of flying to be with us in Kelowna, BILL SPURR; from Montreal, former pastry chef, author, journalist and since 1999, fine-dining critic and food columnist for the Montreal Gazette, LESLEY CHESTERMAN; from Ottawa-Gatineau, author and broadcaster, senior editor of Taste & Travel Magazine and former restaurant critic of the Ottawa Citizen, ANNE DESBRISAY; from Toronto, award-winning food columnist and food writer, currently an editor with the Walrus, SASHA CHAPMAN; from Winnipeg, professional chef, Liverpool fanatic, culinary arts instructor and Director Food Services at Red River College, JEFF GILL; from Saskatchewan, award-winning cookbook author, tv and radio host and publisher of Savour Life magazine, and our senior judge in both Regina and Saskatoon, CJ KATZ; from Edmonton, wine, food and travel writer, certified sommelier and wine instructor, publisher of red tomato online and the founder of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium, MARY BAILEY; from Calgary, teacher, broadcaster, author and restaurant columnist for the Calgary Herald, JOHN GILCHRIST; from Kelowna, Instructor in Baking and Pastry Arts right here at Okanagan College, PERRY BENTLEY; from Vancouver, world-renowned wine and food judge and the wine and food guru for Western Living magazine, SID CROSS; and also from Vancouver, author, teacher, restaurant critic, boulevardier and the editor-in-chief of Scout Magazine, ANDREW MORRISON. Andrew is also the CCC’s Culinary Referee and the man who will be responsible for enforcing the rules throughout the weekend.

            Here was a merry meeting – and Cabana did us proud. We tasted a smoked duck confit crostini with drunken cherries and a fig reduction. We further calibrated our palates with a salad of roasted baby beets and corn, served on a bed of peppered arugula with orange vinaigrette topped with herbed Happy Days goat cheese and shaved rainbow radish. Some of us couldn’t resist one of the restaurant’s renowned specialities – deboned chicken wings stuffed with cream cheese. Then there was thickly sliced chateaubriand, crusted with a cinnamon coffee rub and set over a buttermilk honey parsnip mash and a smoked apricot purée. Three chocolate mouthfuls closed the occasion – one just a foam that melted into air in our mouths, another a fluffy milk chocolate mousse, the last a heavy, wickedly intense terrine. A fine start to a weekend of professional eating.

            The treats continued on Thursday. It is the generous custom of Tourism Kelowna’s Catherine Frechette to devise a gently educational culinary adventure for the judges as a team-building preamble to the competition itself. This year we were driven up to Tantalus winery on the brow of a ridge overlooking the valley. We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be tremendous fun. There to meet us were luminaries from the winery and also the chefs and bartender from Kelowna’s splendid Indian restaurant, Poppadoms (948 McCurdy Road, 778-753-5563, www.poppadoms.ca). It’s a family business, with Jas Dosanj and her daughter Aman in the kitchen, and her son Harry a most inventive bartender. Our task this sunny but very cold  morning was to work as cooks, aproned in black and divided into pairs, set to prepare six different dishes that would eventually become our lunch. To help us work, Mark Puttick, manager of Knifewear Inc, was there to lend us an array of marvelous Japanese knives, while Jas and Aman moved amongst our prep tables, offering advice.

            I paired up with Sid Cross and we set to work making a Keralan vegetable dish of potatoes, carrots, parsnip and onions in a coconut sauce spiced with handfuls of julienned ginger and garlic, green chilies and cardamom, cloves, peppercorns and roasted ground fennel seeds. Harry provided inspiration with miniature shots of his prize-winning cocktail, a creation he calls a Harry Berry that mixes Okanagan Spirits whisky, Tantalus Pinot Noir, a syrup made by reducing maple stout, and a shot of blackberry lemonade, all finished with a moment of egg white. I’m usually pretty good at imagining what a cocktail is going to taste like but I was most surprised by the suave, tangy, subtle flavour of this one… An excellent invention!

 

            While our dishes were finishing in the Tantalus ovens, Jas showed us how to make chapatis and then let us try. We soon had the balls of wholewheat flour and water dough rising like balloons on our butane burners.

            Lunch was amazing! It didn’t hurt that we had a good number of actual chefs on the judging panel. I can say without fear of contradiction that we go into the first element of the competition tonight – the mystery wine pairing contest – as a very focused posse, ready to do our duty in passing judgement on 11 of Canada’s finest chefs.

 

A Great Day in Kelowna

17 Feb
Suncatcher Farm, Kelowna

Suncatcher Farm, Kelowna

Our annual trip to Kelowna for the Canadian Culinary Championships is always a highlight of my year, not least because it offers a chance to get to know more about this extraordinary valley. Home for the long weekend is the stylishly retro, discreetly luxurious Eldorado hotel, right on the shores of the lake – a placid body of water that never seems to freeze, even in February when the ski slopes in the surrounding mountains are choked with snow. And for the last couple of years, Tourism Kelowna has generously organized a tour of the area for the posse of judges (the Senior Judge from each Gold Medal Plates city) who fly in to adjudicate the Championships with me. Catherine Frechette of Tourism Kelowna puts our day together and this year’s trip surpassed all our expectations.

Montreal judge Robert Beauchemin ponders Bean Scene's magnificent roaster

Montreal judge Robert Beauchemin ponders Bean Scene’s magnificent roaster

We began very early with a visit to Bean Scene Coffee Works on Dickson Avenue for freshly baked muffins and a truly first class cup of joe. This is the actual roastery and bakery for the other two Bean Scene cafés and it’s something of a local secret, very much a labour of love on the part of the owners, John Anderson and his partner Deb Synnot. Old school? Such an understatement. John acquired a vintage small-batch roaster (no computers here) and then devised a homespun but brilliant system to clean the smoke that the roaster produces using water filters instead of high-energy incinerators. The only by-product is a nitrogen rich liquid that he uses to water the trees outside the café. “No gimmicks, keep everything simple,” is John’s motto, but there’s nothing simple about the coffees he serves. The aroma is heavenly, the flavour rich and complex, medium-roasted and pitched somewhere between acidity and carbon, “between a lemon and a match,” as John puts it. He roasts single-origin coffees from Mexico, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Sumatra and El Salvador and mixes all five for his profound espresso blend. We ate freshly baked cornmeal muffins and lingered over our capuccinos, then set off for the next gastronomic adventure.

Jim and Lorena Wood live on their six-acre, organic, mixed-orchard farm and they were waiting for us as we parked our vans in the snowy driveway. Lorena’s three-month-old granddaughter, Sage, was in her arms, well-bundled-up, and a pot of hot apple cider was seething aromatically on the barbecue. We munched on wonderfully sweet little red Fuji apples while Jim told us the story of the 1928 farmhouse, how they used to use goats and sheep to “mow” the orchards, and how they started a small farmgate business for their fruits and vegetables, eight years ago. Eventually top chefs found their way to the farm (he has another eight acres where they farm organic vegetables), fell in love with the quality and the Woods’s philosophy and are now customers. Red Haven, Glow Haven, Canadian Harmony and raretown white peaches, cherries and apples, chickens and eggs… We sipped a cocktail of Cipes sparkling wine and the farm’s own organic apple juice – a nectar that knocks your Bellini out of the park.

The gleaming still at Okanagan Spirits

The gleaming still at Okanagan Spirits

On to Okanagan Spirits, a 10-year-old craft distillery in downtown Kelowna where awesome eaux-de-vie, fruit liqueurs and spirits are alchemized from a gleaming German 250-Litre copper pot still that looks like a steam-punk time machine at the back of the store. This is something that anyone who comes to Kelowna should see, especially if you share my innocent passion for unique distillates. They’re working on a single malt whisky that they enchant with a dash of fruit spirits. I have a phobia against adulterated whiskies but this one was remarkably good – not sweet, just ameliorated with a faint aroma of stone fruit. We judges tried one eaux de vie. Then another. Soon we were working our way through the entire repertoire including “Canados,” a remarkable, dry, spicy local version of Calvados (this is apple country, after all, in the way that the garden of Eden was apple country) made with Hyslop crab apples, and finally a nip of Taboo, the distillery’s pungent absinthe. We could happily have stayed all afternoon but lunch awaited us around the corner at the extraordinary RauDZ Regional table, the very cool restaurant owned and operated by Chef Rod Butters and Audrey Surrao.

RauDZThey had opened at lunchtime for the first time in their history to accommodate the CCC judges. “And the last time,” said Chef Butters with a smile, as we scrambled up onto bar stools, wondering what to expect. They don’t have a bartender at RauDZ, they have “liquid chef” Micah Jensen who had organized a progression of cocktails for us to try, examples of his “farm-to-glass” philosophy. The first of them arrived in a Mason jar, a Quince Gin Mule, made with local Spirit Bear gin, quince puree from O’Neil farm and the dry, dazzling, English Fentiman’s ginger beer. A delightful palate cleanser, herbal and spicy, designed to refresh but also to showcase the lavender in the gin.

Soup at the bar at RauDZ

Soup at the bar at RauDZ

And then the little edible treats began to appear. There were miniature jars of tuna slow cooked in grapeseed oil. There was wholly unexpected smoked sockeye salmon from Lake Okanagan, coaxed back up the Columbia river and into these waters and caught by First Nations people. Chef served it with the tiny citrus beads squeezed from finger limes. Then a can of mushroom soup – literally served in a can with a label created for our visit (click on the image above – it’s a good read) – to be poured into a cup already harbouring morels and other wild mushrooms. And there were beers to sample, including Vertical Winter Ale from local Tree brewery, flavoured with vanilla and heady with nut and caramel aromas, and Red Wood, an ale aged for a hundred days in red wine barrels and showing a subtle nutmeg flavour.Plates of venison carpaccio appeared, dressed with mustard sauce and julienned apple. An array of charcuterie came from Seedo’s in Salmon Arm – Chef Butters believes that charcuterie should be left to the experts and the chorizo, cervelat, salami and spicy biltong added weight to his argument. Micah Jensen presented a second cocktail with the meat, a Vanilla Sky made with Tree’s winter ale and whisky – oaky and smoky and sweetened with beautiful honey from Arlo’s honey farm on Bedford Lane.

Duck, duck, duck eggs and gnocchi

Duck, duck, duck eggs and gnocchi

And the food kept on coming, all of it true to Chef Butters’s once-radical, now-orthodox belief in the virtue of locally sourced ingredients. The main course was a dish of pan-browned sage gnocchi topped with the applewood-smoked breast meat and confited leg meat of Pekin ducks from Feather Farms, an operation owned by the parents of RauDZ sous chef Evelyn Takoff. There were perfectly fried duck eggs on top of the tender confit mountain and she advised us to break them open so that the runny, dark yellow yolks seeped down over the meat as a heavenly sauce. Then there were four cheeses from the valley’s Upper Bench Creamery including a semi-soft blue called King Cole and a fabulous soft goat cheese called Grey Baby. Not to be outdone, Micah Jensen mixed us Poached Pear Cocktails of pear vodka from Okanagan Spirits mixed with cointreau, red pear purée, lemon juice and, as a final float, port spiced-up with anise, cinnamon, vanilla and blood orange peel. Little triangles of soft, moist Christmas cake were the perfect accompaniment.

We needed a walk after that spectacular lunch and we got it at Suncatcher Farm, where Tony and Nancy Cetinski cultivate organic vegetables on their precious six acres right next to the first permanent white settlement in the Okanagan, where Father Pandosy built his mission in 1859. Tony Cetinski is a witty guy who cherishes the land he bought in 2001 – land that has been farmed for well over a century and is protected as part of Kelowna’s agricultural land reserve, though property developers must be tearing out their hair. He farms it pretty much single-handed, with a passion and an energy that produces 40 different crops in a season, much of which goes to RauDZ and the kitchens of other enlightened chefs in the area.

On the hillside behind the farm is Sperling Vineyards. Anne Sperling is a towering figure in Niagara – one of the great winemakers and a pioneer of biodynamic viticulture. I always knew she grew up on a family vineyard in the Okanagan and learned the roots of what she knows by tending those vines as a child. Now I had a chance to see the property and to meet her neice and her neice’s husband, who run the place and operate the winery shop. We finished our day with a tasting of wines from the vineyard, starting with Sper…itz, an extraordinary bubbly made from old-vine Bacchus and Perle of Csaba (a love-child of Muscat). It was amazingly aromatic and attractive and I wish they made enough to send a few half bottles to Ontario. Then we tried the Sparkling 2008 Methode Champenoise bubbly made from a unique block of Pinot Blanc given three years sur lie. Yeasty, acidic, with a hint of lanolin on the nose, it was delightful but again – they only make 1200 bottles a year. An intense Pinot Gris followed, then the flagship wine from the property, an old-vines Riesling I had tasted a couple of weeks earlier in Toronto, racy, coursing with limestone and petrol, spectacular! In 2008, they planted Pinot Noir on their busy land and we tasted the first ever vintage, the 2011. Precocity isn’t in it. It was shimmering with the promise of the future, all cherries and minerality, a subtle kiss of oak… Another reason to love the Okanagan.

Catherine Frechette had made her point. All this lies within a few minutes of downtown Kelowna, a wonderful circus of quality, history, innovation, commitment and passion. Envious Canadians often ask me why the CCC takes place in Kelowna every year. All the people we met that day provided different but irrefutable answers. If you love wine and food and spirits and beer and vivid gastronomic narratives, this is surely the place to be.

 

 

David Lawrason’s CCC wine report

14 Feb

David Lawrason made a dramatic entrance at the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna last week, flying in directly from a three-week sojourn in New Zealand and looking remarkably fit and spry. I never see enough of him during the CCC since we are both very busy with our separate vinous and culinary worlds. Only when those worlds collide – at the actual events – do we have a moment to share notes so I welcome this post-facto report even more than usual.

The Canadian Culinary Championships Wine Report

By David Lawrason, National Wine Advisor

The 2013 Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna featured an astounding 40 different wines, spread over three events. Except for the wines that were paired with ten competing chefs, the vast majority were donated by the wineries of Kelowna.  Catherine Frechette of Tourism Kelowna was instrumental in organizing the donations and the tastings.

I had the great pleasure of tasting and judging them for the Best of Show Wine Award with two good friends and excellent palates to help me with the judging – two local boys known to all wine folk in the Valley.

Harry McWatters was the Honorary Chair of this Event, but I think he derived his real pleasure from joining us on our tasting rounds.  Harry was the founder of Sumac Ridge Estate winery in 1980, among the very first small new, quality focused wineries in the Valley.  He had the vision and courage to plant what he wanted, where he wanted, and to speak out for what he felt was right for such a tender industry. He was truly the architect of the incredible growth of Okanagan wine has enjoyed since.  And he is still out there creating, and mentoring with his McWatters Collection, and new brand is in the wings called Time.

Rhys Pender is younger, but very much a Harry.  Living in the Similkameen Valley Rhys has made his mark as a passionate wine educator, writer and show judge. He is one of only three people in BC and four in Canada to have earned his Master of Wine.  He too is vitally interested in and vocal about BC wine, and he has not been afraid to dig in and plant grapes and make wine of his own.

Chef’s Reception at Tantalus Vineyards

This year Tantalus Vineyards played a major hosting role for the Canadian Culinary Championships, offering their winery for the Chef’s receptions and introductions, and helping organize neighbouring wineries of the Lakeshore Wine Route that poured at the Mystery Wine Night.  The interior of the winery looked like a movie set for a classy futuristic culinary thriller, with stainless steel gleaming in white light, culinary students from Okanagan College all in their whites, food stations, and of course the stellar Tantalus wines.  They poured the terrific 2010 Riesling this night as well as 2010 Pinot Noir, which could frankly use a couple of years. Winemaker David Paterson led some of the judges through a tank sampling of the very promising 2012 Riesling, and we dabbled with a 2007 Old Vines Riesling that is now evolved to perfect fruit, honey and mineral complexity while maintaining electric acidity.  It was astonishingly good with oysters from the Outlandish Oyster Company of Quadra Island

The Mystery Wine Competition
The El Dorado Hotel

This is my favourite of the three Canadian Culinary Championship competitions, and not just because I am involved in selecting the Mystery Wine.  We all like to talk the talk of food-and-wine matching, but this night  we got to walk the walk – the chefs, the judges and 400 guests who packed into the wonderful, retro summer lodge-like El Dorado Hotel on the shore of Lake Okanagan.  It was all about exploring the interaction of flavours – the essence of gastronomy. Simply, each chef had to create one dish to match specifically to the wine.

The El Dorado is the culinary hub of the Lakeshore Wine Route, so it was only fitting that four wineries who belong to this association provided other wines in vinous support to the Mystery Wine.  Tantalus, St. Hubertus, CedarCreek and Summerhill Pyramid Winery each poured two or three wines at stations on the main and second floor. And the evening kicked off with a very generous pour of Distraction, a funky, pink sparkler by The View.

The room was full of conjecture and guesses about the identity of the Mystery Wine. Most people correctly assessed it as pinot noir, but few confidently picked its origin.  The wine showed exceedingly well according to most opinion, with terrific fragrance, fresh acidity, excellent fruit depth and silky tannin. It was a wine that easily drank through the evening, and provided the chefs a broad flavour canvass.

And the Wine?  Norman Hardie 2010 County Pinot Noir, from Prince Edward County, Ontario.

If you are unfamiliar, Prince Edward County is located two hours east of Toronto on the north shore of Lake Ontario.  It is an amazing chunk of limestone bedrock rapidly gaining acclaim for pinot noir, chardonnay and sparkling wine.  The first winery opened in 2001 and there are now almost 40.   Norman Hardie is the great ambassador for the region – a Toronto-raised pinot noir fanatic who has made wine in Burgundy, South Africa and California.

Norm Hardie took the podium and graciously acknowledged our Olympic athletes, tying their pursuit of excellence to the pursuit underway in the vineyards of Canada.

The Grand Finale at The Delta Grand

About 25 wines were poured during the festivities in the Delta Grand’s Ballroom on the final leg of the competition.  The chefs from each city had invited their winning winery to pour again in Kelowna and all took up the offer, with three wineries accompanying their chefs to the podium. In bronze medal position, paired with Regina chef Milton Rebello was the taut, complex See Ya Later Ranch 2010 Pinot Noir.  Ottawa silver medalist Jamie Stunt brought along Ashton Brewery’s la belle terre, a brew flavoured with ginger and green tea. And the Gold Medal podium was shared by Toronto chef Marc St. Jacques of Auberge du Pommier and the delicate Peller Estates Ice Cuvee from Niagara.

Aside from the chef wines, guests at the VIP reception were treated to a pair of lovely wines from Black Hills Estate – the 2010 Syrah and 2011 Alibi, a cracking good white blend.  After the competition, as guests were treated to entertainment and athlete interview, several wineries from the Kelowna area poured a wide selection at the tables. Participating wineries included Andrew Peller (BC), Calona Wines, Sandhill, Ex Nihilo, Mt. Boucherie, Sperling Vineyards, Quail’s Gate and Camelot Vineyards.

At the end of the evening it was left to the three wine judges to select the Best Wine of Show, from all those entered over the two days of competition. And here’s what happened. With remarkable consistency five wines showed up on all the score cards.  Malivoire 2011 Gamay from Niagara placed fifth.  There was a tie for third between Gray Monk 2011 Gewurztraminer and CedarCreek 2009 Platinum Merlot, both from the Okanagan.  In second place, only a couple of points out of first place, was the superb, complex Tantalus 2010 Chardonnay.  And finally with two first place votes and one second came the compact, elegant and powerful Black Hills 2010 Syrah.  Black Hills will receive A Best of Show Wine Award, along with all other Best of Show winners in cities across Canada.

But even with this announcement the evening was not over. This year, for the first time, Gold Medal Plates entered all the donating wineries, breweries and distillers into a draw. The winner, as drawn by Rhys Pender, was Laughing Stock Vineyards of the Okanagan.  The prize?  A villa holiday at the Relais and Chateau Borgo San Felice in Tuscany, the new international HQ for Gold Medal Plates fundraising trips.

It was a terrific weekend, and on behalf of the athletes I want to thank all the winemakers, brewers and distillers across Canada for the best campaign to date.

Here’s looking forward to next season.

 

 

 

 

Canadian Culinary Championships 2013 report

11 Feb
And apparently it was snowing in Toronto

And apparently it was snowing in Toronto

Was it only a year ago that Ottawa’s Marc Lepine raced to victory at the Canadian Culinary Championships here in Kelowna? Time speeds by even in this balmy lakeside paradise. Now the long weekend is over and we have a new champion. You could skip to the bottom of this post and find out who, or you could read on and relive it as the drama unfolded.

We had 10 competitors this year, each one of them the champion of his or her own regional Gold Medal Plates competition. On Thursday night, at a splendid reception up on the ridge at Tantalus Winery, we introduced them and their sous chefs to a select crowd of sponsors and friends, and boosted each team with a brace of eager, talented culinary students from Okanagan College.

There were wonderful oysters to be tasted and Saskatchewan pickerel on quinoa cake prepared by former competitor Chef Dan Walker. And My Tea Blending Room was also in the house. A few weeks ago, owner Amber Piche had the inspired idea of asking each chef and each judge to create a blend of tea. They were all on display, in a tin with our names and faces on the label. I was deeply honoured that Amber had decided to brew and blend my own creation, an iced green tea with juniper, lemon, bergamot and rose petal that I hoped would taste like a gin and tonic. I think Amber had fixed the recipe because it was actually rather good! All the details are there on the web site, www.myteablendingroom.com.

The competing chefs are: from Chinched Bistro in St. John’s, Shaun Hussey; from Fou d’Ici in Montreal, Daren Bergeron; from Oz Kafe in Ottawa, Jamie Stunt; from Auberge du Pommier in Toronto, Marc St. Jacques; from Wasabi Sabi in Winnipeg, Östen Rice; from the Saskatchewan Radisson Plaza in Regina, Milton Rebello; from the Riverside Country Club in Saskatoon, Darren Craddock; from Wildflower Grill in Edmonton, Nathin Bye (who competed in the CCC once before); from Crazyweed Kitchen in Canmore, our Calgary champion, Eden Hrabec (who also competed at the CCC before, as sous chef to her mother, Jan Hrabec); and finally the victor of the Vancouver GMP, a chef from right here in Kelowna at the Waterfront Restaurant & Wine Bar, Mark Filatow.

It seemed a strong list going in to the competition and the judges, each one a Gold Medal Plates Senior Judge, convened from sea to shining sea, had plenty to say about their local star. Here is the posse of überpalates who joined me on the panel. From St. John’s, Newfoundland, KARL WELLS, broadcaster, food columnist for The Telegram, host of his own tv show, One Chef One Critic. From Montreal, ROBERT BEAUCHEMIN, food writer for La Presse, culinary author, anthropologist, college professor… From Ottawa, ANNE DESBRISAY, restaurant critic, author and broadcaster. From Toronto, SASHA CHAPMAN, award-winning food columnist and food writer, currently an editor with The Walrus. From Winnipeg, JEFF GILL, professional chef, culinary arts instructor at Red River College, avid snowmobiler and Liverpool supporter (yes, we Chelsea fans forgive him). From Saskatchewan, CJ KATZ, award-winning cookbook author, tv and radio host and publisher of Savour Life magazine, and our senior judge in both Regina and Saskatoon. From Edmonton,  MARY BAILEY is a wine, food and travel writer, a certified sommelier and wine instructor, publisher of The Tomato (www.thetomato.ca) online and the founder of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium. From Calgary, JOHN GILCHRIST, teacher and author and restaurant columnist for the Calgary Herald. From Kelowna, PERRY BENTLEY, Instructor in Baking and Pastry Arts right here at Okanagan College. From Vancouver, SID CROSS is the wine and food guru for Western Living magazine and is a world-renowned wine and food judge. And also from Vancouver, ANDREW MORRISON is a writer, a teacher, a restaurant critic and the editor of Scout Magazine. He is also our Culinary Referee and the man responsible for enforcing the rules throughout the weekend.

THE WINE MATCHING CHALLENGE

This is the first of our contests. At the end of our Thursday night reception we gave each chef a bottle of unmarked mystery wine and 24 hours to come up with a recipe that perfectly matched the wine. The catch? They had to cook for 400 people and they had only $500 to spend. Their students were very helpful here, full of advice about local stores and suppliers – the best butchers and grocers and farmers.

The wine was the last of Norman Hardie’s 2010 County Pinot Noir from Prince Edward County, Ontario, a lovely Pinot from a warm year that had richness and depth, cherry fruit and subtle spice. The ripe vintage confused some of the chefs who read it as an Okanagan wine but the underlying minerality was unmistakable for those of us who have followed Norm’s Pinots from the beginning.

On Friday evening, we all gathered at the Eldorado hotel (see view above). My friends from Van Houtte coffee were there with a great little kiosk and a range of rich brews. The 400 guests moved from chef’s station to chef’s station, tasting the mystery wine alongside each dish. We judges sat in our own comfortable salon and the dishes were brought to us. Brian Chambers was our official photographer and took these beautiful shots.

Here’s what we tasted:

Milton Rebello's dainty duck

Milton Rebello’s dainty duck

Milton Rebello spent most of his allowance on local ducks (a classic Pinot Noir match). He used the total bird, making a layered terrine of juicy, coarsely chopped duck and chicken thigh confit (a tad too subtle for the wine), and slicing the perfectly seared breast then dabbing it with a ginger and orange marmalade that suited the Pinot to a T. He used the duck bones to make a broth then turned it into pudding with gelatin, setting it over tissue-thin shaved beet carpaccio. A crisp raspberry-strawbery tuille stood vertically on the plate with radish seedlings clinging to it like climbers on a Matterhorn.

Mark Filatow's sausage and pierogy

Mark Filatow’s sausage and pierogy

Mark Filatow presented next (the order was randomly chosen). He introduced his dish by citing his Ukrainian heritage and then set down a dainty plate consisting of a delicate pierogy stuffed with bacon, potato, leek, sour cream and onion and a piece of wonderful pork-and-garlic sausage with the texture of meatloaf. The sausage sat in a tablespoonful of borscht jus and around the plate were many elfin moments of texture and flavour from crispy shallot rings, jellied sauerkraut, crunchy bubbles of pork fat, crumbs of horseradish-flavoured rye bread and a tiny ziggurat of shaved cucumber. My only doubt about the dish was a single shimiji mushroom, tartly pickled, that I felt was too much for the wine but the overall effect of the dish was spectacular.

Eden Hrabec's Korean pork belly - winner of the people's choice award

Eden Hrabec’s Korean pork belly – winner of the people’s choice award

Eden Hrabec brought her creation to us next. She had braised pork bellies to perfection with Korean spices, red pepper paste, garlic, ginger and black pepper, then reducing the liquid to a sticky, sweet-spicy sauce. She served her lusciously tender meat over juicy napa cabbage and topped it with a cracker of puffed rice and sesame and a teaspoonful of pickled mustard seeds. The intention was to contrast with the fruit and acidity of the wine and it worked well – again I felt there was an imbalance with the sesame – but what a great dish!

 

Daren Bergeron's tuna

Daren Bergeron’s tuna

Daren Bergeron was our fourth competitor, using albacore tuna as his protein. “My star is the sauce,” he told us, but his protein was also remarkable – albacore tuna that he cooked old-school, caking it in salt then carbonizing it over an open flame, cracking off the salt and rinsing it, then cutting a thick slice for every plate. The effect was to double the flavour of the nearly raw fish and to add a smokiness that worked well with the wine. Daikon, carrot and brussels sprouts petals were his vegetables, topped with tiny crunchy quinoa kernels and a confit of ginger. And that sauce – a reduction of fish stock made with ling cod, clam juice, ginger, lemongrass and red wine – was indeed stellar.

Nathin Bye's "faux gras" of chicken livers

Nathin Bye’s “faux gras” of chicken livers

In fifth location was Nathin Bye. “It’s a torchon of ‘faux’ gras,” he explained, in other words an intense chicken liver terrine made with tawny port, some of the mystery red wine and smoked bacon, cooked sous vide and crusted with powdered cherries and pistachios. He made a pesto arugula, spinach and olive oil and topped the torchon with a strip of bitter arugula jelly. To match the earthiness he found in the wine, he baked flat, rectangular sage crackers. The judges loved the forthright flavour of the terrine but some felt it changed the character of the Pinot.

Shaun Hussey's "hot dog"

Shaun Hussey’s “hot dog”

Our sixth competitor was Shaun Hussey who brought out a dish that looked to me like a classic British toad in the Hole. Shaun had made his own “hot dogs” that morning – 700 of them – coarse sausages of pork butt – partially wrapped in toasted potato-bread bun. There was smoked mushroom ketchup enriched with caramelized onions, sugar and vinegar, as well as an apricot relish and a mound of pickled mustard seeds. A mound of salad leaves dressed with truffle oil sought out the earthy mushroomy elements in the wine.

Darren Craddock's poached ling cod

Darren Craddock’s poached ling cod

Darren Craddock came next. He worked with fish, poaching ling cod in a court bouillon of white wine, lemon, butter and herbs topped with deep-fried crispy beets and a sprinkling of smoked salt. A second protein was a faux scallop made from a mousseline of the ling cod trimmings, crusted with toasted hemp hearts. Pancetta and shiitake added oomph to a sweet potato mash and beet reappeared arm-in-arm with cherries and turned into a tangy jam. Generously seasoned, it was a good match with the wine.

 

Jamie Stunt's lamb tartare

Jamie Stunt’s lamb tartare

Jamie Stunt opted for a lamb tartare, using mildly-flavoured Abbotsford lamb. He ground some cuts, seared and hand-cut another, then stirred the meat with roasted beets. Toasted pistachios and black radish were other components, alongside deep fried threads of sweet potato for crunch. For richness, he smade a smoked turkey mayonnaise which perfected the balance between the dish and the wine – a most impressive effort.

Marc St. Jacques cooked with beet and beef

Marc St. Jacques cooked with beet and beef

Marc St. Jacques’s dish was the most delicate of the evening. He wrapped enoki mushrooms in a ribbon of striploin beef with basil and green onion – it looked like an exotic plant from a book by Dr. Seuss. Then he set it in a thin beet broth – sweet, deep pink and peppery – and suggested we wipe the beef-mushroom roll in the broth before we tasted it. I found the wine match one of the most successful of the night.

 

Osten Rice's Asian beef

Osten Rice’s Asian beef

Our final competitor was Östen Rice. He sought inspiration in a great Pinot Noir dish – boeuf Bourgignon – but gave it a lightweight Asian twist, using Indonesian long pepper to crust his beef striploin. He used tangy red onion for acidity and made a cherry and Pinot Noir reduction as a sauce, then he assembled a sort of mille-feuille of potato and shiitake and finished everything by pouring on a delectably intense but weightless broth made from beef bones, soy, 12-year-old white balsamic, shiitake and star anise. Another terrific dish.

To summarize, the judges felt that the chefs all analyzed the wine well, using their palates and recognizing earthiness, cherry fruit, an impression of mushroom… Presentations were delightful – dainty with a sharp awareness of colour. But several dishes sabotaged themselves with food flavours and characteristics that jarred – pickled elements in particular. And a couple of dishes seemed pre-conceived, as if they had been planned before this precise wine was tasted – delicious and complete on the plate but better suited to a big tangy white wine or a sake or even bourbon…

In the end we felt that no one took the ball and ran with it. There was a pack of five or six chefs who were jostling for position and still in strong contention going into the next contest, with Mark Filatow leading the way. The people, however, made their favourite known – Eden Hrabec’s Korean-style pork belly wowed the crowd – and indeed, it was a dish all the judges agreed they could have gone on eating all night long.

 

THE BLACK BOX COMPETITION

It gets better every year! And because we keep increasing the number of competitors at the CCC, it starts earlier, too. Judges and chefs were up with the lark, waiting for the coaches outside the hotel in the mild grey light of a Kelowna dawn. Some judges decided to walk to Okanagan College and the test kitchens where this event takes place. They reached the event about three minutes before it began. No harm done…

The first half of the audience was already there, some 100 people, sipping Van Houtte coffee and My Tea Blending Room tea. The College students had set up omelette stations to keep the crowd happy since only the judges get to taste the food this morning. As the day went on, rack of lamb and shrimp were provided… We have come a long way since the early years of this competition when guests got nothing but water!

Here’s what we chose to put into the Black Box this year, a selection of six ingredients that we hoped would offer the chefs lots of options and lots of challenges.

Judge Sasha Chapman chose the grain – red fife wheat flour from K2 Milling in Ontario. I chose the fish – Northern Divine’s wonderful, organic, sustainable, farmed sturgeon caviar from Target Marine Hatcheries in Sechelt, B.C., very generously donated by Northern Divine. Perry Bentley chose the dairy component – a strongly flavoured, firm goat gruyère from Carmelis Artisanal Dairy in the Okanagan that tasted like pecorino. Sid Cross found the vegetable – bittersweet black kale, aka Tuscan kale or Dinosaur kale. Andrew Morrison selected the fruit – heritage Anjou pears from Hazeldell Orchards, a stone’s throw from Okanagan College. And Mary Bailey procured the meat – the bone-in shoulder and neck of Edmonton Katahdin lamb raised by Shayne and Vicky Horn at Tangle Ridge farm, deliberately difficult cuts that would require some butchering skills and a good long time to cook. Time they did not have…

Each chef had to create two dishes, using all the ingredients in one or other of them, along with anything they wanted from a basic pantry of other ingredients. They would be docked marks for failing to use them all or for over-running their 60-minute time frame by even a few seconds. The crowd leaned in to watch as the first chef opened his box. Leaving Andrew Morrison behind as colour-commentator for the crowd for the next five hours, the judges moseyed off to their sequestered lair and the contest began.

Darren Craddock

Darren Craddock

Darren Craddock was first out of the box. He made a blanquette out of the neck and served it with a nicely seasoned fondant potato, a carrot purée and a delicious mustard jus. A fresh pear and herb compote was a pleasing garnish. His second dish starred a cookie made from the flour (its strong buckwheat-like flavour would become a theme of the morning) and the cheese. Chef used it as the crowning glory over roast lamb shoulder (great flavour, not so tender), wilted kale and spinach and a clever vinaigrette sauce of chopped tomato, herbs and caviar.

stunt bb 1Jamie Stunt, who had performed well the night before, kept his standards high. He used the red fife flour and gruyere to make a bannock, icing and microplaning the cheese to diminish its pungency a little. He whipped cream from the pantry with lemon zest and salt and put a dab on the bannock, topped with the caviar. Crispy thyme leaves and a sliver of pickled onion finished his first dish. For his second, he stewed both cuts of lamb, using the gnarly bits and the bones to make a wine-enriched stock that became the gravy. He marinated the kale in garlic and lemon juice and seared it in a very hot pan, then cooled the dish down with a slice of tangy pickled pear. Crispy onions were sprinkled o’er.

Nathin Bye

Nathin Bye

Nathin Bye went third. He made a stew out of the lamb neck, thickening it with red fife flour and sweetening the stock with carrot and potato. A sweet-tart pear and onion relish was spooned on top, in turn surmounted by a crisp kale leaf and a little of the caviar. Kale featured in his second dish, too,braised with a creamy cheese sauce that used the gruyere with white wine, garlic and shallots. All this served as the accompanying vegetables for medallions of the lamb shoulder, served very rare and almost tender. Chef had dusted the lamb with red fife flour, mustard and brown sugar and baked it over ginger to add a subtle nuance. He finished the idea with a tomato and lemon zest concassé.

So far so good. The judges were beginning to realize that making the lamb tender was probably the chef’s biggest challenge. We were still waiting to see the flour used in more imaginative ways.

Marc St. Jacques

Marc St. Jacques

Marc St. Jacques’s name was drawn next. His first dish had a noticeable elegance and sophistication – a beautifully white-and-green stack of finely sliced pear, like a mille feuille, dotted with lemon zest and olive oil and showing a hint of ginger. He had softened more of the pear and chopped it into a brunoise to mix with the caviar and more lemon and olive oil as a sort of vinaigrette around the plate. Dainty celery leaves provided a grace note of bitterness. His second dish starred the roasted lamb shoulder – tender enough to pass muster and set over a salad of chopped raw kale. On top was a kale stem, stripped and sautéed but still crunchy, and chef had steeped the cheese in cream to make a surprisingly subtle sauce. He used the lamb necks to make a reduced jus. But where was the red fife flour? He used it to make a batter to coat a deep-fried ring of shallot and set it on the top of the lamb. Bingo…

Milton Rebello

Milton Rebello

Milton Rebello was next and when we had tasted them both, the judges agreed that one was great and one was not. The great one may have been the dish of the day – a supple tagine of the lamb meat (beautifully butchered and cleaned) with tomato, onion and pear. The kale was there as a crispy chip and a swipe of bright green in the foreground turned out to be mint-and-cilantro oil, unexpectedly sweet and great with the lamb. Also on the plate was a really delicious fritter of mashed potato and caviar, its surface crispy, its heart delicately fishy… So yummy! The second dish was cleverly conceived. Chef made a soft, pliant paratha out of the flour. He lined it with a thin but firm cheese omelette then cooked up the lamb shoulder, searing it with ginger and garlic and rolled the paratha around the meat, dressing it with a super pear chutney. Somehow the dish didn’t quite work, ending up uncharacteristically bland. Next year we will add more interesting spices to the pantry!

Osten Rice

Osten Rice

Östen Rice found a smart solution to the toughness of the lamb neck, turning it into a sausage with garlic, thyme, panko crumbs, brown sugar and a touch of soy. He braised the kale in the oven, made a subtle roasted garlic and red wine gastrique as a sauce and added a separate mound of herbed and toasted panko crumbs for textural contrast. The lamb shoulder shared the plate, marinated and seared and the bones and trimmings had been turned into a rich jus. A julienne of gingered pear was a tart condiment. Chef’s second dish was a tart tatin of sliced pear, and caramelized sauce on a gruyere shortbread base, all surrounded by caviar in a sweet vinaigrette. “Think of it as a cheese and fruit plate,” said Östen.

Shaun Hussey

Shaun Hussey

Then it was Shaun Hussey’s turn. He roasted the lamb shoulder, sliced it and served it and, lo and behold, it was tender! Crunchy soft braised kale and onions lay alongside, an interesting compote of caviar and pear. The meat was sauced with a reduction of lamb neck, red wine and “loads of butter.” The second plate was a stew of the lamb neck, tasty and sweet, served over a thick, flavourful pancake of red fife and gruyere., A salsa of tomato, onion and mint brought everything to life.

Eden Hrabec

Eden Hrabec

What would Eden Hrabec make of it all? Her two dishes were wildly different. One made good use of baby spinach leaves from the pantry, turning them into a salad strewn with grains of caviar in a tart lemon dressing. Shaved gruyere was judiciously used (it is a very strong cheese) and hiding under the leaves were warm spaetzle made with the red fife flour. Poached pear worked beautifully with the rest of the ingredients. Her second dish was visually stunning – pan-seared lamb shoulder with salty wilted kale set over an exemplary potato rösti. The whole thing was smothered in a colourful, pungent chimichurri of tomato, onion, garlic and herbs. Delightful!

Daren Bergeron

Daren Bergeron

And now Daren Bergeron – always intelligent, always thinking outside the box. He had hand-chopped the lamb as a way of counteracting its toughness and turned it into a kefta, stirring the meat with raw egg, mint, onion, garlic and some of the flour then frying it in oil. A caramelized onion purée acted a sauce for this rissole; the pear was there, poached in white wine, and the goat cheese too, shaved like snowflakes where needed. He had chopped the raw kale as a salad and dressed it carefully. To finish his plating he added a component designed to add richness to the kefta and generally distract attention – a perfectly poached egg deep-fried in panko crumbs. When our knifes cut into it, the yolk flooded out like another sauce. Chef had used almost all the ingredients in one dish. His second offering was a model of simplicity. A very simple red fife blini fried in beurre noisette and topped with caviar and a streak of bitter lemon purée.

Mark Filatow

Mark Filatow

And so to our final competitor, Mark Filatow. He too made a teeny red fife pancake (the most perfect of the day) using egg white and cilantro for flavour. He topped it with the caviar and then set four small dice of marinated pear as a point beneath the circle. “This dish is all about the sauces,” he told us – and what sauces they were. One was a rich lemon-ginger aioli, the other a raw egg yolk cured and coloured with soy. Chef’s second dish used the two cuts of lamb. The neck became a tasty “bolognese” cut as small as a knife allowed and sweetened with onion and carrot. Lemony braised kale lay alongside and the piece de resistance was a crisp cylinder of fried potato filled with mashed potato mixed with enough of the gruyere to register. The one drawback of the dish was in the treatment of the lamb shoulder, roasted slightly but still virtually raw and too tough to cut with a knife.We had challenged the chefs and they responded so impressively! But then Andrew Morrison came in from the kitchen with news that four of our champions had incurred time penalties – one of them by less than 30 seconds (he lost 5% of his marks), two by less than a minute (each lost 10%) and one by a full four minutes which incurred the maximum 20-percent deduction and effectively (such is the standard of perfection at this level of competition) took away any chance of a podium finish.

The Black Box is all about accuracy and time and coping with pressure. Positions had changed somewhat since the morning began – Mark Filatow rejoining the pack, Marc St. Jacques now edging ahead… Time for the judges to retreat to our hotel, crunch the scores, discuss past, present and future and get ready for the Grand Finale.

THE GRAND FINALE

On Saturday night – just a few hours after the stress and rigours of the Black Box – the chefs set up their stations in the stately Delta Grand hotel and each one presented his or her signature dish to a crowd of 700 guests. It was a very glittering affair, with Alan Doyle and Barney Bentall, Kendel Carson and Cory tetford performing great music from the stage, Adam Van Koeverden MCing and presenting a host of Olympic athletes, and a live auction of GMP trips to Tuscany, the Adriatic, South Africa, Chile and other glamorous locations.

We judges, however, had work to do.

Marc St. Jacques

Marc St. Jacques

The first plate that reached us in our secret, windowless lair was from Marc St. Jacques. He had created a terrine of foie gras, its texture somewhere between a torchon and a mousse, and set it on a thin black layer of black sesame financier. On top was an equally thin layer of clear, golden white soy gelee, sharpened with mirin and Meyer lemon juice. Those lemons informed the rest of the components of this deceptively simple dish, as dots of intensely flavourful roasted lemon curd, and as morsels of fresh lemon flesh (secretly dusted with sugar to mitigate the tartness a tad). Tiny bubbles of tempura batter held black sesame seeds for moments of crunch and fattiness and the finishing notion were minuscule squares of shiso leaf. St. Jacques had given us five perfectly harmonious flavours, a range of textures, impeccably elegant technique and a good match with his chosen wine, Peller Estates sparkling Ice Cuvée from Niagara, Ontario.

Osten Rice

Osten Rice

Next up was Östen Rice. His dish had a personal narrative, inspired by the gravlax his Scandinavian grandmother used to cure but given a Japanese twist to reflect the style of his restaurant – call it Scandinasian cuisine. Instead of salmon, he worked with escolar, curing the super-soft, almost creamy raw fish with beet juice, honey and sea salt that stained a vermilion rim around each slice. Contrasting the texture, he gave us a fresh, crunchy, sweet-tart slaw of julienned Fuji apple and golden beet tossed with a chiffonade of shiso leaf. There was more shiso flavour (and more subtle crunch) in the compressed cucumber pieces on the other side of the plate while a scrumptious taro crisp with a hole punched out of its middle stood tall in a tiny hill of orange-coloured tobiko roe bound with a beautifully judged wasabi mayonnaise. It was going to take a wine of character to stand up to all those sweet-sour elements but chef found one in the 2010 Gewurztraminer from Gray Monk in B.C., a delicious Gewurz’ with the acidity and the lush weight to perfectly balance the dish.

Nathin Bye

Nathin Bye

Nathin Bye was up next with a dish he called “Breakfast for Dinner,” each of its many components based upon sensations he found in his complex wine of choice, the 2010 Chardonnay from Tantalus Vineyards in the Okanagan. There was plenty on the plate, but the intricate knot of textural and flavour harmonies provided unexpected unity, all within a loose interpretation of breakfast. Where to begin…? With an ornamental spoon that held a creamy bircher meusli of rolled oats, apple and quinoa, garnished with a tiny marshmallow, a miniature grapefruit jelly, a sun-cured blackberry and a half-inch-high tuile shaped like the 2012 Olympic symbol. A quail egg fried sunny-side-up, its yolk still runny, sat on a plinth of potato, golden beet and cheese pavé which served as the substantial point of reference for many of the dish’s more ethereal elements. There was a mushroom pop tart made with dried, powdered mushrooms but the centrepiece of the whole affair was a maple syrup and bacon-infused panna cotta, coloured bright green with evaporated parsley dust. The panna cotta contained a surprise – a meaty heart of Texas-barbecue-style pulled pork paté that matched a delicate vertical ribbon of crispy triple-cured speck. There were two sauces on the plate – a swoop of cheese fondue and a thin, very pungent line of hickory-smoked barbecue sauce.

Shaun Hussey

Shaun Hussey

Onwards with Shaun Hussey. Two major proteins shared the limelight on his plate, one a medallion of salt cod wrapped like a tight drum in crispy shoelaces of fried potato. Beneath it lay softly braised spinach and on top was a yummy smoked apple relish. The other protein was a a miniature timbale of ham hock that chef had brined for five days, braised for four hours and served with a little cap of unctuous fat. Circling all this at a distance was a sauce of chopped apple in an apple cider brown butter, equally good with either of the two elements and more than amicable next to a smmartly chosen wine, the lightly oaked 2010 Sketches Chardonnay from Tawse, in Niagara.

Eden Hrabec had delighted the judges all weekend and her finale dish, substantial, risky, subtle and clever, did not disappoint. She chose sweetbreads as her protein and prepared them immaculately, serving a big lobe that was piping hot, perfectly timed and finished in a brown butter sauce spiked with garam masala spices. Beside it was an almost-bubble-and-squeak of smashed baby potatoes and wilted spinach lit up by coriander seed. A sauce of puréed apricots with more delicate masala spices had just enough spicy heat to slip from the sweet to the savoury side of the spectrum and a brunoise of preserved lemon had a sudden pickle-like intensity that brought everything to life. The final touch was a “papadom” that was actually made from crispy chicken skin flecked with black pepper. Eden chose an accompanying wine that is a particular favourite of mine – the Alsatian-style 2011 Noble Blend White from Joie Farms in B.C., its weight just what the dish needed.

Daren Bergeron

Daren Bergeron

Daren Bergeron had decorated his station with an extra gift that he gave away to the dinner guests – cans of his own chowder or chili from his “grocery store” Fou d’Ici, specially labelled for the evening. It was a typically generous gesture that thrilled the crowd. His dish was an adventurously abstract reinterpretation of vitello tonnato. On the left of the plate, a slice of perfect veal tenderloin was crowned with chopped eel in a sticky, pungent barbecue sauce flavoured with onion and Asian pears. On the right, a drum of white tuna, barely seared but enough to turn the surface white, stood on a delicate mat of tofu. Its topping was a spoonful of salty salmon trout roe. The two proteins were decorated by a hank of glistening golden filaments – threads of calamari jerky in a sweet-and-sour glaze. The sprouts and seedlings of various pulses added some earthy flavours and Chef finished the dish by flooding each bowl with a clear dashi broth powerfully infused with daikon. A final detail was the dab of fiery English mustard high on the rim of the bowl – there if needed for the veal. Another complex dish but the wine match was very successful – the light-bodied, gently fruity 2011 Gamay from Malivoire in Niagara, Ontario.

Jamie Stunt

Jamie Stunt

News that Jamie Stunt was cooking yak ensured a long line-up at his station. We were spared the wait. The yak came from Tiraislin Farms near Lanark – slices of perfectly lean striploin pan-seared to leave its crimson, almost ostrich-like character intact. Chef collaborated with Ashton Brewing Company in Ottawa to create a unique beer to match his dish – a beautifully balanced brew flavoured with Lemongrass and kaffir lime, and many of the elements strewn around the dish paid homage to the beer. Here we found a dab of tamari sauce made with the beer’s sweet barley wort; there a barley miso mayo to use as a sauce. There was barley malt in the smoked boar vinaigrette that softened the crispy barley strewn around the plate. Delicate pioppino mushrooms were a final garnish – lovely with the seafood surprise of a mussel shell filled with Northern Divine caviar (coincidentally, the very product we had included in the black box that morning), egg white and yolk and a tangy beer vinaigrette. It was a clever, original and flawlessly executed plate.

Milton Rebello

Milton Rebello

Our last three dishes featured lamb and first up was Milton Rebello, who brought Indian spicing to his dish with great effect. He began with a perfect pink chop off the rack, the tender meat full of flavour from time spent in a ginger marinade, enhanced by a crust of mustard and crumbled pistachio. Beneath the chop we found a streak of minted pea purée and beside it a soft-textured corn and potato hash cooked in the lamb juices. On the other side of the plate, Chef set a sweet lentil tuile biscuit shaped like a curling maple leaf and dotted with a single lentil. In the leaf lay a ball of soft, mild goat cheese crusted with a powder formed from vegetables cooked with South Asian spices garnished with a refreshing pear chutney. The final touch was a stripe of tangy, pungent sauce made from ginger-infused cherry port. The wine match was most effective, See Ya Later Ranch’s 2010 Pinot Noir flattering the lamb but sturdy enough to stand up to the sauce and the chutney.

Mark Filatow worked with the charcoal-grilled loins of lambs from local farm, Bar ‘M’ Ranch, keeping the meat pink and juicy. Close by on the plate was a thick chunk of soft, juicy merguez sausage made from the lamb’s shoulder and the neck meat cooked sous vide in chef’s chosen wine. The third component was a dainty lozenge of lamb belly braised with a subtle touch of Moroccan spices. We had a piece of roasted thumbelina carrot and a tiny “doughnut” of deep-fried mashed potato the size of Cleopatra’s pearl and a little fennel relish to cut the richness. No sauce was needed, the meats being so moist and intricately spiced but moisture came from stripes of carrot puréed with yoghurt and honey. Chef’s wine was another remarkably accurate match – the 2010 Syrah from Orofino’s Scout vineyard in B.C.’s Similkameen Valley.

Darren Craddock

Darren Craddock

Darren Craddock also cooked lamb loin, preparing it sous vide with a hint of garlic and setting a little drum of it on the plate. He braised the shoulder and used the forked meat in a stiff croquette with truffles, chanterelles and mashed potatoes and parsnips, the ball crusted with hemp seed, pumpkin seed and sesame breadcrumbs. Moist and rich within, it was a show-stealer. Frisée dressed with cold-pressed camolina oil offered a bittersweet, leafy moment while a broad swathe of celeriac soubise sweetened with onion and cream was another moment of richness. A drizzle of green fennel oil decorated the plate while a column of compressed golden beet provided a cool, rooty sweetness of its own. A minted green pea foam worked predictably well with the lamb. A classic lamb jus reduction sauced the meat and the final garnish was a lateral slice of tomato, roasted to a crisp and so delicate it melted on the tongue, spiked with a crumble of pungent goat cheddar. Chef’s wine was the 2011 Kay-Syrah from B.C.’s Dirty Laundry winery.

So there we judges were – very well fed and thoroughly impressed by all the competitors. It was time to crunch the numbers and as I entered each judge’s scores for each dish it became apparent that this would be a very close call for bronze and silver, with five chefs within a couple of percentage points. Now marks lost on Friday or gained on Saturday morning meant the difference between a place on the podium or staying at the chefs’ table in the auditorium. Still leading the pack, however, was a clear winner with the gold medal in his sights.

The bronze medal went to Milton Rebello of the Saskatchewan Radisson Plaza hotel in Regina.

The silver medal went to Jamie Stunt of Oz Kafe in Ottawa.

The gold medallist and new Canadian Culinary Champion is Marc St. Jacques of Auberge du Pommier in Toronto.

Our sincere congratulations to him and his team and to all the chefs, sous chefs and student chefs who thrilled us over this mild weekend in Kelowna.

 

On the podium, Jamie Stunt, Marc St. Jacques and Milton Rebllo. Photography: Brian Chambers

On the podium, Jamie Stunt, Marc St. Jacques and Milton Rebllo. Photography: Brian Chambers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marc Lepine’s Last Supper

07 Feb

 

Marc Lepine (on the right) plating a dish. Photo by Karl Wells

Marc Lepine (on the right) plating a dish. Photo by Karl Wells

The final act of a Canadian Culinary Champion, held on the eve of the new Championship, is to cater a magnificent party. On Wednesday night, that party took place in the awe-inspiring rooms of White Spirit Lodge, a private home above the Big White resort. Normally the team of judges who will preside over the coming weekend do not attend this shindig. We prefer to sequester ourselves in some private chapel to prepare our palates and minds (cue quiet Gregorian chanting). This time we rode the coach up, up, up into the mountains and the utter darkness, until we arrived at the snow-smothered resort. The Lodge is a place of breathtaking luxury, built using massive logs helicoptered in from the Queen Charlotte Islands. It is also a brilliantly functional home and in its open kitchen we found Chef Marc Lepine of Atelier in Ottawa, the reigning champion, and his team preparing an astonishingly delicious meal for the crowd of over 100 merry-makers. Each dish was applauded long and loud. Barney Bentall was also there and was persuaded to sing some songs. Olympic athletes including Adam Van Koeverden and Jaime Salé were the stars of the evening and the wine was generously donated by a new Okanagan producer called Nagging Doubt. (The Chardonnay was particularly impressive).

Chef Lepine started us off with kushi oysters topped with horseradish foam then moved on to a dish that many remembered as an adaptation of his championship-winning dish from last year – a dazzling melange of dehydrated bacon and fennel, tiny fried potatoes the size of beans, lion’s-mane mushrooms and a huge pan-seared scallop with lemon thyme and shallot broth. He finsihed the dish with a spritz of lemon smabucca.

A deep-fried croquette of foie gras sat atop truffle purée as the centre of his next offering. Then came a sort of sorbet of coconut and lime granita with powdered kafir lime leaves squirted with thick pineapple juice – like eating a pina colada (the crowd went wild).

Our main course was slices of perfectly timed wagyu beef tenderloin laid over tissue-thin radishes, jerusalem artichoke chips and a ridiculous amount of shaved Perigord truffles, all topped with a sauce that was half butter and half corn – incredibly delectable!

Dessert consisted of a mosaic of quince, spun tonca bean and a jelly made from 2008 Chateau d’Yquem. The ingredients of Chef Lepine’s Last Supper matched the venue in splendour!

On Thursday evening the competition will begin for the ten competitors from across Canada. Whoever emerges triumphant will have a very tough act to follow.

 

 

Kelowna beckons

05 Feb
Sweep will my meal ticket, after Armageddon

Sweep will my meal ticket, after Armageddon

So I’ve been having these post-apocalyptic dreams recently. They wake me up around five in the morning and linger vividly in my mind’s eye, not fading away as dreams should, so that I grow anxious about falling asleep again and rejoining the horror where I left off. On Sunday night I managed to drive out of the zombie-infested small town in Kentucky and into the verdant pastures and copses of the English countryside where I left the jeep and started to climb a steep hill on foot – so steep that I soon realized I could climb no further and that the dead mare on the slope above might slide onto me at any minute. Then the black and yellow snake reared up from a hole in the mud before my face and began to bite my arm.

Last night, I was trapped in the endless labyrinth of dripping shower stalls and lockers in the basement of a vast high school, being hunted by gangs of other survivors. They had discovered that I could see (they could no longer see themselves) and they were closing in.

In all these dreams there is the knowledge that somewhere lies a haven – a place where grim but decent people will be rebuilding a life where one can be safe from zombies. Those of us who make it there line up before the three judges who will determine whether or not we are welcome. One of them – call him Minos or maybe St. Peter – asks what each person did before the apoc. As the people in front of you answer – “Nurse.” “Carpenter.” “Cook.” “Ditch digger.” – you begin to grow uncertain. How valuable will it be in this brave new world to have been a restaurant critic? You try not to glance at the group of men who have already been refused entry because they can offer no vestige of a skill that might benefit the community – the politicians and lawyers. They are already arguing with each other. Panic begins to set in. You think back frantically over your life, searching for some practical, medieval talent that will be of use…

I like to think that I will get in because there will be need of entertainment. I can’t juggle but I was a lounge singer briefly when I was at University, earning my beer money of an evening in the JCRs of the women’s colleges. And I believe I have a little talent as a glove puppeteer, enough to amuse the exhausted last remnants of our species around the campfire at night. Hopefully I can resist the temptation to be snide about the guy who did the cooking or find fault with the seasoning in the politician stew.

Life, meanwhile, goes on. Tomorrow I’m off to Kelowna to prep for the Canadian Culinary Championships on Friday and Saturday. There, food critics are valued and necessary. But I will be taking Sweep the puppet with me, just in case.

 

Coronation Day

21 Sep

 

Chef and co-owner of Atelier, Marc Lepine and his sous chef, Jason Sawision

To Ottawa for the coronation of Chef Marc Lepine of Atelier as Canadian Culinary Champion – a joyful and delicious evening. If you missed the competition last February, Lepine was a very worthy champion who leaped into the lead during the first of the three contests (the Wine Matching contest) and never stumbled. It was a strong field and all the chefs were on top form but Lepine was simply on fire. It was like watching Andy Murray in the Olympic finals – no one was going to keep him from that gold medal! The verdict among the judges was unanimous and a worthy Champion was celebrated.

On Tuesday last, we held the actual coronation, the traditional launch to the next Gold Medal Plates campaign. The trophy was presented before a small crowd of media, VIPs and all the Gold Medal Plates Ottawa-Gatineau judges who had taken Marc Lepine to the podium in last year’s regional event. Cameras flashed, glasses were raised and the general mood was one of undimmed merriment and congratulation.

Lepine and his team had generously offered to cook for some of us so we duly sat down. Those who had eaten at Atelier before were just as full of anticipatory excitement as those of us who had not. I wasn’t sure what to expect – a couple of apps? In the end we were treated to a 14-course dinner of extraordinary quality.

Smoke

But first, a word about the restaurant. There is no name on the door of the low, detached building at 540 Rochester Street, Ottawa (613 321 3537). The windows are guarded by a fashionably rusted metal grill and there are rough stones laid around the base of the façade. Inside is a tiny room with grey walls hung with very small framed paintings done by Chef’s daughter when she was five years old. The wee room seats 22, mostly in huge, cream-coloured leather armchairs that are wonderfully comfortable. I counted 5 people in the kitchen and three servers – a ratio of staff to customers that promises much but must challenge the restaurant’s profitability. Interestingly, there is no actual stove in the kitchen. “He uses induction, and circulators, and sometimes a blowtorch or a soldering iron as a heat source,” someone mentioned.

Not to mention a warm sense of humour. The first canape to be passed among the little throng was an empty shot glass. Not quite empty: there was a tiny pinch of dark dust at the bottom. We were instructed to down it in one. Our mouths tasted gin and tonic.

Then there were wobbly brown bubbbles that burst into liquid gazpacho in our mouths. Confited quail legs coated in prune purée (the soft, seasoned flesh sliding from the bone between our lips). A popsicle of frozen yoghurt that wasn’t sweet at all, just a brilliant palate cleanser.

Lepine was a stagiere at Alinea in Chicago a few years ago. Clearly, it was a highly influential experience. I have eaten in the restaurants of several Grant Achatz alumni. Though Lepine doesn’t have a kitchen brigade of 50, he comes closest to Achatz’s aesthetic of surprise, wit, true flavours, wry juxtapositions and unexpected harmonies.

Lepine’s dishes all have amusing names, apparently chosen from suggestions offered by the team in the kitchen. The best was the last course, involving mango as purèe, jelly and as a dehydrated pickle paired with lemon balm, cardamom ice cream and fried bread covered with saffron syrup. The dish is called “A Mangoes Into a Bar” – which is great. But I’m jumping ahead.

Give Peas a Chance before the soup hits the porcelain

The problem for the critic is that each of the 14 courses involves at least 14 ingredients and a dozen different  techniques, some molecular, some not, others more a matter of studiously letting something like a marigold leaf or a tiny yellow chili appear entirely unadulterated. I’m sitting here looking at my laborious notes and realizing that listing a hundred flavourful grace notes isn’t really going to give much of an impression. The pictures show how stunning the dishes looked and perhaps you can see the little coloured dots and moments of pale powder and minuscule dice made of jelly. Analysis is probably not the right response (though I think Lepine appreciates the awe of the ingredient-nerd). It’s the same with Susur Lee and Claudio Aprile in toronto – and maybe Grant Achatz, too. They are magicians who would rather the audience sat back and were amazed than bent forward, squinting, to try and understand the sleight of hand. But let’s look closely at one or two plates and see if we can see what’s going on.

Here’s the dish called “Smoke,” which arrives under a glass cloche filled with applewood smoke that is whisked away, perfuming the dining room. On the plate is a PERFECT piece of Quebec bison, cooked sous vide for half an hour at 52oC the pan-seared. The meat is heavenly – juicy and red with a faint flavour of woodsmoke. Beside it is a teaspoonful of crumbled fried potato, like the sort of pan-roasted breadcrumbs my mum used to serve with gamebirds. A finger of deep-fried French toast sings a similar song (and what a good idea for breakfast!). there’s a sautéed radish, some white drops of onion soubise, a dollop of ground pink peppercorn mustard, three salt-cured grapes that have the texture of cherries and a fine tarragon powder. The dark smooth sauce at the top of the plate is a liquidized boudin noir – rather an extravagant way to make gravy but it tasted amazing. A single marigold leaf was the token green on the plate. Busy? Yes. Crowded? No. And the bison’s role as star of the show was never jeopardized.

“Give Peas a Chance” comes from a less multi-dimensional place – almost an experiment to see what can be done with something as simple as a pea, the better to express its essential peaness. It begins with solids in a bowl – fresh little peas, chunks of sweet pea meringue, and more pea meringue crushed to powder. A smear of crème fraiche up the side of the bowl lets pea tendrils climb almost vertically from the tiny pool of pea purèe at its base. Slices of green grapes cling to the slope; a morain of frozen green apple snow brings sharp acidity. And see the golden cubes of apple cider jelly! They add a different sweetness to that of the green peas, and a different kind of tang to the green apple’s tartness. Now the waiter pours on a chilled pea soup – thick and green as Wiberg’s pine essence for the bath, sleek as paint. The dilemma is whether to scoop a bit of everything greedily into the spoon or try to pick out the different components, as curiosity demands. Either way, it’s absolutely delicious.

Piggie Smalls

Those are just two moments from the evening. “Sebastien and Pinchy” featured lobster and crab. “Piggie Smalls” showed off piglet tenderloin with blowtorched corn, pickled chanterelles, a powder made of ramps and truffle oil, and umpteen other nuanced details.

What fun it all was.

On Monday, we begin this year’s cycle of Gold Medal Plates events with a chauffeur-driven judges’ day visiting our competing Toronto chefs and tasting their dishes – all in lieu of a gala this year. Then it’s on to Regina for the great party on October 11. I can’t wait.

yer actual trophy (not actual size)

 

Canadian Culinary Championships 2012

13 Feb

Marc Lepine (centre) the new Canadian Culinary Champion with Rob Feenie (right) who won silver and Jean-Philippe St-Denis (left) who won bronze. image C Gardiner

Another year, another magnificent competition! Last weekend we gathered in Kelowna B.C. for the sixth Canadian Culinary Championships, bringing the winning chef from each of our nine Gold Medal Plates regional events to compete in three gruelling challenges. As ever, I was joined by the Senior Judges from our GMP cities who formed the judging panel, palates akimbo and glorious in their impartiality. I will name them first, proceeding from east to west: Karl Wells from St. John’s, Robert Beauchemin from Montreal, Anne DesBrisay from Ottawa, Sasha Chapman from Toronto, Jeff Gill from Winnipeg, CJ Katz from Saskatchewan, Mary Bailey from Edmonton, John Gilchrist from Calgary, Perry Bentley from Kelowna, Sid Cross from Vancouver and our culinary referee, Vancouver’s Andrew Morrison.

We began on Thursday night with a reception party at Quail’s Gate winery, gorging on B.C. oysters and chanterelle risotto, before the chefs and their sous chefs were introduced, together with the enthusiastic local students from Okanagan College’s culinary arts program who were to assist them. Olympic kayaking superstar Adam Van Koeverden represented the athletes who are GMP’s principal beneficiaries. Each chef was given a bottle of the mystery wine, unlabelled, anonymous, and given 24 hours to create a dish to perfectly match the wine. The catch – they had to cook the dish for 350 people and they had to do their shopping on a budget of only $500 – about a $1.47 a head. Economy is a valuable trait in a chef.

On Friday night they presented their dishes, each at his station in the lovely 1920s-style Hotel Eldorado. While the judges ate in a sequestered chamber, the guests moved upstairs and down, tasting and sipping the mystery wine, recording their own verdict for the ever popular People’s Choice award. It was a wonderful party, merrily exuberant, casual but intense, brought to a fine climax as the People’s Choice Award was handed to Chef Marc Lepine of Atelier in Ottawa.

The mystery wine had been chosen by GMP’s National Wine Advisor, David Lawrason – the multi-award winning 2008 Old Vines Riesling from Chateau des Charmes in Niagara. I believe we drank the last bottles in the world unless you are lucky enough to have one or two in your own cellar. It was a medium-bodied wine of racy acidity, exuding complex aromas of citrus, peach and petrol – uncompromisingly dry but rich, refreshing and delicious. We had speculated on what the chefs might make of it – how many would opt for seafood (expensive on their tiny budget); or whether others might choose to work with pork or fowl… As always, they amazed us with their creativity. Here is what they did…

Michael Dacquisto's delectable pate de campagne

Jean-Philippe St-Denis from Kitchen Gallerie Poisson in Montreal was clearly reminded of Alsace by the wine. He created a delectable choucroute of braised cabbage and bacon and set a slice of firm Pacific halibut on top of it, beside a tranche of juicy Ukrainian sausage he had found at a store in the city. A salad of shredded baby spinach added freshness while the sauce was beurre blanc that picked up the richness in the wine. The garnish of fried potato matchsticks and crunchy crumbled pretzel added an extra dimension.

Michael Dacquisto from WOW Hospitality Concepts in Winnipeg took a completely different approach, making a coarse pork paté de campagne studded with roasted hazelnuts to echo the aromas of honey and hazelnuts he found in the wine. He toasted a crunchy crostini of German caraway rye bread and crowned it with a slice of lightly grilled Asian pear and a wedge of brie that he brûléed with a blowtorch. A compote of gala apple, triple-smoked bacon and caramelized onion spiked with sherry vinegar, honey, black pepper and lots of fresh thyme was one condiment; another was a jam of apricots quickened with orange and lemon zest. Arugula leaves were lightly dressed with olive oil while a ribbon of pickled butternut squash also helped the richness of the paté. He even found time to make his own mustard, cooked down in the German style with beer, malt vinegar, caraway and honey. A lot going on? To be sure, but it all made perfect sense.

Michael Dekker's lovely dish

Michael Dekker from Rouge in Calgary presented a beautiful dish, making his own pasta and turning it into 1300 fabulous agnolotti filled with mascarpone and Quebec foie gras he managed to source from a local restaurant called Bouchon. A light sautée of corn kernels, golden raisins, kale and bacon and a scattering of chopped chives finished the dish. It was a good match with the Riesling, the flavours subtle but true.

Jan Trittenbach from Packrat Louie in Edmonton found fresh ling cod at Kelowna’s renowned Codfathers fishmonger. He pan-seared it lightly, leaving the perfectly seasoned fish juicy and medium rare. Beneath the paillard was a compressed salad of pear, apple and fennel and a very gentle picallili of beautifully turned carrot, zucchini and cauliflower florets with a delicate turmeric flavour. The lightest apple purée imaginable dressed the plate while a jaunty strip of crisp, very salty cooked prosciutto added a sudden moment of intensity to an elegantly understated dish that found all sorts of echoes in the wine.

Anthony McCarthy from the Saskatoon Club in Saskatoon worked with ivory spring salmon, a fish that has extra fat and really is the colour of ivory, a condition brought about by its diet. He confited the belly in a circulator leaving it incredibly succulent and set it over a gastrique of riesling and clementine that had all sorts of happy fun with the wine. Swiss chard was chopped with ginger while a smooth “verde” of parsley and Granny Smith apple added brightness to the dish. A spoonful of red tobiko caviare brought saltiness and crunch but the garnish almost stole the show – a crsip, ethereal taro root tuille dusted with chili and powdered, toasted kaffir lime leaf. If he sold those tuilles by the bag, the judges agreed, he could make a fortune.

Jonathan Gushue - courageous but controversial presentation

Jonathan Gushue from Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa, representing Toronto, presented the evening’s most courageous dish, dividing the judges into those who found it inspired and others who did not. He took Nova Scotia squid and chopped it so finely it looked like grains of rice then presented it like risotto in a runny purée of parsnip and gala apple, tinted faintly pink by the natural colour in the squid’s tentacles. Chopped fresh celery hearts was one garnish, the other was a burnt onion crumble with an almost sugary caramelization that isolated an inherent residual sweetness in the wine. The avant-garde presentation left some guests scratching their heads but the dainty flavours worked well with the Riesling.

Mike Barsky from Bacalao in St. John’s gave us our pork – a cider-glazed pork jowl, to be precise, braised for three hours but still offering its sweet pale fat. Beside it was delectable roll of lightly pickled cabbage stuffed with braised lentil and smoked ham and the braising liquid became a streak of sauce on the plate. Two lightweight purées also featured – one of tangy spiced carrot, the other of Granny Smith apple. Over the top he scattered traditional Newfoundland scrunchions of pork fat brined with apple, thyme and spices and then deep-fried to an irresistible crunchiness. The moments of acidity in the dish were perfectly balanced with the tang of the wine – for me, the best wine match of the evening.

Rob Feenie of Cactus Club Café in Vancouver found apple and lemon in the wine and set about echoing them in a Riesling jus enriched with apple, lemon and a roast chicken stock reduced for four hours. He made extraordinarily soft little gnocchi from butternut squash and paired them with local bacon and a brussels sprout petal sautéed in bacon fat to add visceral weight to the dish, an effect amplified by a crumble of bacon and pumpkin seed. Chef Feenie added the finishing touch at our table – a rich foam of cream, honey and parmesan cheese.

Marc Le[pine's langoustines wrapped in avocado

Marc Lepine from Atelier in Ottawa chose to work with langoustines, chopping them up and shrouding them in tissue-thin slices of avocado. There were many other elements on the plate and to read them gives the impression of crowding, but each new discovery drew admiring sighs from the judges. Here was puffed wild rice seasoned with fennel and coriander seed. Beside it lay two small pieces of fennel seed sponge cake aerated in a syphon and cooked for 40 seconds in a microwave for a soft, spongey texture. Tiny, pea-sized balls of Granny Smith apple were spiked by a chili marinade while celery was compressed with salt and sugar until it was almost a jelly. A parsnip crisp added sweet crunch, while orange zest and powdered ash made by charring lemon rind found the citrus notes in the wine. It was a brave but ultimately brilliantly harmonized creation.

Retiring to debate their evening’s work, the judges were unanimous in awarding Marc Lepine top marks, followed by Rob Feenie and then, close behind, a posse of four other chefs, with Mike Barsky about an inch in front of anyone else. But the weekend had only begun.

 

Saturday morning, mild, still and foggy, found the chefs, each with a chosen sous chef, standing outside the hotel while the judges milled around close by, all ready to head off to the venue for the Black Box competition in the teaching kitchens of Okanagan College. This is the most intense and rigorous challenge of the entire competition with the chefs sealed in a distant room to be brought out one at a time. They don’t know the order in which they will be called and it’s only when they make their way through the crowd in the kitchen and open their box that they fully understand the task that lies ahead. They must create two dishes using the mystery ingredients in one or other, plating 12 identical portions of both for the judges, and if they run over the allotted hour by even a few seconds they will be penalized. They also have access to a generous communal pantry.

A crowd of several hundred guests was expected (the event is always the first to sell out) and the good people from Van Houtte coffee were there with a kiosk offering six different brews and a chance for anyone who wished to discover his or her personal coffee profile by taking a simple but revealing test. The Van Houtte profile combines one’s taste for the intensity and darkness of the roast with the more subtle characteristics of terroir – fruitiness, acidity, earthiness, spiciness, etcetera – a reflection of the provenance of the beans. Me? I’m Bold & Woodsy.

Once the chefs were hidden away the judges revealed the ingredients to the expectant crowd. Last year, we had drawn everything from British Columbia; this year we invited six judges to provide a list of items from their own regions and put together the fiendish inventory from those. From Newfoundland we selected jars of bakeapples (also known as cloudberries), tart, subtly flavoured berries about the size of a raspberry with a nuisance of pips inside. From Mariposa Farm outside Ottawa, we chose goose breasts – two for each chef – with a fine layer of fat between skin and flesh. From Montreal, we brought a wonderful, firm blue cheese called Le Rassembleu. Manitoba’s contribution was a one-pound bag of Shoal Lake Oh Canada wild rice (something that would require a deal of cooking!). From Saskatchewan came some splendid Lake Diefenbaker steelhead trout and from Calgary, two pounds of parsley roots that looked (but didn’t taste) like parsnips. The point of course was to find harmony between such curiously matched ingredients.

Mike Barsky (St. John’s) began the proceedings. He cut fillets from the trout and seared them briefly then set them over splendidly velvetty purée of parsley root. He made a sauce of the blue cheese, thyme, lemon, cream and white wine which gave the lie to the old adage that cheese and fish are a poor match. His presentation was just as impressive for the goose – seared briefly, fat-side-down but leaving the ruby-coloured flesh still rare and bloody. He boiled the wild rice but not enough to bring it to an al dente level and mixed it up with wilted spinach and minced shallots. Recognizing the bakeapples (of course) he turned them into a chutney with wine, herbs and shallots and used it to dress the goose.

Pan-seared goose breast became the leitmotif of the morning. Every chef did it that way and the judges wondered if their approach would have been so conventional if we had put a steak into the box.

Marc Lepine (Ottawa) emerged next. Would he crash and burn after his triumph of the previous evening? Far from it. He crisped the goose skin and sliced it relatively thinly which mitigated its chewiness without diminishing its robust flavour. Charred, lightly pickled rings of onion provided an acidity that cut the goose fat while the meat was raised up on a short pillar of potato confited in olive oil with rosemary until it was soft and tempting. He used the blue cheese in a mayo beside the meat and solved the wild rice’s textural issue by puffing it in hot oil for a moment, finishing the dish with a natural jus from the goose. His trout dish was equally impressive. The fish fillets were pan-fried in butter until the skin was crisp and set over herbed spätzle. There was a smooth coulis of the bakeapples that eliminated the crunchy seeds from the berries and let the tangy flavour shine forth. Crisp ribbons of parsely root crowned the fish and Lepine even found time to make his own ricotta as an extra moment of dairy on the plate. A luxe brown butter hollandaise was poured on at the table. Both dishes showed a marvellous sense of harmony.

Rob Feenie's jewel-like trout

Rob Feenie (Vancouver) was the third competitor. His treatment of the trout was a star turn – curing it in citrus juices for twenty minutes then softening it in warm olive oil until it glowed like coral and was as soft and smooth as satin. Feenie also puffed his rice and made a bakeapple sauce – another visually stunning presentation. His seared goose breast was cut even more thinly, its richness equalled – even surpassed – by a purée of parsley root and blue cheese. A second, spinach purée brought refreshment and the meat was strewn with deep-fried shallots and panko crumbs fried in butter and lemon thyme.

Michael Dacquisto (Winnipeg) came out next. His trout was pan-seared to firmness and garnished with wilted, garlic-spiked spinach, then set over chewy wild rice. A salsa of tomato, chopped basil and cilantro livened things up and the dish was finished with a sharp gastrique of white wine, vinegar and butter. The ruby-red goose breast was pan-seared and full of flavour and matched with a chunky parsley and blue cheese sauce and soft chips of fried parsley root. Shavings of the blue cheese provided saltiness to season the meat while a second sauce, a fruit vinaigrette, was a deft final touch.

Jean-Philippe St-Denis (Montreal) salted his trout with fresh herbs then confited it in olive oil until it was meltingly tender. The wild rice (again undercooked) was tossed with baby spinach leaves and freshened with chopped tomato robustly flavoured with shallots and herbs. A sauce of pure egg yolk rimmed the plate. J-P’s goose breast saw the oven before being sliced over a delicious mix of coarsely broken boiled potato and plenty of the blue cheese, sliced thinly and on the point of melting which brought out its magnificent flavour perfectly. A very crisp, panko-crusted onion ring crowned the goose while a bakeapple gastrique fulfilled the need to use them.

Anthony McCarthy's brilliant "fish breakfast"

Anthony McCarthy (Saskatoon) delighted the judges with his take on a “fish breakfast.” His trout was pan-fried and set next to a perfectly poached egg and a tomato-and-onion salad. The wild rice was cleverly involved in a thick potato pancake smothered in melted cheese. Also on the plate was a cup of a thick, chilled pale orange liquid – he had used the bakeapples to make a smoothie – a huge success with the judges. For once, the goose found a new role to play, with two slices of the breast decorating a bowl of the chicken broth from the pantry, subtly enhanced with lemon zest and chopped herbs. Also bathing in the clear golden liquid were two tortellini filled with parsley root and ricotta.

Jonathan Gushue (Toronto) is a Newfoundlander, so he recognized the bakeapples immediately. He used the juice of the berries to make a gastrique with vinegar and sugar, then, having salted the filleted trout, he cured the fish in the liquid. “How long for?” asked the judges. “Forty-one minutes,” he answered. The fish was cut into big, glistening chunks and served with parsley root chips, decorated with a sprig of basil. Gushue’s goose was marinated in garlic and thyme then pan-seared to the point of bloody rareness and served over a toothsome wild rice risotto. He made two sauces, both of them awesome – a basil purée as green as an emerald and another involving the delectable Rassembleu.

Michael Dekker (Calgary) poached his trout by laying the fillets in cold olive oil then gently bringing up the heat until the fat in the fish seized into tiny white dots. A citrus beurre blanc added further richness, balanced by a tangy salad of onion and tomato. A comma of intensely flavourful parsley root purée perched cheekily on the trout’s back, wearing a green crown of basil leaves. Seared and thickly sliced, the goose breast was served atop wild rice stirred up with spinach and shallots. A dab of the unadulterated blue cheese allowed meat and dairy to fight it out while the bakeapples were transformed into a tasty compote with sugar, salt and white wine. All the flavours in Dekker’s dishes were clear and true, integration taking place in one’s mouth rather than on the plate.

Jan Trittenbach's goose dish

Jan Trittenbach (Edmonton) was our final competitor. He presented a “modern fish and chips” with a trout tartare seasoned with garlic, onion, herbs and soy set on top of a superb brick of fondant potato fried in butter with rosemary. In lieu of tartare sauce, he made a hollandaise with fresh herbs and pickled shallots. His goose breast was ruby-red, filled with a stuffing of shallots and egg but the show was stolen by an unabashedly pungent garlic purèe beneath the meat. A stiff custard moulded into the shape of a maple leaf was another element, topped with a hearty slice of the remarkable cheese (we never tired of its marvellous flavour). He turned the bakeapples into a yummy pickle as a condiment for the goose. But where was the wild rice? Summoned back by the judges, Trittenbach explained that he had not used it. Ten valuable points were lost…

The judges agreed it had been a challenging box and that next time we would avoid wild rice and offer a more accessible meat than goose breast – if only for the sakes of our own constitutions. The one ingredient I still hadn’t had enough of was the Rassembleu cheese – Canada’s first blue and still the best. Damn, it’s good.

 

It was party frocks for the Grand Finale, held in the majestic salons of the Delta Grand hotel. Our judging table was set apart in the Celebration Ballroom so we had peace and quiet and optimum conditions for tasting.

Michael Dacquisto, Winnipeg

We began with Winnipeg champion Michael Dacquisto’s dish, a “Freshwater Trio” of Manitoba pickerel, pike and whitefish. It’s rare to find a chef going nose-to-tail with fish but that’s what we were presented with. In the centre of the plate were two pickerel pectoral fins, battered and deep fried. “Hold the actual fin and suck the flesh from the cartilege,” suggested the chef, so we did and it was delicious – soft, rich and delicately flavoured. Beside the fins were pretty slices of applewood-smoked pike mousse wrapped in pickerel fillets and then tender green leek – so pretty! Beneath it was a tangle of crispy shaved fennel tossed with whitefish caviar. Close by were two beautiful pickerel cheeks dusted with powdered toasted wild rice and to the right of the plate a stripe of purple beet purée topped with beads of beet gelee and “caviar” made from the wine Chef dacquisto chose as his accompaniment, the sparkling Odyssey Rosè Brut from grey monk Estate Winery in B.C. Overall it was, a lovely, delicately flavoured dish, full of different textures.

Michael Dekker, Calgary

Calgary`s Michael Dekker was next up, offering a dish with a Southern theme. He chose to work with Louisiana catfish, marinating the fillets in buttermilk to mute their flavour a little then blackening them with a perfectly judged mix of sweet and smoked paprika, garlic and thyme. There was a delicious spicy tingle to the meaty fish that he topped with a garland of tiny microgreens – celery, cilantro and watercress. Propping up the fish was a spherical cheddar biscuit like a glossy little scone with the texture of brioche. Around it were impeccable grits, smooth but not too heavy, their richness complementing the fish. Chef`s chosen wine was the crisp, racy 2010 Charles Baker Riesling from Niagara. It cut through the richness of the dish like a blade of yellow light, its acidity dancing with the spiciness of the blackened fish. Another really fine dish.

Jonathan Gushue, Toronto

Jonathan Gushue from Langdon hall, representing Toronto was our third competitor, escorting the food runners to our table and providing a small brochure and recipe card explaining his dish. At its heart was a mound of diced raw Digby scallops stirred with mascarpone, lime juice and fleur de sel, a sweet, sticky confection. Laying across the top was a single leaf of Paris Dusk kale from Langdon Hall`s garden, sautèed in butter for 30 seconds then drizzled with a gastrique made from Langdon Hall honey, cider vinegar and containing crumbled black walnuts. A vanilla and apple purèe added further sweetness and then the dish was finished with a scattering of yellow oxeye daisy petals and a grating of a sort of landlocked bottarga made from confited duck gizzards to add an intense little dust to the whole adventure. The wine pairing was a beauty – Organized Crime 2008 Riesling Reserve from Niagara, a clean, crisp Riesling with zesty lemon and ruby grapefruit on the nose and a hint of musk as it starts to age.

Marc Lepine, Ottawa-Gatineau

Marc Lepine from Atelier in Ottawa delighted the judges with his dish. Lying like a lid across the top of the bowl was a crisp celery-root parchment upon which was sprinkled a white powder (dehydrated bacon powder) and some jewel-like pike roe. Beneath this cap we found two pank-crusted chorizo meatballs and a perfect Quadra Island scallop lightly bronzed from the pan. Sharing the intimate space at the bottom of the bowl were some pickled chanterelles, flecks of dehydrated fennel, bacon, lovage and lemon balm, and dainty motes of celery that had been compressed with sambucca. An aerated purée of potato and truffle worked like a creamy sauce, ably seconded by a lemon thyme cream. For his final effect, chef Lepine took an atomiser filled with lemon-rind-infused sambucca and gave each bowl a little squirt. Serving the dish in a bowl was a deliberate act on lepine’s part. He wanted us to taste all the elements together and randomly rather than separating and analysing them on a plate. It worked: flavours swirled, levels of intensity and textural experiences jumped all over the place while the wine acted as a delicious anchor – Hidden Bench 2009 Estate Chardonnay from Niagara.

Jean-Philippe St-Denis

Next up was Jean-Philippe St-Denis from Kitchen Galerie Poisson in Montreal with the same famous dish he used to win the regional event. It was a vitello tonnato – which I love, of course, but which might not have been enough to win a GMP gala in its own right. “Wait til you see it,” advised Montreal judge Robert Beauchemin – for of course I hadn’t yet seen it, having missed the Montreal event because I had to be at the Winnipeg event on the same night! Anyway… It was worth the wait. J-P had turned the dish on its head, laying thinly sliced albacore tuna carpaccio onto the plate then smothering it in a variety of different ingredients – little slices of super-tender veal tongue sharpened by a mustard-tarragon vinaigrette. Motes of crispy parmesan. Tiny dice of pain brioché. Crunchy fried capers like sudden shots of salt. Shiny black balsamic jelly cut into cubes that were starting to melt under the lights. Dots of preserved lemon skin. A shaving of bottarga on top like Gentleman’s relish turned to powder. Raking my fork through it all I picked up different flavours and textures with every mouthful and the accompanying beer  – St-Ambroise Cream Ale from the McAuslan brewery in Quebec was probably the match of the evening. It looked like a chaos but ate like a dream and the judges absolutely loved it, propelling J-P St-Denis forward and out from the middle of the pack. The dish won the evening but would it be enough to catch the front-runners?

Mike Barsky, St. John's

Mike Barsky from Bacalao in St. John’s provided our first red wine. His dish was also a repeat of the creation that had proved a GMP winner, thrilling me and the other St. John’s judges, but tonight the presentation wasn’t as spot-on and the textures seemed to lack immediacy. Barsky had exercised his powers on Newfoundland goat, using all parts of the unfortunate animals. We had a rare but delectably tender seared loin, a drum of goat rillettes in crispy panko crumbs, a slice of pickled tongue, a puddle of thick, creamy, glossy goat-brain mousse, a smashing spherical turnip cooked sous vide with saffron and mustard, a stripe of saffron-dyed goat milk pudding, one or two Brussels sprouts petals, a demi-glace made with pinot Noir and partridgeberry and a scattering of mustard seedlings. The accompanying wine, Pelee Island 2010 Pinot Noir Reserve, from Pelee Island, Ontario, did its best to keep up with the range of textures, temperatures and tastes on the plate.

Rob Feenie, Vancouver

Rob Feenie from Cactus Club, representing Vancouver, also chose to work with a Pinot Noir – the 2010 from Haywire Winery in British Columbia. It was a fine choice for his dish, a variation of the creation that had won him the Vancouver competition last fall. First came a slender shot glass filled with clear barbecued duck broth in which flecks of black truffle were floating. We downed that first to clear our palates and set them up for the main event. The plate was beautifully put together. At its heart was a slice of a layered terrine of moist, tender, pink rabbit meat and bacon that had been pressed together with duck fat for 24 hours. On top, like an ivory-coloured torpedo, sat a whole, miniature boudin blanc, speckled with chopped black truffle. Soft as a mousse inside, it was made from more of the rabbit meat and foie gras. A thick slice of truffle was propped against it and there was yet more truffle in the jus that painted the plate. And then there were carrots – some turned into a silky purée and whipped with brown butter; some transformed into caviare beads; others completely morphed into a crisp and delicate wafer. “I found a hint of carrot in the wine,” explained Chef Feenie – and such is the power of suggestion that I did too.

Anthony McCarthy, Saskatchewan

Anthony McCarthy from The Saskatoon Club in Saskatoon decided to work with duck, placing slices of Brome Lake duck breast on a vinous demi-glace that worked very well with the wine. To the left lay a drum-shaped pavé of layered vegetables crowned with pancetta scratchings. A bright orange-coloured swipe of sea buckthorn berry purée offered fruitiness to the bird; as did a pool of Carmen Jewel sour cherry sauce. A salad of crisp julienned peppers and other vegetables hid under a latticed crisp of two-year-old goat cheese, waiting to jump out and revive a flagging palate. As a treat, Chef also gave us a moment of aerated foie gras with black truffle, textured like a stiff mousse and posed prettily in the cherry sauce. It was a beautifully composed dish and one of the best wine matches of the evening, reaching out to Nichol Vineyard’s 2007 Cabernet Franc-Syrah from British Columbia as if they were old school friends.

Jan Trittenbach, Edmonton

Our final dish came from Jan Trittenbach of Packrat Louie in Edmonton, whose family had flown in from Switzerland to watch him compete. He presented us with a slice of gorgeous, lean venison, the colour of red wine, which had been rolled around a centre of pulled beef chuck, the meat cooked sous vide and admirably moist and rich. “This is the best meat of the entire weekend,” said one of the judges, and no one argued with him. A crumbly, lightweight canoli was stuffed with creamy, mild-flavoured goat cheese while a pink beet purée added colour and a sweet earthiness to the spectrum of flavours. A wee watercress salad dressed with truffle vinaigrette refreshed the palate and balls of pickled butternut squash in a blackberry gastrique offered a different but equally tasty element. Chef had grated horseradish but politely left it on the side of the plate so we could add as much or as little as we wished. His wine proved a great match for the venison – the 2009 Peller Estates Private Reserve Syrah from Niagara.

Back in the judges’ lair we began our deliberations and calculated the marks. None of us was surprised to see that Marc Lepine was the clear champion, or that Rob Feenie had won the silver medal. Both had set the pace since the beginning of the weekend and had made no mistakes tonight. From the tight group of chefs in pursuit, Jean-Philippe St-Denis had used the Grand Finale to break away from the pack to take the bronze with his amazing deconstructed vitello tonnato.

And then it only remained to return to the party, to marvel at the bidding for the trips to Tuscany, Chile, California and other exotic locales, to cheer Ed Robertson and Barney Bentall as they sang for us all, to listen to Adam van Koeverden’s inspiring stories (and hilarious jokes) and then to hand out the medals and trophies to the victorious chefs. Marc Lepine’s fellow chefs in Ottawa had got together in an extraordinary show of support and cooked at Atelier each night he was away in Kelowna. Otherwise the restaurant would have had to close at one of the busiest times of the year. I have no doubt they will be as excited as anyone in the country to welcome the champion home.

Weird but true: 5 out of 6 Canadian Culinary Champions have a first name that begins with the letter M: Makoto, Melissa, Mathieu, Martin, Marc… Hayato Okamitsu (2008) is the only exception.

photocredit: Brian Chambers for all the beauty shots of the plates

And now a special report on the wines of the CCC by Gold Medal Plates National Wine Advisor, David Lawrason:

The 2011 Canadian Culinary Championships convened in Kelowna – the heart of B.C. wine country – on a mild and foggy weekend in Feb 2012.  In the span of three public events, and four invitational events for judges, chefs and invited guests, almost 60 wines were poured, and it was a tour de force, especially for the wines of the Similkameen Valley.  The Similkameen Wineries Association – eight wineries strong – hosted the Grand Finale Event at the Delta Grand Hotel on February 11.

This year, for the first time, a Best of Show Wine Competition was incorporated into the Canadian Culinary Championships  – a judging of the wines in their own right, without taking the chef’s pairings into account. (The matter of judging the pairings is the mandate of the food judges, and weighs heavily in their decision). 

This year I invited two prominent western Canada wine professionals to join me on a panel.  Rhys Pender is one of three Canadian Masters of Wine, residing in the Similkameen Valley of B.C. where he conducts his business as a wine educator, writer and Canadian wine judge.   Gurvinder Bhatia of Edmonton is wine writer for the Edmonton Journal and owner of Vinomania, one of the finest specialty wine shops in the country.

Judging over two days, the panel selected Orofino 2009 Syrah from the Similkameen Valley as the Best Wine of Show.  It was the first syrah produced by John Weber at Orofino, and the tiny production of 90 cases sold out quickly.  The runner up hailed from Ontario, the Hidden Bench 2009 Chardonnay from Niagara’s Beamsville Bench, which had been brought to Kelowna to pair with the dish by Ottawa’s Marc Lepine. The second runner-up was Sandhill 2009 Cabernet-Merlot from the Vanessa Vineyard, also from Similkameen.

Before moving onto the series of events, a special note of recognition and thanks to Harry McWatters who was a critical link to the local wine community as part of the Kelowna organising committee.  He also very kindly donated several cases of his new McWatters Collection wines that debuted at the Mystery Wine competition.  Both the McWatters Collection 2010 Chardonnay and 2007 Meritage are classics of their genre with all kinds of structure and complexity.  

I also want to thank and acknowledge Catherine Frechette of Kelowna Tourism who set up an afternoon wine judges trip on the Lake Country Scenic Sip Trail, visiting the refurbished Gray Monk, and the spiffy new Ex Nihilo.  I was not with the chefs at Tantalus Winery for their tasty retreat on February 8 but I hear the Tantalus wines showed beautifully.

The first official Gold Medal Plates event of the (very long) weekend was billed as The Last Supper. It took place at a private residence at the Big White Ski Resort on February  8 as a wrap up event for successful bidders from across Canada  for the Big White/CCC auction ski package enjoyed a fabulous four course dinner prepared by 2010 CCC champion chef Martin Juneau of Montreal.  Four B.C. wineries stepped up to donate their finest to this event, led by the terrific Tantalus 2010 Riesling.  Many thanks to Tantalus owner Eric Savics, who joined us on the mountain.  Other wines included the well-known Sumac Ridge Steller’s Jay sparkling, the vibrant Black Hill’s 2010 Viognier and the layered, very fine Painted Rock 2008 Syrah expertly matched to chef Juneau’s main course bison creation.  The wine had actually been shipped to Montreal by Painted Rock owner John Skinner so that Juneau could consider the match in his preparations – a great demonstration of the kind of detail carried on behind the scenes.

The Chef and Judges Reception took place February 9 at Quails’ Gate winery where a pair of wines were poured at two food stations.  The racy and quenching Quails’ Gate 2010 Chenin Blanc was served with a selection of Pacific oysters, while the fragrant, fresh Quails’ Gate 2009 Pinot Noir was matched with a very good risotto.  During this event the chefs were presented with an unmarked bottle of the Mystery Wine to which they would have to create a matching dish – for 380 people – 24 hours later. On a budget of $500!

The Mystery Wine Pairing returned to the cosy confines of the lakeside El Dorado Hotel on June 10.  Guests were greeted with Trius Brut sparkling wine, a much awarded crisp and dry sparkler made by Andrew Peller’s Hillebrand winery in Niagara.  After being introduced to the concept and flow of the evening the chef stations opened and the very professional and attentive El Dorado staff began passing the glasses.  The crowd was quick to pounce on riesling as the grape involved, with local sentiment saying it was the Tantalus Riesling.  But not so!  It was the Chateau des Charmes 2008 Old Vine Riesling from the Niagara-on-the-Lake appellation in Ontario, a beautiful, maturing, complex riesling that was named White Wine of the Year at the 2011 Ontario Wine Awards.  Our deepest thanks to the Bosc Family of Chateau des Charmes for donating the last available cases of this great Niagara riesling.

The final day of events on February 11 was a wine lover’s dream. It began for the wine judges and invited guests at a private tasting by the Similkameen wineries, many of which brought out older vintages to show how the reds in particular developed.  With only an hour to spare the winemakers then had to ready for the VIP Reception, where each poured two wines.  Many thanks to Cerelia Vineyards, Clos du Soleil, Eau Vivre, Forbidden Fruit, Orfino, Robin Ridge and Rustic Roots for making the trip to Kelowna and putting on a fascinating show for our guests, many of whom had to be prodded out of the VIP Reception to enjoy the main event.

In the Grand Finale the chefs brought the same wine, or at very least a wine from the same winery, that helped them win gold in their respective cities.  These are listed elsewhere on the Gold Medal Plates website. The wines, plus one beer from Montreal, were equally divided among the east and west, and ranged across several styles, and the medalists spanned three provinces.  The bronze medal went to McCauslan Brewery’s rich and exotic St.Ambroise Cream Ale paired with chef the always offbeat and fun-loving J.P. St Denis of Montreal.  The silver medal went to the taut and juicy Haywire 2010 Pinot Noir from the Okanagan, paired with Rob Feenie of the Cactus Club in Vancouver. And the Gold Medal went to the stately, complex and well structured Hidden Bench 2009 Chardonnay from the Beamsville Bench in Niagara, paired brilliantly with the creation of gold medal Chef Marc Lepine from Atelier in Ottawa.

But the fun did not end there!  Several new Celebration Wines appeared on the tables as guests sat down to listen to athlete presentations, await the awards and enjoy great performances by Ed Robertson of Bare Naked Ladies and B.C.’s own Barney Bentall.  The Similkameen Wineries added new wines to the festivities, and they were joined by a brilliant Township 7 2009 Syrah, Black Hills 2010 Alibi and 2010 Viognier, and the Sandhill 2008 Cabernet-Merlot, the aforementioned third place finisher in the Wine Competition.

So that’s a wrap, but in ending this report I must add a personal note of satisfaction, and thanks to all involved, for the wonderful recognition and acceptance that Canadian wine is receiving through the Gold Medal Plates program.  Gold Medal Plates is the country’s largest showcase for Canadian wine, and it’s getting bigger and better every year.

Cheers
David Lawrason
National Wine Advisor

 

 

 

Bottega Farm Inn

09 Feb

To Kelowna, B.C., for the Canadian Culinary Championships, a much-anticipated weekend that begins with a judges’ retreat that allows the judiciary to recover from a day of travel, to calibrate our palates and catch up with old friends. This year, Catherine Frechette of Tourism Kelowna organized a most generous night for us in a beautiful new property called Bottega Farm Inn, at the foot of the mountains to the south-east of the city. It was dark when I finally arrived and a light snow was falling but the inn looked most welcoming and merry. This was once a cattle farm but last year the owners completed a stunning modern building with ten luxurious rooms and a soaring dining room – a true relais du silence offering perfect peace and quiet. They also built a recording studio that is nearly finished and brought in a charming herd of alpacas to amuse the guests, though we had other diversions last night. Representatives from Tantalus and Cedar Creek wineries were pouring some delectable wines alongside elaborate displays from several local operations including Arlo’s Honey Farm, Okanagan Lavender Herb Farm and vegetable specialists Sunshine Farm.

It was a very happy reunion for the judges. Our panel consists of the senior judge from every city where Gold Medal Plates holds an event – expert palates all. Let me name them from east to west. From St. John’s, Newfoundland, KARL WELLS is a broadcaster, food columnist for the Telegram and host of his own tv show, One Chef One Critic. From Montreal, ROBERT BEAUCHEMIN is a culinary author who writes for La Presse as well as being an anthropologist and a university professor. From Ottawa, ANNE DESBRISAY has been the restaurant critic of The Ottawa Citizen for 20 years and is also an author and broadcaster. From Toronto, SASHA CHAPMAN is an award-winning food columnist and food writer, currently an editor with The Walrus magazine. From Winnipeg, JEFF GILL is a professional chef and culinary arts instructor at Red River College. From Saskatchewan, CJ KATZ is an author, tv and radio host and publisher of Savour Life magazine. From Calgary, JOHN GILCHRIST is a teacher and author, broadcaster and restaurant columnist for The Calgary Herald. From Vancouver, SID CROSS is the wine and food guru for Western Living magazine and is a world-renowned wine and food judge. And also from Vancouver, ANDREW MORRISON is a writer, a teacher, a restaurant critic and the editor of Scout Magazine. He also serves as our culinary referee during the CCC, making sure the competing chefs obey our complicated rules to the letter. Our Kelowna judge is PERRY BENTLEY, Instructor in Baking and Pastry Arts at Okanagan College. The only judge not present last night was Edmonton’s MARY BAILEY, the wine, food and travel writer, certified sommelier and wine instructor and the founder of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium. She couldn’t get away last night and will join us on Thursday.

Need it be said, dinner had been prepared for us all, provided by a terrific local chef, Mark Filatow, whose restaurant Waterfront is currently undergoing a serious renovation, reopening in a month or two. I’ve eaten his food before and admire his work but last night he outdid himself. Dishes were served family style with passed platters – everyone helping themselves – and the menu was designed as a showcase of local produce. We began with salads of white and pink beets from Sunshine Farm in a creamy horseradish dressing, and cold grilled sardine fillets sharpened with Eldorado Farms tarragon vinegar and laid out over a slaw of cucumber, crème fraîche and preserved lemon. We moved on to perfectly cooked little slabs of soy-braised belly pork, the delicate crackling immaculately crisp, paired with pickled cabbage and yam noodles. The wines were very well chosen, including a racy Tantalus Riesling and Cedar Creek’s lush Platinum Chardonnay.

Next came some ravioli that oozed runny egg yolk when we cut into them (that’s a neat trick of timing from Chef Filatow!) garnished with pancetta and soft broccolini florets. And after that we were blessed with Thiessen Farms quail, just the breasts, still pink and tender and fire-roasted, and the boned legs, cooked sous vide and as soft as the turned squash and pea-sized dates that accompanied them. Filatow emerged from the kitchen to pour on a rich jus from a tiny jug then sent out an extra dish of Pemberton farms beef tenderloin, aged 40 days, each slice showing the gradation of doneness from a crisp exterior to a ruby heart. The beef had its own red vermouth jus and a splendid array of Sunshine Farm’s heritage carrots, salt-baked cipolini onions and little sieglinde potatoes, baked and hollowed out then filled with their own mashed insides – they looked like tiny cupcakes. Tantalus’s 2010 Pinot Noir was sublime with the quail; Cedar Creek’s 2007 Merlot was ideal with the beef.

Our cheese course consisted of toast made from red fife and grape bread topped with a wee sphere of soft Happy Days goat cheese dressed with a marvelous honey from Arlo’s. Last year, Arlo’s owner, Helen Kennedy, explained, they had noticed that the honey from eight of their 106 hives was particularly pale and pure. The bees had been foraging on elder blossom and, indeed, there was more than a hint of elder amidst the wildflower aromas of the honey.

So the evening progressed. We sipped an amazing wine from Cedar Creek with our dessert – called M, it’s a maderized Pinot Blanc, lightly fortified then put into small casks and left outside in the hot Okanagan sunshine for five summers. The only Madeira-style wine produced in the Okanagan, it’s a totally delicious amber nectar, the complex flavours and sweetness lifted by a sly acidity.

At the far end of the inn’s great hall stands a Steinway grand piano. There are several fine musicians amongst the corps of judges but it was Catherine Frechette who was persuaded to play, from memory, Chopin’s Ballade number one – to thunderous and well-deserved applause.

Tonight the serious work begins.