Archive for the ‘Life in General’ Category

J-P Challet returns to The Fifth for summer

17 May

On perfect summer evenings like this one there is really no finer or more pleasant destination in the city than the Terrace at the Fifth. You ride that old freight elevator up out of the crowded night club or the equally crowded Pubhouse and you discover that the old magic is more than intact – it has intensified – especially now that chef J-P Challet has returned there as guest chef for the summer.

Libell Geddes is the owner of the Fifth – her impeccable taste has always informed its ambience and she has a knack for getting the absolute best out of her chefs. I would argue that Didier Leroy, J-P Challet and Marc Thuet all did their finest work in the tiny kitchen at the Fifth and it was such a treat to taste Challet’s food again. After he closed Ici, his charming little bistro on Harbord Street, he went back to his old stomping ground at the Windsor Arms for a year. One feels he is happier to be at the Fifth. And his legions of fans will be thrilled to discover that he is working on a new book and testing some of the recipes in the restaurant. Should you go – and you should, you really should – and if you are very lucky you might find some of the same things on the menu as we tasted last week.

We started with excellent Italian caviar presented in three different ways – as a garnish on a spoonful of tangy, mustardy beef tartare; as the dark crown on a perfectly cooked potato and lemon raviolo; and, unforgettably, strirred with a little cream and just an unexpected drop of maple syrup into very soft-boiled egg, served in its shell.

Then there was a salad, in celebration of the first good weather of the year, made with sweet, juicy kumato tomatoes with crispy pickled ginger avocado and a goat cheese burrek that stole the show, the unctuous cheese bursting out of the little pastry pouch.

We tasted a scallop, barely cooked, dressed with asian pear and king crab, and sharing the elegant plate with white asparagus, a single potato gnocchi and a subtle harissa mayonnaise.

Our main course brought a tremblingly tender cuboid of braised beef short rib with some glazed heirloom carrots of a delightfully intense flavour and two examples of J-P’s affection for frying – a truffle cromesquis and a soft potato croquette, perfect for mopping up the moment of bordelaise sauce.

Dessert was simplicity itself – a slice of lemon tart that J-P had made that day paired with a crisp white meringue and some berries.

I think we are all aware that Toronto is swinging back a little towards elegant dining and accomplished service after so many years at the comfort end of the gastronomical spectrum. It’s great to see that the Fifth is still a leader in the field.



Brunch at Parts & Labour

09 Mar
Chefs Bertrand Alepee and Maty Matheson, with baked goods

Chefs Bertrand Alepee and Matty Matheson, with baked goods

To Parkdale on a sunlit Sunday morning, riding the streetcar along Queen Street West to emcee a brunch at Parts & Labour for the VISA Infinite dining series. I’m not a natural bruncher – never have been – though not because I disapprove of the conflation of breakfast and lunch, either linguistically or gastronomically. It’s just that when I was a busy restaurant critic, I tended to work on Saturday nights – and Sunday mornings were therefore more about recuperation than further feasting. But that was then, and these days I can eat when and where I choose, so the chance to taste the brunchular ideas of two of the Group of Seven – Matthew James “Matty” Matheson of P&L and Bertrand “Bert” Alépée of The Tempered Room – was not to be missed. Matty was a wild man in his youth. Now that he’s reached the ripe old age of 33, he has settled down, his businesses are doing brilliantly and he has become an amabassador for the Toronto food scene, spreading the good word across Canada and the States in person and through his excellent blogwork on He will have his own tv show next year, on the Vice channel. Bert (The Fifth, Amuse Bouche) is simply (and I use the word ironically of the confectioner’s art) one of the very best pastry chefs we have.

I arrived at Parts & Labour early and found everything poised and ready. The charming little woodstove by the front window was cosily ablaze; a cauldron of hot liquid stood on top of it, perfuming the air in a most irreststible way. P&L’s manager Chantelle Gabino is also a star mixologist and had created an amazing warm toddy for the event – Cinzano rosso spiced with cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and bayleaf, mixed with apple cider and two bottles of Woodford bourbon. Then she added rosemary and orange, roasted marshmallow syrup and some rare mas mole biters from Arizona. Gabino called the drink “Into the Wood” and indeed it was the apotheosis of a subtle winter warmer, perfectly balancing citrus, spice and the earthy flavours of bourbon and vermouth. A splendid start.

piglet and gribiche

piglet and gribiche

Propeller Coffee Co. provided the direct-trade coffee (a fruity Kenyan cup) and Krystina Roman of Rosewood Estates was there with her wines – a lively Pinot Noir and a buttery Chardonnay – and a sensational off-dry mead that came into its own in the later stages. She also provided the honey that Bert whipped into the butter he set out with some of his own treasures – a mountain of croissants (some plain, others almond or chocolate – or both), buttery brioche, and bowls of chouquettes, the bite-sized, sugar-crusted balls of moist chou pastry that used to stand on the counter of the patisseries he knew as a boy in France. In lieu of jam, he proposed a smooth compote of the year’s first forced rhubarb, all shy and tender, pink and tart and never been out of the greenhouse.

Those were for our first course. The main dishes arrived family style, the way Parts & Labour serves these days, and the list of them on the printed menu read like a rich, buttery, syrup-slathered poem. This was not one of those brunches where you get a skinny omelette and a piece of unripe melon. No indeed…

First out of the kitchen were platters of meat, the legs of achingly delicious little milk-fed Gaspord piglets from Les Laurentides in Quebec. Matty had brined the legs then set them to roast very slowly overnight – at about 200 degrees – so when he opened the oven this morning there they were, the flesh as tender as butter, the skin golden-brown, crispy and glistening, sitting in their own rich fat. He took all the meat off the bones and piled it up with shards of the crispy crackling. Under and over, he spooned a classic sauce gribiche (Matty cut his teeth working at Le Select and La Palette and knows from gribiches), a piquant slurry of chopped egg white and egg yolk with a brunoise of red onion, capers, celery, cornichons, garlic, lots of orange zest, chervil, tarragon, parsley, Dijon mustard, olive and canola oils – rich but tangy and the perfect condiment to the pork. He did not ignore the fat that was left in the roasting pan with all those scrumptious little dark sticky bits. Instead he whipped them up into a gloriously unstable emulsion and spread it on toast made with Simon Blackwell’s Blackbird Bakery sourdough baguette. Not so much gilding the lily as larding it.

Those pancakes...

Those pancakes…

Then there were pancakes. If you haven’t seen Matty’s pancake-making video on, you really should. It makes for compelling viewing. He makes a persuasive case that his are “the best fucking pancakes in the world” and I’m not going to argue. Apparently some kid was watching the video and called his Dad in to watch. His Dad was producing commercials for the Super Bowl, loved Matty’s attitude – and that’s how Matty Matheson ended up being seen by 115 million people on Super Bowl Sunday. Today, he stacked his pancakes up, put excessive amounts of butter on top and then drowned them in 70 brix maple syrup. This is an awesome maple syrup from Gaspé that gets boiled down for 20 minutes longer than ordinary humdrum maple syrup so it’s really thick and really sweet. Matty explained it to me by saying it was like the amps in Spinal Tap that go up to 11, not just 10. A fitting robe for those pancakes.




roasted foie gras with persimmon sauce

roasted foie gras with persimmon sauce

And what would any brunch be without whole lobes of foie gras? Matty roasts them in the oven, basting them with their own melting fat until they are almost liquid. Then he lets them rest a bit and recover, before slicing them up and smothering them in a compote made like a mostarda with the last of the season’s persimmons and a handful of pink peppercorns, thinned down with more maple syrup. People were spreading the foie onto whatever croissant and bread was left, and gasping with pleasure.
There was more… A classic potato gratin made with Emmenthal and shallots, thyme, cream and pepper. Hot quiche-like tarts of confited fennel and confited leeks in a royale of eggs and cream baked in a high-rimmed pastry and topped with an orange and fennel salad as the morning’s token vegetable moment.

eggs better jp

And of course there were eggs, soft-scrambled in a double-boiler so they stay loose and laid-back – jazz eggs, as ever there were – topped with toasted sunflower seeds and half a kilo of black truffles. Matty doesn’t slice the truffles; he uses a rasp so they end up as finely shaved as bonito flakes, stirring in the heat from the eggs and releasing a little cloud of earthy, truffly, funky fragrance that just hovers over the dish. The secret ingredient is a remarkable sunflower oil that he sources through Société Orignal, the brilliant Quebec company that provided many of the morning’s ingredients. Apparently, they dry out the sunflower seeds on a bed of hay on the top of the barn under a sun roof, a treatment that is the equivalent of a day at the spa. Then they cold press the oil. Why yes, it’s expensive – but it’s so good. No bitterness, just the pure taste of sunflower seeds. Matty drizzles the oil over the eggs.

One of the lovely things about having Dairy Farmers of Canada as a sponsor for these VISA events is that the cheese course is always extraordinary. DFC’s own Anne-Marie Rajabali introduced her quartet – Avonlea’s clothbound cheddar from P.E.I. (“grassy yet sweet with an aroma reminiscent of unwashed potatoes”); 5 Brothers Gun’s Hill Artisan Cheese (like a cross between gouda and appenzeller); soft, blue-veined, bloomy-rinded Borgonzola from Ontario’s Quality Cheese; and Laliberté, the ultra-rich triple-cream form from Fromagerie de Presbytère in Quebec. With these we had some fresh little biscuits and herbed cornbread from Bert and chunks of honeycomb from Rosewood’s hives.

Castel au praline

Castel au praline

And finally, by way of dessert, Bert gave his interpretation of a classic – a Castel au praliné. It’s always fun to try and track down the origin of classic confectionery. Bert didn’t know where Castel au praliné comes from but he was pretty sure it was the South of France. Maybe from Castelnaudary. But there are rival claims! Northern France also claims it, vowing it was invented in 1912, in the last gasp of Europe’s innocence, in the town of Chateau-Thierry in Picardy, by a pastry chef called Leon Hess. He took it to the great exposition in Paris and won a gold medal for it, making his own – and the cake’s – reputation. His patisserie did brilliantly and everyone who came to Chateau-Thierry to see where La Fontaine had written his amusing fables, knew they had to stop and buy a Castel au Praliné from Mr. Hess.

Alas. Sic transit gloria! It all came to an end only two or three years later. By 1916 it was impossible to get the ingredients. The French government eventually closed down all the patisseries for the duration of the Great War. I imagine Monsieur Hess muttering that the worst thing about the First World War was the shortage of butter… I suppose it all depends on your perspective. A year later, the Battle of the Marne took place – right in his town, which may have changed his mind.

Bert’s version was stunning – layers of chewy pecan macaron – somewhere between a meringue and a macaron – a very thin layer of raspberry jam to give a hint of tartness and bring everything to life, a thick band of light hazelnut buttercream, candied hazelnuts and a white chocolate butterfly as garnish, like one of the Duchess of Cambridge’s fascinators.

We ate well. We drank well. We went home to sleep until bedtime. It’s what Sundays are for.

Thank you very much to Ksenija Hotic who took the photos (except the ones of the pork and the Castel). Find out more about her work at


Canadian Culinary Championships – part 3 – the Grand Finale

26 Feb
Owning the podium

Owning the podium

And so to the Grand Finale. Needless to say, this was quite the party, with 600 guests starting the evening with the scrumptious canapés provided by last year’s Champion, Chef Lorenzo Loseto of George in Toronto. Everyone admired the amazing new BMW that would belong to the chef who wins (a two-year lease) and later they rocked to the music of Barney Bentall, Spirit of the West frontmen Geoffrey Kelly and John Mann, and guitarist Matthew Harder, literally leaping to their feet and dancing in the aisles when the guys played Home for a Rest. The emcee was Olympic gold and silver medallist Jennifer Heil, one of 12 Olympians present, and she reminded everyone that, to date, Gold Medal Plates has raised over $9.5 million for Canada’s Olympic athletes.

That night, of course, the chefs were the athletes and they had their own medals to strive for. It’s hard to create your masterpiece for 600 when you only have about four hours to prepare. The chefs all did a lot of preparation in their home towns and shipped components and elements ahead. Every one (except Chef Eligh) did more or less the same dish that had brought them victory in their regional competitions. Which meant the judges were presented with some splendid and highly original treats. I called for them in an order that, on paper at least, would take us from the lightest dish to the heaviest.

Chef Lavallee

Chef Lavallee

We began with Chef Lavallée’s dish, a “Nova Scotia picnic” inspired by the beach picnics her grandmother used to make for her when she was a girl. “First eat the little green leaf,” instructed Chef. “It’s an oyster leaf and it tastes of the sun and the sea and oysters. Close your eyes and you’ll imagine you’re on a beach.” We did – and we did. The dish consisted of three elements. First, set on a tiny red-and-white-checked paper “picnic cloth” was a delicious little sandwich of lobster and snow crab meat in a light, truffle-scented mayonnaise inside a soft, buttery brioche bun, garnished with edible flower petals. There was a mound of finely-chopped, soft potato salad topped with a potato chip that served as a raft for a dab of crème fraîche and a spoonful of sturgeon caviar. The third element was a selection of different pickles of varying intensity and very distinct flavours – cubes of butternut squash, sweet bread-and-butter pickles, hanasunomata seaweed of various colours – and a perfectly cooked quail egg cut into two and seasoned with homemade celery salt. Chef Lavallée’s match was flawless – the fresh, summery semi-dry apple cider from Tideview in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.

Chef O'Flynn

Chef O’Flynn

Chef O’Flynn brought in our second dish, a taste of Canada from coast to coast. His dish was a thick and generous terrine of Alberta river sturgeon, pungently smoked with pine, and layered with perfect cured foie gras. The strata of colour were breathtakingly beautiful, the flavours rich and intense, challenging but ultimately so seductive. Decorating the plate and contributing much in terms of flavour were motes of Granny Smith apple jelly, dots of apple purée, minuscule crunchy dice of brioche and two plump, juicy morels reconstituted with a bathe in a fragrance of sherry vinegar, canola oil and bay leaf. Chef’s chosen wine – Sandhill Small Lots 2013 Viognier – had the weight and spicy fragrance to dance with the smoke and apple flavours of the dish.


Chef Park

Chef Park

Chef Park presented next. He took the traditional ingredients of Korean bibimbap and re-expressed them with the finesse of Japanese cuisine as a complex roll of moussey chicken boudin, julienned vegetables, nine-hour-braised shiitake and cauliflower. Instead of sauce from a squeeze bottle, he turned the gochujang into a jellied skin as the outer layer of the roll. A tremblingly undercooked quail egg lay on top and scattered here and there was a crunchy assortment of five different kinds of puffed rice, for texture. Chef Park’s chosen wine had been lost by Air Canada en route to the competition so he had to scramble to find a substitute – Gehringer Bros. 2013 Riesling, a most successful compromise.


Chef Eligh

Chef Eligh

Chef Eligh’s dish had a dramatic and avant-garde presentation – a perfectly smooth dome of crisp bread, as fine as lace, to be shattered into what lay beneath. There we found impeccably cooked, very subtly seasoned lobster and sablefish in a heavy, chowder-like sauce made from clam nectar and lobster reduction, thickened with butter and bacon fat and cradling soft morsels of carrot, celery and potato. The wine match was exceptional – Meyer Family 2012 Micro Cuvée Dhardonnay Old Main Road from the Okanagan.


Chef Bohati

Chef Bohati


Next up was Chef Bohati with a complex and delectable combination of yellowfin tuna and foie gras. The foie was a large slice of cold-smoked torchon – marvellously rich and a clever contrast to the cool, soft slices of tuna carpaccio. These two proteins were surrounded by a cluster of intensely flavourful little courtiers – preserved lemon and sorrel for sharpness; dots of red beet and pickled plum purée and other dots of yellow beet purée; a big khaki-coloured sauce made of pistachio and a braising liquid used for pork belly. Toasted pistachios were crumbled onto the plate and a warm vinaigrette touched with white truffle served as another sauce. Smoked salt and a blue oyster flower finished the dish. Chef Bohati’s match was brilliantly chosen – an off-dry blend of Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Blanc with plenty of weight, the Wild Goose 2013 Autumn Gold from the Okanagan.

Chef Rebello

Chef Rebello

Chef Rebello reprised his avant-garde dish from the Regina GMP event, just two things on the plate, each of which needed to be consumed in a single bite. First, what looked like a tan-coloured puff perched on a rainbow-filled shot glass. “Pop the puff into your mouth give it  couple of chews then do the shooter,” chef instructed. The judges obeyed. The puff was an air tuile made of semolina. Inside it were some flecks of chestnut that had been puréed and then deep fried, seasoned with lemon, chili, coriander and cumin. Also inside was a small finger of warm belly pork, nicely crusted. It was indeed a delightful mouthful, the spices spreading a warm glow across the palate. Then the shooter… Pow! Those spices began to glow as they were hit by salted lemon chili water, pickled apple and a dab of cranberry chutney. The second element took the same ingredients but used them in completely different ways. The pork was a crisp chicheron, the chestnut had become a dab of mousse, the cranberry chutney had been turned into pearls. The apple reappeared as dainty chips garnished with chili threads. It was similar but quite different – soft flavours, soothing almost, with the geaseless crunch of the chicheron. Chef’s wine match? Red Rooster’s 2013 Gewurztraminer.


Chef Garland

Chef Garland


Chef Garland presented a little treatise on quail. The juicy roasted breast was stuffed with foie gras; the thigh had been poached in a master stock with soy and palm sugar (intense flavours) then Chef had pulled off the meat and turned it into a rugged-looking, panko-crusted croquette that several of the judges agreed was one of the most delicious things we had tasted all weekend. The stock, mixed with some of the chosen wine, had been reduced to a rich, sapid sauce. At the top of the plate was an enticing jumble of many effects – a gelée of peeled grapes and more Gewurztraminer, dainty cinnamon cap mushrooms, crunchy threads of fried shallot and fresh thyme that scented the entire dish. Chef’s wine match was inspired – Tawse 2013 Quarry Road Gewurztraminer, surprisingly ripe, rich and perfumed.


Chef Horne

Chef Horne

Chef Horne’s dish drew gasps of admiration from the judges. He had taken bite-sized pieces of exceptionally tender, braised beef short rib and finished them with a glaze of tree syrups – birch, maple, cedar and sumac – that gave the meat a heavenly, sweet, woodsy crust. One piece of the short rib was served on a bare beef rib bone. Real maple leaves had been marinated in cider and then turned into edible crisps. Wild leeks had been transformed into a seasoning salt while others had been pickled, adding their own piquant alium flavour to the composition. What looked like a gleaming piece of bark was in fact deep-fried parsley root and more parsley root had been turned into a purée with parsnip. It was like a walk in the woods and notably well matched with Creekside 2012 Iconoclast Syrah from Niagara.


Chef Jean

Chef Jean

Chef Jean built his dish around his chosen wine – Pelee Island’s 2012 Lighthouse Riesling. He marinated Manitoba pork tenderloin char-siu-style, cooked it sous-vide an then seared it with Asian barbecue spices for a touch of exotic heat. It was a beautiful piece of meat, nicely paired with sauerkraut that also had an Asian flavour, lightly spiced with star anise and chili. There was a potato confited in duck fat and topped with pork crackling, bacon and chives; squash purée provided rooty sweetness and a splash of colour. The sauce was a veal jus spiked with honey and lime and the final garnish was a flourish of candied kumquat, perched jauntily on the pork.

Chef Hill

Chef Hill

Our penultimate pleasure was Chef Hill’s “Farmer’s Table,” a dish inspired by the Sunday dinners he enjoyed as a boy growing up on his parents’ farm in Saskatchewan. He cooked a gorgeous lamb sirloin sous vide then seared it in camolino oil. Beside this lay a ribbon of pliable lamb sausage. Peas had been turned into a purée and also turned into a wafer with the texture of nori. Celery root furnished a second purée and micro celery greens added more colour and graceful freshness; a tiny carrot looked as if it had been grown in a doll’s house. Pickled mustard seed with lots of lemon was a welcome condiment and yellow mustard flowers symbolized the fields of Saskatchewan. A spoonful of sour cherry reduction was made with fruit from Chef’s father’s farm. The presentation was stunning and the wine match spot on – McWatters Collection 2012 Meritage from the Okanagan valley.

Chef McCrowe

Chef McCrowe

Chef McCrowe rounded off our evening with a splendid dish he called “Moose and Juice,” entering the judges’ room with a smoke gun to create the atmosphere of a Newfoundland forest – a little piece of theatre that was much appreciated. He had marinated the wild moose tenderloin with juniper then grilled it over charcoal with a dust of dehydrated chanterelles. The moose shank was braised with molasses and red wine together with salt pork fat back and finished with a scattering of crispy scrunchions. A purée of turnip and sharp cheddar was a powerful component and spikes of other root vegetables were scattered around the plate. Deep-fried caribou moss added to the sylvan mood of the dish and the last element was a piece of “Nan’s toast” in memory of the moose stew his Nan used to make. The wine Chef chose was a super compliment to the food, Norman Hardie’s 2013 Zweigelt from Prince Edward County, tangy, fruity and light-bodied.

The judges sat back. It had been a most memorable contest. Chef Park had aced the final round but all the marks for the Grand Finale were close – all within nine percentage points – a pattern that carried through to the final scores. We had known it was a very strong field going into the weekend and every chef had performed magnificently. At this level, their technical abilities can almost be taken for granted; what is exciting – as in the work of any great artist – is to see their unique and personal perspective emerge in the dishes they create before our very eyes. In the end, it was almost a photo finish – an Olympic sprint – and the winners of the gold, silver and bronze medals were less than two percentage points apart. Chef Eligh from Hawksworth in Vancouver won the bronze. Chef Park from Park Restaurant in Montreal won the silver. The gold medal went to Chef O’Flynn from the Westin, Edmonton.

Huge congratulations to all the chefs – and their sous chefs – and the students from Okanagan College who served as their willing apprentices throughout the weekend. Heartfelt thankyous to the judges. A deep bow to our new champion, Chef Ryan O’Flynn.


The Canadian Culinary Championships 2015 – part 2

25 Feb
Proffering the duck... Senior Judge Chef Bernard Casavant and James Chatto show the crowd the Black Box ingredients

Proffering the duck… Senior Judge Chef Bernard Casavant and James Chatto show the crowd the Black Box ingredients

Saturday morning – round about 7:15 a.m. in the lobby of the Delta hotel… Chefs and sous chefs are standing around or pacing, each one holding tight to his or her knife sets. The judges are there (some of them having already scored the excellent coffees from nearby Gio Bean) and two luxurious buses wait to take everyone to Okanagan College’s Culinary Arts building and the preparation kitchens where the Black Box will take place.

The venue looks splendid – a large area decked out for the public with banners and breakfast omelette stations manned by students. Amber Piché from My Tea Blending Room is here brewing some excellent teas. Another room houses a “market” of local artisanal producers showing off their wares, including awesome chocolate-covered cherries from Knight’s Fine Chocolate and super granola bars from The Bench Artisan Food Market. The first half of the audience arrives and the chefs are introduced then stripped of their cell phones and other communication devices before being led off to an isolated room to wait until their name is called.

Menawhile we judges introduce the contents of the Black Box to the eager spectators:

Tart, livid sea-buckthorn berries donated by Betty Forbes, proprietor of Northern Vigor Berries, Kamsack, Saskatchewan,  (

Two live lobsters (a male and a female – a cock and a hen, as we used to say in England) for each chef, donated by Taste of Nova Scotia.

A big Rougie duck from Quebec, donated by Two Rivers Meats in B.C.

A bag of golden quinoa, grown in Saskatchewan and donated by NorQuin quinoa.

A bag of dried lavender, donated by Okanagan Lavender & Herb Farm,

A tub of fresh ricotta cheese donated by Valoroso Fine Foods,

And, making up the complement of ingredients, are locally purchased turnips and yams, Honeycrisp and Granny Smith apples from Okanagan Packing House, Kelowna, and hazelnuts from Canadian Hazelnut Inc. of Agassiz, B.C.

In years gone by we have asked chefs to create two dishes using six ingredients, in one hour. Frankly, the whole contest sometimes devolved into a “beat-the-clock” plating ordeal. This year, we invite each chef to choose six of the 10 ingredients and create only one dish (13 plates of it, just for the judges). The idea is to stimulate creativity, to get the chefs going beyond the safe option, to raise overall quality – and it works. Okay, chefs who have competed for us in previous years, and are watching this year’s contest online on a live video feed, start texting us that it all looks much too easy. We will fine tune it again for next year.

Chef Jean

Chef Jean

Meanwhile, the first chef chosen is soon heads-down and deep in concentration with his sous. It’s Chef Luc Jean from Winnipeg. He announces his dish and the contest begins. Chef Jean decides to work with both duck breast and lobster (hooray). He pan-sears the duck with a touch of cumin, salt and pepper and presents a single tender slice over a rich purée of yam and carrot made with shallots and chicken stock from the communal pantry. The lobster is poached in butter with ginger and chives and though two lobsters barely furnish enough meat for 13 servings (something, we later learned, that deterred some chefs from using it), Chef Jean makes it go round. He uses the tart sea-buckthorn berries whole in a beurre blanc sauce for the lobster and finishes the dish with a slaw of apple and celery root, strewn with grated hazelnuts and topped with a wheel of green jalapeño chili. Presentation is more natural than fussy and the judges agree this is a very promising beginning.


Chef Hill

Chef Hill

Chef Hill is up next. He offers slices of seared duck breast in a presentation that looks fairly simple at first glance but in fact is a treasure trove of techniques and subtly used Asian flavours. Yam purée is spiked with miso, star anise, soy and sesame. Threads of the turnip are quickly pickled with rice wine vinegar and a blend of spices. A spoonful of lavender-scented sea-buckthorn gastrique is the colour of a desert sunset and brings the duck to life. An intense stock whipped up from the roasted duck bones and a little chicken stock serves as a second sauce. Hazelnut dust spiked with chili powder provides interesting texture and the dish is finished with a couple of watercress leaves and a trace of watercress oil. Balanced, accomplished… an excellent dish.


Chef Lavallee

Chef Lavallee

Chef Lavallée gives a little whoop of delight when she opens the box and sees lobsters from her home town among the ingredients. She cooks them perfectly (12 minutes then a plunge into ice-cold water), finishes them with a subtle lavender vinaigrette and uses their succulent meat as the crown for a fresh salad of julienned apples, celery root, turnip and watercress. The salad has its own dressing, thickened with the ricotta and cream, lemon, sesame oil and crushed hazelnuts. Crispy pancetta is crumbled over the top of the dish and beside it lies a light, crisp, salt-crusted cracker, baked using quinoa as flour.



Chef McCrowe

Chef McCrowe

Chef McCrowe is our fourth competitor. He has the happy idea of smoking the duck breast – but there is no smoker among the equipment available. So he McGyvers one out of a hotel pan and a handful of maple chips. The breast is juicy, tender and sweetly smoky – and he adds the hazelnuts into the smoker then crumbles them as a delicious garnish. We judges are becoming accustomed to puréed yam by now, but Chef McCrowe sparks his version with apple and smooths it out with miso, butter and sesame oil. For freshness he slices shiitake mushrooms from the pantry, gives them a light pickle and tosses them in a salad with turnip, mint, cilantro and pancetta. He uses the sea-buckthorn berries in the salad’s dressing, adding hazelnuts and a pinch of Asian spices.


Chef Bohati

Chef Bohati

Chef Bohati brings his plates into the judges’ room with the news that he loved the black box ingredients! The judges love the way he has thought outside the box with a dazzlingly creative dish that shows a lovely balance of flavours. He begins by making fresh pasta and uses it to make agnolotti. The filling is a mixture of puréed yam, ricotta and onion, loosened with chicken stock and stirred up with the claw and leg meat from the lobsters that he has lightly poached in a miso beurre blanc, touched by star anise. Morsels of the lobster tail meat nestle in amongst the angnolotti. On top are crisp, julienned apple, chives and watercress and a crumble made from hazlenuts and flecks of crispy duck skin, quickly fried in duck fat rendered down from the carcase. The duck fat also forms one of the fats in a delicate dressing for the apple salad, along with rice wine vinegar and grape seed oil. The final touch is a rich, pungent glaze made from the roasted lobster shells. Such interesting ideas!

Chef Park's sushi

Chef Park’s sushi

Chef Park is the next to strut his stuff. “I call this surf and turf,” he jokes as he escorts the dishes in for judgement. He has made two dishes for us. The first is a bowl of miso soup, studded with sliced mushroom and tiny cubes of the firm ricotta in place of tofu. Minced chives add colour. The second is a tasting of nigiri sushi. There was no sticky sushi rice in the pantry so Chef Park improvised with a mixture of arborio and quinoa – it’s just dense enough to hold its shape as we lift the sushi to our mouths. On top of one nigiri is a very thin slice of duck breast, seared like tataki with salt and pepper and topped with shaved turnip (masquerading as daikon) and radish chimmichuri. The second piece of sushi features the lobster, poached in butter but very rare, and a morsel of raw onion that seems startlingly piquant in such subtle company. Two purées dot the lobster, one of yam, the other of sweet onion and carrot. There are two sauces – a dramatic green stripe of lime and jalapeño mayo down one side of the plate, and a dainty ponzu spiked with lime zest served in a separate saucer. The judges are delighted by such an imaginative creation.

Chef Horne

Chef Horne

Chef Horne is our seventh competitor. He works wonders with the duck breast, roasting it medium rare (so tender and juicy) with a fine lavender-honey glaze like a crispy lacquer. His apple-turnip purée is rich and smooth and the turnip reappears gently pickled as thiny sliced circular cut-outs. Soy-sesame jus is perfectly judged and the apple also does double duty, paired up with sea-buckthorn as a tangy chutney. Quinoa finally takes a major role, some puffed, but also boiled with herbs to let its own complex, grainy-sweet flavour shine. The dish scores highly with the judges.



Chef Garland

Chef Garland

Chef Garland roasts the duck breast rare, scenting it with “warm spices” such as star anise, fennel and cinnamon. He makes a sea-buckthorn gastrique for fruity acidity and a pretty apple and vegetable slaw for a different kind of brightness. His purée features turnip, ricotta and hazelnuts and is flecked with chives – rich, weighty and flavourful. Hazelnut and caramel brittle, scented with rosemary, adds crunch and sweetness and harmonizes effectively with the duck’s spices.

Chef O'Flynn

Chef O’Flynn

Chef O’Flynn’s dish is as pretty as a picture. He has roasted the duck breast, leaving a fringe of fat between the tender meat and the crisp skin. He has also dealt with the lobster, making a confit in butter, fish and chicken stocks, lemon and thyme. A juicy chunk lies against the slice of duck. Spiced yam purée is as sleek as satin while a comma of apple purée offers freshness and innocence. Chef has dealt with the turnip by turning it into perfect balls and poaching them in chicken stock, butter, lemon and cider vinegar. Two little wands of apple lie across the proteins like a bridge and the plate is finished with a duck fat vinagrette flecked with chives and toasted hazelnuts.


Chef Eligh

Chef Eligh

Chef Eligh’s dish is equally accomplished, his roasted duck breast becomingly tender and crisp-skinned. The presentation is tight and very beautiful with a tasty, super-smooth yam purée placed to one side of the meat. Beneath it is a breathtakingly tart sea-buckthorn vinaigrette enriched with bacon and mustard. The turnip has been turned, à la Parisienne, into chickpea-sized spheres and lightly pickled. And Chef has cut plectrums from the Granny Smith apples, letting the fruit’s natural acidity cut the fat of the duck. Wholly unexpected – a finesse from a completely different cuisine – are crisp, nicely salted, shallow-fried onion rings that demand to be eaten with our fingers. As do two perfect watercress leaves laid over all as a final flourish.

Chef Rebello

Chef Rebello

Chef Rebello is the last competitor of the morning. The inspiration for his dish is the Indian tali tray – three separate components on the plate, though all of them use apple. The first is ceviche of chopped lobster, apple, citrus and jalapeño, formed into a little drum and set over a slice of raw Granny Smith. It’s cool, crisp, not too tart – nicely judged. Element number two is a slice of spiced, seared duck breast laid over a dab of yam and ricotta purée and topped with apple cooked with brown sugar, star anise and pepper until they are halfway to being a chutney. The third component is a dessert – a yam and ricotta dumpling fried like a doughnut and tossed in sugar surrounded by candied hazelnuts, candied apple and a curved wand of lavender tuile. It’s a tasting menu in its own right and the judges are pleased.

It’s fascinating to tally the marks at this stage. Unlike other years, no penalties have been imposed. Though the judges felt they had seen too much duck breast and puréed yam, they were also happy to see plenty of variety and imagination on the plates. As each judge’s score is added into the program, we see that the pack has caught up with Chefs O’Flynn and Eligh. Chefs Park, Bohati, Horne and McCrowe have performed particularly well this morning but no one has streaked into a dramatic lead and no one is out of contention. Going into the final stage of the Championship – the Grand Finale – it is still, clearly, anyone’s race.


The Ontario Hostelry Institute Gold Awards 2015

31 Jan

OHI 25th

For 25 years, The Ontario Hostelry Institute has gone about it business under the watchful eye of its revered Chair and President, J. Charles Grieco. The OHI provides recognition, scholarships and bursaries to talented young people in the hospitality industry who might not otherwise be able to afford professional training, and we all benefit from that. One of its tools is the glittering, black-tie fundraising Gala held every April (this year it’s April 23) where the year’s new Gold Award recipients are honoured. It really is the hospitality industry’s equivalent of the Oscars. A list of past winners can be found at Meanwhile, Mr. Grieco has graciously allowed me to name the 2015 winners, chosen by a record number of past gold honorees at a breakfast meeting last Monday.


MITCH KOSTUCH – Chair, Kostuch Media (posthumously)

JOHN ROTHSCHILD – Vice-Chair, Cara Operations

GREY SISSONS – Chairman, Sir Corp.



Foodservice Chain/Group Operator: Pearle Hospitality Group – Aaron Ciancone, Jeff Crump

Independent Restaurateur: Rob Gentile and the King Street Group

Hotelier: Robert Housez – GM, Delta Meadowvale & Conference Centre

Educator: Chef John Higgins – Director & Corporate Chef, The Chef’s School

Media: Claudia Bianchi – Culinary Producer and Food Stylist

Chef: Keith Froggett – Executive Chef, Scaramouche

Supplier: Gordon Food Service – Dean Noble, President

Artisan: Ruth Klahsen – Cheese Maker and Owner, Monforte Dairy

Huge congratulations to one and all!


Pearl Diver

12 Dec
Pearl Diver's fabulous chowdah

Pearl Diver’s fabulous chowdah

I was overseas last summer when Patrick McMurray closed his lovely oyster bed and restaurant, Starfish, after 13 years. Successful years – more book and magazine deals were planned in those horseshoe booths over fruits de mer and frites than anywhere else in Toronto, I’ll wager – but the city’s needs in terms of restaurants have changed since 2001 and Patrick saw that the time had come for a reincarnation. I suspect he had only to glance at his other property, Ceiligh Cottage, to see that a more casual approach, drawing locals several times a week rather than once-a-year treat-seekers, made better financial sense. So Starfish closed. And not long ago, Pearl Diver opened in its place. This time, Patrick has a partner in restaurateur, tableware magnate and general ball of energy, Rudy Guo – and also a sister restaurant in Beijing. Initially, the word was that Pearl Diver would be borrowing all sorts of Asian culinary ideas from the sib but it turns out that is not the case. Let me cut to the chase before this paragraph suddenly ends: Pearl Diver is excellent – a bit more casual than Starfish with better food, loads of charm and considerably less expensive.

Those horseshoe booths are gone. In their place are some pale oak church pews organized into booths and separated by confessional screens (actually fancy radiator grills but perfectly good for whispering secrets through – or, since this is a relatively modern place, you can use the power points and iPhone plug-in points to share them with a wider audience). The private room at the back has been transformed into a much less contemporary space called The Pantry, with a turntable, boxes of classic vinyl and piles of excellent vintage cookbooks stacked high. I foresee it becoming one of the most sought-after party spaces in the city. McMurray has also opened up a smal window from the Pantry into the kitchen behind so you can watch the brigade at work. That’s Milosz (aka Tom) Malycha, the chef and also another partner in the business – or if he’s off on a catering gig, his place is admirably filled by chef Martin Zechel. Malycha has added plenty to the menu, including a fine house burger, chicken kiev, hangar steak and other meaty delights to balance the establishment’s natural marine bias.

Chicken liver and oyster pate. So good!

Chicken liver and oyster pate. So good!

What hasn’t changed, happily, is the presence of McMurray himself as genial host, shucker extraordinaire and eloquent ambassador of all things soft, wet and tasty from the world’s terraqueous marches. The best time to pin him down with a question and settle in for the answer is during the afternoon, when you can buy a dozen PEI oysters for a mere $15 and drinks cost just $5. Honestly, it’s an amazing deal – but so are the $7 appetizers on the regular evening menu. We had a fascinating mousse-like paté of emulsified chicken livers and oysters served in a baby mason jar and finished with a brûléed caramel top like the operculum on some giant periwinkle. The oyster seems to mute the livery taste of the paté then slides in at the end with its own touch of minerality – slyly rich and enhanced by the shards of caramel. It’s served with a bowl of delicate, crunchy pickled vegetables and some hearty brown toast points with almost too much flavour of their own.

Pickled mackerel to dive for

Pickled mackerel to dive for

A starter of pickled mackerel proved equally scrumptious, reminding me of my gran’s North Devon recipe for soused mackerel – white vinegar, white pepper, but just enough to balance out the natural aromatic oils in the thick, firmish slabs of fish without giving it that slightly chalky texture you find in a rollmop herring.

And then there’s the chowdah, already a star on social media – lightweight not thick and goopy (cream, yes, but no roux) and delectably indulgent – full of finely chopped clams and fish, pale onion and potato.

For mains, one can still get a whole lobster, or a whole fish, simply grilled – or the aforementoned hangar steak, cooked briefly with a very high heat so the surface is crunchy and carameized but the meat inside is perfectly pink and tender. I had the only ostensibly Asian dish on the menu – a plump filet of rainbow trout poached in a subtle miso broth with soba noodles, green seaweed and sliced shiitake. Very zen.

Yes, sticky toffee pudding is still on the menu. So is a scrumptious crumble of apple, pear and wild cranberry, served à la mode.

Other reasons to go to Pearl Diver? They have Tawse Chardonay and Gamay on tap, dispensed from a cunning system alongside the beer taps. On Thursday to Saturday from 10:00pm to midnight, they shuck oysters at a remarkable bargain price. Sunday sees a morning brunch with San Francisco-style hangtown fry (oyster omelette) and then a proper roast served family style in the evenings. Also, it’s an Ocean Wise establishment.

But really, here’s the thing… For McMurray to go on serving such excellent food at such scarily low prices he needs to fill Pearl Diver every night. In other words, it is in all of our best interests to go there soon and often. We can hobnob with the nabobs of Canada’s publishing industry (should we so choose) or we can sit up at the bar and listen to Patrick’s addictive blarney and eat dozens and dozens of Galway flats – each one like dipping your head into the cold Atlantic


Pearl Diver is at Starfish’s old location – 100 Adelaide Street East (just west of Jarvis Street). 416 366 7827.


Regina Gold Medal Plates 2014

22 Nov
On the podium in Regina - Silver: Leo Pantel; Gold: Milton Rebello; Bronze: Geoffrey Caswell-Murphy

On the podium in Regina – Silver: Leo Pantel; Gold: Milton Rebello; Bronze: Geoffrey Caswell-Murphy

Regina was the last date for Gold Medal Plates this year and it proved an amazing evening! The event was more than sold out, squeezing in extra tables onto the stage of the Conexus Arts Centre. The crowd was pretty well perfect – merry but attentive, in a mood to buy all our trips with generous abandon, and totally into the athletes and the awesome music from Jim Cuddy, Colin Cripps and violinist Miranda Mulholland. Jenn Heil was our charming and supersmooth MC and Jennifer Botterill was as brilliant as ever as our athlete interviewer. All in all, it was a truly great finale to what has been our best campaign ever.

Last night’s culinary competition was also formidable – Regina is a city that continues to raise the bar higher every year. We judges had our work cut out and tasted some extraordinary dishes. With me at the table were Regina’s Senior Judge, author and broadcaster CJ Katz; Executive Chef of the Provincial Legislature and International culinary competitor, Trent Brears; chef and culinary teacher Thomas Rush; restaurant columnist and broadcaster Aidan Morgan, and last year’s gold-medal-winner, chef Jonathan Thauberger of Crave.

Geoffrey Caswell-Murphy's bison took bronze

Geoffrey Caswell-Murphy’s bison took bronze

Taking the bronze medal was Geoffrey Caswell-Murphy of Double Tree by Hilton with a very elegant and precise presenation. In the foreground of the plate were three slices of perfect bison tenderloin, cooked sous vide, seared and lightly crusted with a coffee and pepper dust. A brush of veal reduction looked like a silk carpet on which stood three separate elements. To the left rose a mound of a rich, intensely flavourful ragout of shredded oyster mushroom and tomato. In the centre, a wafer-thin apple chip stuck up jauntily from a hummock of apple-and-celery-root purée. On the right, a green mound of shredded, subtly wilted spinach was flecked with powdered dried cranberries and moistened with a refined Champagne and goat cheese vinaigrette. Chef’s wine was a fine match for the bison and for the earthier notes of mushroom and celeriac, a blended Shiraz-Cabernet from Saint And Sinner in Oliver, B.C.

Leo Pantel's beef cheek won silver

Leo Pantel’s beef cheek won silver

Loyal GMP supporter Leo Pantel of Conexus Arts Centre won silver on his own turf. His dish was seriously beautiful to look at and offered some very sophisticated flavour harmonies. At its heart was beef cheek, impeccably marinated and braised, the meat divinely rich and succulent. Beside it was a tiny square of blue cheese panna cotta that contained some fragrant powdered chanterelles and showed a pink dot of redcurrant gelee on its surface. The blue cheese and the meat were marvellous together. The beef rested on a pale pillow of puréed seasonal vegetables – celery root, parsnip and potato smoothed with butter and cream. Two sturdy little butternut squash gnocchi added a moment of weight and the dish was finished with some bright yellow mustard blossoms on the beef and an orange-coloured firestick blossom. Chef chose a big wine but it proved to be an excellent match – Mission Hill’s 2009 Quatrain, a rich blend of Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

Milton Rebello's two-bite masterpiece won gold

Milton Rebello’s two-bite masterpiece won gold

And so to the last gold medal of the campaign – awarded unanimously, and by a considerable margin, to a chef who also won gold here two years ago and then went on to win bronze at the Canadian Culinary Championships, Milton Rebello of Wascana Golf & Country Club. To say his dish stood out last night would be a gross understatement. It was one of the most imaginative – and courageous – notions of the year, just two things on the plate, each of which needed to be consumed in a single bite. First, what looked like a tan-coloured puff perched on a rainbow-filled shot glass. “Pop the puff into your mouth give it  couple of chews then do the shooter,” chef instructed. The judges obeyed. The puff was an air tuile made of semolina. Inside it were some flecks of chestnut that had been puréed and then deep fried, seasoned with lemon, chili, coriander and cumin. Also inside was a small finger of warm belly pork, nicely crusted. It was indeed a delightful mouthful, the spices spreading a warm glow across the palate. Then the shooter… Pow! Those spices began to glow as they were hit by salted lemon chili water, pickled apple and a dab of cranberry chutney. It was such an exciting, complex experience – and then it was over and we turned to the second component. Here Chef had taken the same ingredients but used them in completely different ways. The pork was a crisp chicheron, the chestnut had become a dab of mousse, the cranberry chutney had been turned into pearls. The apple reappeared as dainty chips garnished with chili threads. It was similar but quite different – soft flavours, soothing almost, with the greaseless crunch of the chicheron. Chef’s wine match worked remarkably well – Red Rooster’s 2013 Gewurztraminer.

So we now have our line-up for the Canadian Culinary Championship in Kelowna next February, and it’s a list of extraordinary talent: Luc Jean of Jane’s in Winnipeg, Renée Lavallée of The Canteen in Dartmouth, Ryan O’Flynn of The Westin Edmonton in Edmonton, Kristian Eligh of Hawksworth in Vancouver, Antonio Park of Restaurant Park in Montreal, Dave Bohati of Market in Calgary, Chris Hill of the Delta Bessborough in Saskatoon, John Horne of Canoe in Toronto, Mark McCrowe of Aqua in St. John’s, Patrick Garland of Absinthe Café in Ottawa and Milton Rebello of Wascana Golf & Country Club. It’s going to be an amazing competition!


Ottawa-Gatineau Gold Medal Plates 2014

18 Nov
The gold medal dish in Ottawa-Gatineau, from Chef Patrick Garland

The gold medal dish in Ottawa-Gatineau, from Chef Patrick Garland

I believe that on Monday night, Gold Medal Plates staged the best Ottawa-Gatineau event we have ever presented. An essential component was the new venue – the recently opened Ottawa Conference Centre, with its stunning views, gleaming escalators and more-than-generous space. The endless elbow room allowed us to invite 10 chefs and to sell out the event. The mood was amazingly exuberant for a Monday and the guests were rewarded by a brilliant MC job from Jennifer Botterill, an extraordinarily efficient and dynamic auctioneer who was none other than former-Tory-ideologue Stockwell Day, and one of the best concerts I can remember from Jim Cuddy, Colin Cripps and Anne Lindsay. Just the three of them – but that seemed to concentrate the quality: songs were longer and more intense, giving Annie and Colin more opportunity to scale Himalayan heights on their solos. The audience was left breathless, standing, applauding, hollering, and feeling like we were 18 again.

Meanwhile, food and wine (and beer) were also on offer! Judging the dishes in one of Canada’s burgeoning gastronomic centres is always going to be tough. I was lucky to be joined by some world-class palates, led by Ottawa-Gatineau Senior Judge, author, editor and restaurant critic, Anne DesBrisay. Also on the hugely qualified team was author and tv star, Canada’s culinary ambassador, Margaret Dickenson; author, food stylist, teacher and culinary columnist, Pam Collacott; culinary guru and owner of Thyme and Again Creative Catering, Sheila Whyte; chef for our Parliament buildings and all who eat therein, Culinary Olympian and Chairman of the Canadian Culinary Federation, Jud Simpson; and, of course, last year’s gold medal winner, Chef Marysol Foucault. In previous years, for reasons of space, we have judged in camera; last night we were raised on a dais in the centre of the room, as we judges are in other cities. Such exposure was not to everyone’s taste – but all judges rose gallantly to the occasion.

The bronze dish in Ottawa - so delicious!

The bronze dish in Ottawa – so delicious!

We gave the bronze to John Morris, chef of Le Café at the National Arts Centre, our erstwhile GMP venue. He presented a superbly tender filet of Alberta veal, crusted with sweetbreads that had been dusted with chickpea flour and pan-seared then turned into a sort of farce to cradle the pink filet. A sprinkling of salt crystals brought out the flavour. Next to the slices of meat was a gorgeous, peeled, smoked, poached tomato stuffed with mussels and tarragon pesto. Oh My God, so juicy! A chewy black olive lace tuile provided visual and textural contrast while two sauces brought their own considerable talents to the party. A mussel broth had been reduced from the poaching liquid for the mussels that lurked like Homeric guerillas inside the tomato. A butter sauce was further enriched by the marrow from the veal bones while small green dots on the plate turned out to be tarragon jelly. It was a rich, intelligent compilation, nicely matched with the tangy, grapefruitty 2013 Dragonfly Pinot Grigio from Pondview Estates in Niagara.

Silver... Simple but pretty much perfect!

Silver… Simple but pretty much perfect!

Stephen Wall of Supply and Demand won the silver medal. His dish was a picture of elegant simplicity. Begin with impeccable raw beef tenderloin, aged for two months and sliced, raw, so thinly you could read the headlines of a newspaper through it. Then take some smoked oysters and purée them into a mayonnaise; dab some half-teaspoonsfuls of same here and there on the beef. Bring in something the judges had never encountered before in all their long, attentive lives – the unopened flower buds of the elder tree, tiny as green peppercons, and then pickled like capers so they were tangy and sharp and salty but still possessed of the indelible flavour-DNA of the elder god. Spoon on some petals of pickled baby white onion and drizzle on an amount of oil to balance and mute the acid on the onions. Garnish wth soft, vegetal sprouts of sorrel, mache and chervil… Yes, it’s an uncomplicated dish – but that makes perfection of execution all the more important. Chef Wall did it, and paired his dish with a herbacious, tart 2013 Sauvignon Blanc from Redstone Winery on Niagara’s Twenty Mile bench. Yum.

Buit it didn’t quite trounce our gold medal winner, Patrick Garland from Absinthe Café. His protein was quail,  the tender breast enriched with foie gras like an invisible layer of fat beneath the soft, delicious skin. The quail leg was braised, the meat pulled and turned into a lightly breaded croquette – so crisp on the surface, so moist and unctuous within. To accompany and flatter the wee birds into their gastronomic afterlife, Chef chose a litle pickled onion to counteract the sweetness, and some teeny-weeny battered, deep-fried shallot rings, smaller than a fairy’s hoola-hoop. There were cinnamon cap mushrooms on the plate, and some delicately confited, peeled Concorde grapes, and small mounds of clear pink jelly that tasted just like the grapes… But the master stroke was the sauce – a classic jus from the quail carcases enriched with many bottles of Chef’s chosen wine, reduced to something heavenly. That wine? Tawse 2013 Quarry Road Vineyard Gewurztraminer, aromatic, rich, but fit and muscular, aristocratic, a hell of a wine.

So we have our Ottawa-Gatineau gold medalist. I’ve been keeping track. On Friday we will be in Regina to close off this stage of the regional campaign, to gather our strengths for Kelowna in February, where I’ll be doing my best to come up with tests that will challenge the talents and nimble minds of the champions from all our Canadian cities. If you want to be the Canadian Culinary Champion, you have to earn the privilege!
















Gold Medal Plates St. John’s 2014

16 Nov
On the podium in St. John's: left to right, silver medalist, Chris Chafe; gold medalist, Mark McCrowe, bronze medalist, Shaun Hussey.

On the podium in St. John’s: left to right, silver medalist, Chris Chafe; gold medalist, Mark McCrowe, bronze medalist, Shaun Hussey.

What an excellent evening in St. John’s! While the Conference Centre is under construction, we availed ourselves of the Delta hotel’s ballrooms, packing a typically hospitable, great-hearted and energetic crowd of almost 400 into the space. It was a super event, with the great Ron Maclean as MC (is there anything he doesn’t know about sports and Canada’s athletes?) and rocking music from Jim Cuddy, Neil Osborne, Anne Lindsay and Ed Robertson (who later went down to Water Street and thrilled a local cover band by playing with them for half a set). The chefs were all pumped and eager and their dishes delighted the judges – St. John’s Senior Judge, author, journalist and broadcaster Karl Wells;  chef and educator Bob Arniel of Chef to Go (who cooked me an absolutely dazzling birthday lunch before the competition); food writer and blogger for the Independent, Nicholas Gardner; gastronome and food columnist with The Telegram, Cynthia Stone; home economist and international trade professional, Deborah Youden; chef, caterer and restaurant critic, Peter Gard; and last year’s gold-medal-winning chef, Roger Andrews. It turned out to be an enthralling contest, with all judges agreeing on the top three chefs, though in various permutations of order. In the end, the final conclusion satisfied us all completely.

Shaun Hussey's dish won bronze

Shaun Hussey’s dish won bronze

We gave the bronze medal to Shaun Hussey of Chinched, who won the gold a couple of years ago. Last night he gave us a tremendous dish that he called “An Unlikely Trio of Pork with Seasonal Flavours.” It starred parts of a local sucking pig, beginning with a thick slice of corned and smoked tongue – the tenderest tongue some of the judges had ever eaten. Running close to it in terms of divine textures was a thickly cut slice of lean bacon with a forthright smokiness; but eclisping both these treats was a round of tender trotter stuffed with spongey boudin blanc. The technical tour de force continued with crispy little “chips” of deep-fried ear, scented with truffle, and an unctuous pork bone reduction. It was a night for puréed root vegetables and Chef Hussey gave us a silky parsnip version, strewn with micro-planed truffles, creating an aromatic atmosphere that seemed to hover over the plate. For acidity, he brought in marshberries, a local berry that looks like a blueish cranberry and tastes very similar. Some had been turned into a purée and with that chef painted a broad purple stripe across the plate; others had been deliberately picked in a tart, unripe state and were included whole for a jab of tanginess among all the other smooth, rich flavours. The final touches were a trickle of green parsley oil and a spoonful of a thick apricot and orange marmalade that worked well with the pork and with Chef’s chosen wine, a complex, intense 2011 Merlot called La Droite from Rollingdale Winery in West Kelowna, B.C., that also reached out to the parsnip on the plate.

Chris Chafe took silver

Chris Chafe took silver

Chris Chafe of The Doctor’s House Inn and Spa won our silver medal. About an hour from St. John’s, this property includes 100 acres of gardens and trails that provided the inspiration for Chef’s dish. “We started with apples from the property and berries from Trinity Bay,” he explained, “then thought of a way of showing them off.” The answer was a medley of duck charcuterie, each element beautifully seasoned and texturally distinct. At the top of the plate was a duck liver paté with the texture of a stiff mousseline and a suave, not-too-funky flavour, topped with a little walnut granola and a tiny amount of an intense raspberry compote. Rich moist rillettes of the duck leg were scented with fresh thyme, rolled into a ball and deep-fried to perfect crispness. A ribbon of ethereal duck breast prosciutto was draped over a firm seed-crisp cracker (there were a couple more of these useful and delicious biscuits for eating the paté, too) and a mound of apple-poached mustard seeds were available for spicing things up. The berries were present in various guises – as a partridgeberry paint on the plate or a bakeapple gastrique, and as colourful dots of various coulis – while the tissue-thin slices of lightly pickled apple threatened to steal the entire show. Chef’s wine was the fruity, mellow 2012 Pinot Noir from Meyer Family Vineyards in the Okanagan.

Mark McCrowe's "Moose and Juice" won the gold

Mark McCrowe’s “Moose and Juice” won the gold

Mark McCrowe won the gold medal, to the great delight of the crowd and of his fellow chefs. Chef McCrowe has competed every year in St. John’s and has reached the podium before, but this is his first gold medal. His dish was quintessentially, delectably Newfoundland – “Moose and Juice,” he called it – and as the plates were brought in to the judges (we worked in camera last night) chef followed with a hand-held smokemaker that spread a haze of pine into the room. On the plate, the central protein was a pink and tender slice of charcoal-grilled moose loin sprinkled with a sugestion of chanterelle dust. Chef had braised and pulled the shank into a dark, rich ragout which he set on a thick pillar of “Nan’s” lightly toasted white yeast bread. The bread soaked up some of the meaty juices in a most engaging way! Because the moose meat was so lean, he also involved some fatback scrunchions (like tiny lardons of salted pork belly) to round out taste and texture. Vegetables reflected time and place perfectly – roasted roots with deep, sweet, earthy flavours, and a delicate turnip purée. Whole pickled blueberries and partridgeberries lurked about the plate, bursting into tangy juice in one’s mouth; garnishes included a moment of bakeapple syrup and a hank of crispy caribou moss for texture. And then there was the “Juice” – actually the moose jus, profound but not overly reduced, scented with the low-growing local shrub known as Labrador tea. Chef’s choice of wine was inspired, picking up the berry and vegetable components of the dish without threatening to overwhelm the subtle meat: the rarely seen 2013 Zweigelt from Norman Hardie’s Winery in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Congratulations to Chef McCrowe and to all the chefs who performed so brilliantly here. No doubt about it, St. John’s is one of the gastronomic hubs of Canada these days! Only two more parties to go. Ottawa-Gatineau, here we come!


And now, here is the Wine Report – St. John’s, penned by Senior Judge Karl Wells who announced the winning wines from the stage in David Lawrason’s absence.
Rollingdale Rolls to Victory
The outstanding 2011 Merlot “La Droite” by Rollingdale Winery of West Kelowna, BC has scored a victory as Best of Show Wine at Gold Medal Plates St. John’s 2014. Merlot “La Droite” is a full bodied blend of late harvested Merlot from the south Okanagan, slightly younger Merlot from the Similkameen and a small amount of Black Sage Rd. Cabernet Sauvignon. It made a delicious pairing with Chinched Bistro Chef Shaun Hussey’s Bronze winning plate of suckling pig charcuterie.
First Runner-Up Award at the St. John’s event went to the 2010 Red Paw Pinot Noir from Coyote’s Run Estate Winery of Ontario. The popular cherry scented Pinot Noir has been the St. John’s first runner up for two years in a row.
Second Runner-Up Award went to the smartly balanced 2010 Pinot Noir from Meyer Family Vineyards, BC.
The Best of Show Wine judging takes place in all Gold Medal Plates cities and is meant to recognize and salute the generosity of the 60 plus wineries in Canada that donate wine to Gold Medal Plates.
Our St. John’s event wines were judged this year by an outstanding group of individuals. Tom Beckett of Beckett on Wine is a wine educator, Steve Delaney is the Telegram’s wine critic and member of the board of the Opimium Society, and Andrew Facey is a sommelier and Senior Product Knowledge Consultant with the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation.
Wines that made the culinary podium this year included:
Gold: Chef Mark McCrowe, Aqua, paired with Zweigelt 2013, Norman Hardy Winery, Ontario
Silver: Chef Chris Chafe, The Doctor’s House, paired with Pinot Noir 2012, Meyer Family Vineyards, BC
Bronze: Chef Shaun Hussey, Chinched Bistro, paired with the Best of Show Wine, Merlot “La Droite”, Rollingdale Winery, BC
Special thanks once again this year to Andrew Peller Limited, Gold Medal Plates National Celebration Wine Sponsor for providing the always enjoyable Trius Brut!




Toronto Gold Medal Plates 2014

14 Nov


There they are!! Left to right, silver: Damon Campbell, the Shangi-La; gold: John Horne, Canoe; bronze, Jason Bangerter, Langdon hall.

There they are!! Left to right, silver: Damon Campbell, the Shangi-La; gold: John Horne, Canoe; bronze, Jason Bangerter, Langdon hall.

We are really on a roll now. The Toronto gala was a triumph in every department with an enthusiastic multitude of 770 guests thoroughly involved with the event. Awesome silent auction? Check! Innumerable trips auctioned? Check! Inspiring Olympians? (Like it was ancient Greece!) Food, wine, cocktail excellence? Need you ask? Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were our delightful emcees and the all-star line-up of musicians performed superbly – thanks, Jim Cuddy, Ed Robertson, Barney Bentall, Neil Osborne, Colin Cripps, Danny Michel and Anne Lindsay! Many thanks are also due to our team of judges in Toronto: Senior Judge, food writer, editor and leading light of The Walrus, Sasha Chapman; author and Canada’s greatest culinary activist, Anita Stewart; celebrity chef and actual chef, Christine Cushing; chef instructor and the mind behind George Brown College’s culinary program, chef John Higgins; and last year’s gold medal winner and Canadian Culinary Champion, Lorenzo Loseto. Sitting together and reviewing the dishes to come, we all agreed that it may very well have been the strongest line-up of Toronto chefs we have ever assembled.

Jason Bangerter's bronze dish (thanks, Ron Ng, for all the pics)

Jason Bangerter’s bronze dish (thanks, Ron Ng, for all the pics)

Our bronze medal went to Jason Bangerter of Langdon Hall. His team had created an extraordinary station covered in living mosses and mushrooms, with turf on the ground and stone pillars – it even smelt like a forest. Chef’s dish was equally arresting. It looked dainty and elegant on the plate, small amounts of many elements carefully set out, but with the surreal off-centrepiece of a quail’s leg standing vertically, its tiny claws curled, (almost as if it were giving the judges the talon?). Beside it lay a cylindrical slice of sausage wrapped in quail skin – both the leg and the sausage had been glazed to a golden patina with a glossy reduction of game birds. The birds themselves had been turned into the sausage that stuffed the cylinder and the leg beneath that other-worldly claw – quail, squab, partridge and duck, all of them lightly and sweetly smoked in the Japanese manner with sugar, salt, rice, herbs and flowers rather than wood. And, we discovered, those miniaturist accompaniments were possessed of flavours far beyond their size. A herb-spiked celeriac purée was the Platonic ideal of all celeriac purées. Half a blackberry had been coached to become the quintessential representation of its species. A pink dust made from berries and wildflowers was heady with flavour and Chef had even drawn perosnality from the morsel of lichen on the plate (caribou moss is interesting but it doesn’t taste of anything unless you are a savvy seasoner). In short, and despite appearance, there was an awful lot going on. His choice of wine, Leaning Post’s 2010 Pinot Noir, picked up the smoke and berries on the dish in a most satisfactory way.


Damon Campbell, silver, perfect lobster

Damon Campbell, silver, perfect lobster


We awarded our silver medal to Damon Campbell, executive chef of the Shangri-La hotel. His dish was as pretty as a picture and technically flawless; it also tasted wonderful. Curling around the side of the plate was a wedding-braid of ingredients. Morsels of butter-poached lobster (their texture impeccable – juicy, rare but still flavourful) were the big protein, but this was a symphony, not a concerto. Equally important were the perfect little potato gnocchi underneath, flavoured with wild mushrooms and light as nubbins of mousse, and the crispy rice crackers perched on top that were scrunchily dusted with surprisingly sweet and intense tomato powder. Chef shaved nickel-sized petals of black truffle over these treats and scattered edible flowers and micro-herbs. The secret ingredient was a brunoise of tomato, its sweet tang lifting other flavours like Atom Ant lifting a car. Chef finished the dish at our table, syphoning on an aerated lobster emulsion, like a bisque “whipped until peaks form.” It was a fascinating dish – charming and perfectly balanced with all flavours bright and true. For a wine, Chef chose Southbrook Vineyards 2011 “Poetica” Chardonnay, a classic lobster match that showed the worth of conventional wisdom.

Eat the national emblem... Gold for John Horne!

Eat the national emblem… Gold for John Horne!

Damon Campbell’s dish would certainly have taken gold if it weren’t for the last offering the judges tasted, from John Horne of Canoe. It was one of the most extraordinary things we’ve ever been offered at Gold Medal Plates, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. In essence, it was beef short rib with tree syrups – simple as that – but the flavours and the execution and the thinking behind it continue to resonate. To begin with, the Grandview Farms short rib was perfectly cooked – sous vide at 68 C for 72 hours – then cut into 1-inch cubes of tender flesh and glazed with different tree syrups – birch, maple, sumac, cedar and juniper – giving each little block of succulent meat its own sweet, tangy identity. One of them was perched on the end of a broad, roasted beef rib bone, just for the sheer drama and fun of it. Two small moments of parsnip purée on the plate lent a sweet, earthy, perfumed component and parsnip recurred as a crispy ribbon, showing the textural yin and yang of which this root is capable. Christmassy cedar fronds lent visual interest, nonchalantly breaking the old rule that everything on the plate should be edible. And then there was the maple leaf, a green one, the size of a child’s hand, marinated for a very long time in cider and then flash-fried, leaving it crisp and translucent. I have never eaten a maple leaf before. It was only very slightly resinous, not tangy or in any way mentholic. Indeed, its flavour was incidental when compared with the symbolically adventurous, unique and patriotic act of eating a maple leaf. Chef’s wine was a good match for the beef, the 2012 Iconoclast Syrah from Creekside Estate in Niagara.

Bravo, Chef… Bravo and Brava Chefs! It was an amazing evening, and I regret that only one of you can come to Kelowna. Tomorrow, St. John’s!


And now here is David Lawrason’s accompanying wine report:

Once again this year the wineries of Ontario stepped up to the plate and uncorked their big guns at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for the Toronto running of Gold Medal Plates. It was the highest quality level from bottle to bottle I have seen in the country this year, making the judging of the Best of Show Award rather tough. But when each judge ranked their top five, the same five wines showed up. It was then the ordering that became difficult, and only two points separated first and second place.

The Best of Show Wine Award is a judging of all the wines in each city to recognize the generosity of the Canadian wine industry, which each year counts over 60 wineries as donors.

The winner this night was Norman Hardie 2011 Niagara Pinot Noir, a light, wonderfully aromatic pinot of uncommon finesse.  Mr. Hardie has been a great supporter of Gold Medal Plates over the years, indeed even contributing enough wine to Canadian Culinary Championship in Kelowna in 2012 to serve over 300 people for two hours.

The first runner-up position went to the Hidden Bench 2012 Nuits Blanche, a deft barrel-aged blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon that in my mind is one of the great whites of Canada – indeed an earlier vintage did capture White Wine of the Year honours at the Canadian Wine Awards.

The second runner-up was Creekside’s 2012 Iconoclast Syrah, a finely balanced, ripe syrah by winemaker Rob Power, that bridges northern Rhone and Australian sensibilities. And as it happened this wine also won the day at the podium with gold medal chef John Horne, who matched it to his amazing shortribs glazed with tree syrups. This earns Creekside a spot with Chef Horne at the CCC in Kelowna in 2015.

Other wines to reach the podium included Southbrook’s suave and complex chardonnay paired with a seamless lobster and gnocchi plate by silver medal winning chef Damon Campbell of the Shangri-la Hotel, and Leaning Post 2010 Pinot Noir matched to herb smoked game fowl by bronze chef Jason Bangerter from Langdon Hall.  From a renovated barn near Winona, Leaning Post winemaker IIlya Senchuk is specializing in single vineyard sub-appellation wines.

For the judging I was joined by two close friends and colleagues from  Sara d’Amato is an accomplished sommelier, writer and educator and the only woman to have won the Toronto International Blind Wine Tasting Challenge. She is also a judge at the National Wine Awards of Canada.  Michael Godel is also a WineAlign reviewer, a former chef himself, a blogger on wine at and wine director at Barque Steak House.

This night, Peller Estates came up big at the Celebration, donating their off-dry Ice Cuvee Rose to match with the dessert, as well as a well-balanced 2013 Private Reserve Chardonnay and 2013 Baco Noir.  Ice Cuvee has been poured across the country in celebration of Peller Estates Niagara’s big win as Winery of the Year at the 2014 National Wine Awards of Canada.

And what were the other wines that made our job so difficult?  Well among the whites the rich, maturing Stratus 2010 White and Rosewood’s opulent 2010 Origin Chardonnay.  Among reds we enjoyed 13th Street 2012 Gamay and a tiny two-barrel lot of The Farm 2012 Pinot Noir from the Neufeld family. And Rosewood very generously doubled up this year with its 4th-place-finishing 2012 Origin Cabernet Franc.

Many thanks to all participating wineries that made GMP Toronto one of the great shows of the tour.