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, 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.


Toronto Distillery Co. Batch No. 1

02 Feb

toronto whisky

Just before Christmas, a man came to my door. He had the most splendid, waxed and curled, Dali-esque moustachios I have ever seen, was impeccably dressed, and he handed me a half-bottle (375 mL – 50% abv) of “Ontario organic grain spirit.” It was Batch No. 1 from the newly founded Toronto Distillery Co. and all he asked was that I taste it and, if I saw fit, write about it in my blog. Prominent on the label was the information that this was distilled from pure Ontario wheat. I looked up to ask him about that but he was gone. My porch was empty.

            Now weeks have gone by. I have watched the level of liquid slowly go down in the little jug-shaped bottle. Yes, I have had a hand in that particular process. I’ve been trying to think of what to call this disarming spirit. Nowhere on the label does it mention the word “whisky.” I have heard it referred to as moonshine – or as “gentleman’s hooch” – but I have taken to calling it whisky. What I love most about it is the way it honours the grain from which it was made.

            Often over the years, I have visited important distilleries in Scotland and Ireland and asked about the barley that went into the maltings, hoping for long disquisitions on local farming and particular heritage varieties, only to be frowned at and hear the question dismissed. Perhaps the purpose of that year’s media invitation was to write about oak casks, or peating, or the peculiar shape of the beloved pot still, or the number of times the spirit was distilled – anything but the grain itself. Which always led me to believe that what arrived in those dusty sacks (or in the vast mobile hopper, more likely) was almost incidental. Ditto the water used to make the wort or to dilute the spirit from cask strength to something they could sell more readily in the bottle. Sure, the distillery is in Brigadoon – or in Tir Nan Og itself – but when the bottling is done in a Glasgow suburb and regular Glasgow water is being used to dilute the spirit down to 40%, the whole “pure local highland sun-kissed granite-filtered sporren-blessed water” thing is best left unmentioned. The truth is not going to resonate with denizens of the Romantic Republic of Whisky.

            I don’t mean to sound cynical. Marketing anything is hard work – even something with as vivid a natural back story as whisky. I guess where this is leading is that it’s a treat to come across a product that doesn’t really have a built-in angle. The Toronto Distillery Co.’s first product is what it is – a pure spirit from the first new distillery in the neighbourhood since 1933. Taste it. See what you think. Some will love it; others will hate it. I don’t think shrugging indifference is ever going to be the response to this white wheat whisky: it has far too much character to engender nonchalance.

            Let me say now, I think it’s excellent. I have drunk a great many amateur spirits in my time, from the poteen we bought in milk bottles from a farmer that teenaged summer beside Lough Corib, that we ended up using to light the fire in the chilly morning because we were afraid it would make us blind or dissolve our insides, to some sublime grappas distilled by more careful unlicensed artisans in Venezia Giulia. More recently, I’ve been disappointed by “white whiskies” made in North America, mostly because they are really just so-so, wood-aged whiskies radically filtered to strip out all their colour - a process which also takes out most complexities of aroma and taste.

            Quick refresher: just because a spirit is colourless doesn’t mean it’s characterless. Vodka is so ghostly because it has been distilled umpteen times in a continuous still and then filtered umpteen times more. Gin isn’t like that. Neither is whisky straight from the still, if it’s a cantankerous and inefficient old pot still that hasn’t done a very good job of purifying the alcohol, that has included all sorts of extremely complex aromatic molecules derived from the fermented grain, and sent them through the condenser. Why, friends, that colourless liquid will be as perfumed and as flavoursome as eau de Cologne – and all those aromatics come from the grain in the mash bill and the yeasts that fermented it. But especially the grain.

            The two guys who operate the Toronto Distillery Co., both 31-year-old Toronto lawyers, one called Charles Benoit, the other Jesse Razaqpur, both amateurs in the best sense of the word, understand this. Because they weren’t prepared to wait a decade for their nascent spirit to mature in oak, it was imperative that they found some good honest grain to ferment and distil. They said no to barley and rye and corn, the usual grains for the making of whisky, and instead chose to work with organic local winter wheat, grown by Mike and Bonnie O’Hara on their farm in Schomberg, Ont., less than an hour north of Toronto. The assurance is that Batch No. 2 will be made from a different cereal and so will be vastly different. I fully expect it to be so and I can’t wait to try it.

            But meanwhile we have this one – available at the LCBO, I might add, for $39.50. I’m just pouring the last of the bottle into my glass as I type. By now I know what to expect. I still think it deserves to be called whisky – though moonshine is a more beautiful word. Perhaps someone versant in the languages of the agricultural first peoples of this continent could find a name that means the bountiful personality of the life-giving grain. Though, come to think of it, I don’t believe wheat is native to North America. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

            What does it taste like? I prefer it neat, even at 50%. It smells pungently granular, like a prairie silo after harvest, with touches of ripe, malty sweetness impinging, and a hint of flowers. But the taste!? Wheat has a sharp, bitter edge to it compared with the easy-going, half-wit-smiling sweetness of corn or the spicy, tight-lipped sarcasm of rye or the fruity chuckle of malted barley. Expect pepper and fennel and a whiff of lemon peel. A sudden glimpse of the heart of darkness. But it’s gone in a flash because this is pure spirit and without the sumptuous velvet and silk robes that long aging in oak imparts to the flavour and which linger on the palate, sometimes for hours, the effect of this whisky is momentary. Ariel rather than Caliban. Not so much a spirit as a sprite, naked and off about its business before you can blink.

            And now the jug is empty.



Saskatoon Chefs’ Gala

01 Feb

This is how they do it on the Prairies, my friend.

Saskatoon goodfellas… shared by my goomba, Anthony “Big Tony” McCarthy.

Check it out!

February 15th – the day after the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.

If I were you, I would be there…


A new chef at Langdon Hall

30 Jan
Albacore and carrot - an extraordinary presentation

Albacore and carrot – an extraordinary presentation


How cold was it at Langdon Hall this week? Not quite cold enough to keep my wife off the little skating rink they have flooded on the basketball court. I watched her do her elegant thing for a while until the wind chill drove us indoors to the soothing heat of the spa. Not cold enough, either, to keep the heroic construction crew from their ongoing outdoor work expanding the dining room and kitchen. Some beneficent sprite must have blessed the infant Jason Bangerter at his christening with a particularly chefly gift – that whenever he took on a new job, the owners would give him a new kitchen in which to play. It happened at Auberge du Pommier and then again at Luma. Now at Langdon Hall he will have 50 percent more space in which to perform his art than Jonathan Gushue ever did, along with the very latest generation of induction stoves. If he now seems as quietly excited as a well-mannered kid in a candy store, just wait until the summer when he gets his hands on the produce from the garden and the wild things from the woods…

            But his good fortune is also ours, of course – as we tasted on Tuesday night. It was a busy evening for Chef and his brigade – the first Wine Maker Dinner was also taking place in a private dining room, organized by the hotel’s new General Manager, Christophe le Chatton. Langdon Hall has three stellar sommeliers (known as the three musketeers). Le Chatton must be their D’Artagnan, then, for he, in his day, was Toronto’s finest. Langdon’s lead sommelier, Katy moore, was kind enough to invite us to the dinner (a spectacular array of Domaine Faiveley Burgundies with five courses and no doubt innumerable intermezzi) but we were determined to see what Bangerter was up to on the à la carte, so we ate in the main dining room with its views of the nocturnal garden (fairy lights glinting from the snow) and of the new 30-seat extension, where the steps down to the lawn used to be. We ordered conservatively, but many other little sample dishes were sent out. They spoil you rotten at Langdon Hall.

            So we shared a lobster salad – perfectly timed pieces of tail and claw, juicy and quivering but poached long enough to taste of lobster without losing any of their natural tenderness. There were cubes of firm lobster-court-bouillon jelly and a streak of pink lobster roe across the plate. Chef had chosen leek as the crustacean’s date for the night – leek turned into crisp tempura wands, into moistly poached, crunchy little drums, into drops of silky purée, even into a dusting of pleasantly bitter leek ash. Garnished with fennel fronds, the whole plate looked like a Joan Miro painting and was gone in a trice.

            Wendy started with slices of marinated albacore tuna (see above) that came close to the textural place where fish becomes meaty but kept their discreet marine flavour. Carrots were the supporting cast this time – bias-cut coins, shaved ribbons, some lightly pickled, others roasted to tenderness, still others minced into a brunoise and turned into a sweet-tart relish. As a sort of dressing, a ginger and perilla purée brought in a fresh spectrum of flavours. The presentation reminded me of a display cabinet at the Pitt-Rivers museum – comprehensive, dramatic, surreal… Charles Baker’s 2011 Ivan vineyard riesling was brilliant with it.

            My appetizer was billed as a toasted barley and sweet onion pudding – a rich, rustic Canadian cousin to a risotto with moist strands of duck confit stirred in. It was topped with generous hunks of melt-in-the-mouth pan-seared foie gras and startled by moments of tart preserved wild strawberry around the plate. Softly fried sage leaves brought a vegetal note and the Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2009 Gewurztraminer caressed the dish like a louche and loving courtesan.

            “You must try this,” said Chef, as a dish of Humboldt squid appeared. One can only imagine the size of the creature in life! He had cut its body into cubes fully an inch and a half across, some poached, others battered and fried. How do you flatter a Humboldt squid? With a hank of the crunchy green lichen they’re calling “caribou moss” and a tangerine aïoli and some dabs of sea buckthorn for acidity, and a sauce of squid ink that was as black as the squid itself was white.

            Are you getting the picture? I was strongly reminded of the way Bangerter used to cook at Auberge, where his European, Mosimann-trained roots were always showing. He’s Canadian, lives in Milton, started out with John Higgins at the King Edward hotel in Toronto, but spent three or four very formative years on the other side of the water. His food these days is so refined – not as ethereal as Jonathan Gushue’s, but discreetly substantial and with all sorts of subtle surprises.

            Wendy had ling cod as a main course, the fish bronzed and parting into moist petals. A bed of lentils provided bottom (as we English say), and salsify appeared three ways, as crisp ribbons, as a soft purée and as oiled and roasted chips. A parsnip-vanilla jus linked all the flavours together and an unexpectedly firm, crunchy white cippolino onion, masquerading as a baby turnip, also made a contribution. Our sommelier chose Vasse Felix 2011 chardonnay from Margaret River as a complement.

            Me, I had the venison – two cylinders of tenderloin that showed all the gradations from seared surface to a rare ruby-coloured heart. There was a spicy confit of red cabbage turned into a purée, big blocks of butternut squash scented with pine from the property, some delicate Brussels sprout leaves and a peppercorn-game jus by way of a sauce. La Spinetta’s 2009 “Pin,” a blend of sangiovese and montepulciano, hit just the right note.

            Langdon’s ace pastry chef, Sarah Villamere, departed with Jonathan Gushue, leaving big shoes to fill. Rachel Nicholson seems up to the task. She made a stiff custard of citrus and coconut milk and encased it in a square of saffron-coriander gelée, topped with a gossamer ricepaper tuille.

            It only remained to polish off a confection of picobello cheese that had been transformed into custard, then torched and served over crumbled chicken skin and huckleberry compote, and we were ready for bed.

            I’ve seen many chefs come and go at Langdon Hall in the 25 years since it has been open. Jason Bangerter certainly belongs in their (mostly) mighty company. He is having enormous fun, working wickedly hard and is filled with excitement at the possibilities that await him in the months to come.




The Wisdom of Alfonso X

03 Jan

trovadorThank you, King Alfonso X, “El Sabio” indeed, for these words of wisdom.

Thank you, Joseph, for sharing them with me.

Quemad viejos leños, leed viejos libros, bebed viejos vinos, tened viejos amigos.

Burn old logs, read old books, drink old wines, hold onto old friends.


A happy New Year to all our readers.






The Carbon Bar

22 Dec
The Carbon Bar - image taken from the place's web site

The Carbon Bar – image taken from the place’s web site



It was a bittersweet week for those of us who love the Toronto restaurant scene. First the bitter. Two of our most accomplished and professional restaurateurs are leaving the business. The great Georges Gurnon has sold Pastis Express. He was already a legend in the 1970s as the star maitre d’ of Noodles and the Windsor Arms; he was adored as the host of the suave and sophisticated Le Bistingo on Queen West (1985-1995), which he co-owned with chef Claude Bouillet; he brought enormous class to Acrobat Bis and Avalon then opened Pastis in 1997, charming Rosedale ever since. I had a fine dinner there this week and I am grateful to have had the chance to shake his hand again.

            Our other great loss is Simon Bower, who is leaving his place Olde Towne Oyster Bar in mid- to late January. Simon was a waiter at Beaujolais when I first started writing about Toronto’s restaurants. After that he was the owner of Bowers and managed Santa Fe but we got pally in the 1990s when he opened the dashing Mercer Street Grill in a car park where the hotel Le Germain now stands. No one could sell a dish like the silver-tongued Bower – though it wasn’t hard to do when Renèe Foote was at the stoves. Then there was YYZ and then Lucien, which morphed recently into Olde Towne. We had a splendid lunch there on Thursday, the place packed. I shall miss listening to Simon talk about food.

            And the sweet side of the week? The Carbon Bar has opened and it’s absolutely brilliant. This is the long-awaited new project from the Nota Bene ownership team of Yannick Bigourdan, David Lee and Franco Prevedello. They have been talking about it for two years, renovating for a year and a half (“everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong,” says Bigourdan) but it is worth the wait. The space is a vast cube with a ceiling two storeys high, massive girders and painted brick walls. Most of the visual design takes place high above customers’ heads – white spheres of light connected to the ceiling on pantographs, glossy wood panelling mounted off, not on the walls, and several clever references to the previous occupants of the place – disco mirror-balls and a white neon word – ELECTRIC – from its days as a nightclub called Electric Circus, stage spotlights and a banner reading Baby Blue to remind everyone of the soft porn Saturday night movies fledgling City TV used to broadcast from this address, and a shelf of Donald Ducks as a homage to its most recent incarnation as a Disney rehearsal studio.

            I love the grown-up mood of the 104-seat room. The brasserie-style booths in dark red leather and the glossy dark wooden millwork are most convivial. You can see everything from anywhere in the dining room and while there is music playing, it’s not loud enough to drown out normal conversation. Bigourdan has opened with an army of very well-trained servers and food runners who know their business and are sincerely enthusiastic about the food. This is how “casual” can be done by true professionals and I imagine it will prove enormously popular. Prices are democratic, the ambience will suit hipsters, fashion vicitms, plutocrats in sport shirts, celebrities and even regular folks like you and me. The wine list is small but interesting. The house cocktails are imaginative but not too precious. Above all, David Lee’s food here is a revelation.

            At its heart is barbecue. Lee has always been into barbecue. Ten years ago, when he was chef-co-owner at Splendido, he developed an obsession about cooking brisket in his Green Egg. As research for the Carbon Bar, he made innumerable trips south to check out the various possibilities before deciding that Texas-style was his preference. Then he went back down there with his team of cooks, standing in line for hours to get the ribs at some renowned establishment, sussing it all out.

            The results can be best appreciated by ordering the Pit Master Platter ($29) containing pork ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork ssäm, smoked turkey breast and a surprisingly insipid jalapeno sausage. The meats are slow-cooked in a wood fire pit fired with white oak logs and they are superb. The ribs, in particular, are exemplary, lean and pink with tender meat that doesn’t fall from the bone but needs to be cut away (this is knife-and-fork, not messy-fingers barbecue). The flavour is complex and smoky, like the scent of a summer campfire, but it’s all from the process. Lee’s exhaustive experiments with rubs and marinades brought him back to the point of utmost simplicity – just salt and pepper. The sour, intense barbecue sauce – and a second, less puckering espresso sauce – are served on the side not slathered over the meat. The Cumbrae-sourced brisket is also impeccable – super-tender with a sweet layer of fat, the pickling flavours almost subliminal. The turkey breast is in utter contrast – juicy, delicately smoky, thickly sliced – and the pulled pork is tremendous, big soft chunks of meat with a crisp black crust that one could go on eating forever.

            There are other meaty options among the mains as well as oak-fired octopus, sliced into a chic gumbo with okra, sausage, hominy corn and lobster meat – rich, tender textures in a lobster stock base with a tang of heat. From the list of side dishes we ordered collard greens, which come chopped and stirred up with onion, tomato and garlic and proved disarmingly delicious.

            Starters are lighter, fresher and show more international influences. Hamachi tartare is really more of a gentle ceviche, the fish diced and tossed with morsels of fresh clementine, sliced raw pear, coriander leaf, tiny, intensely flavourful tomatoes and kombucha vinegar. The dish isn’t too sharp, the flavour of the hamachi standing out nicely.

            Charred scallops are set up over a “brisket espuma” which turns out to be a rich foam intensely flavoured with brisket pickling spices. The dish gets further edge from horseradish, scruples of grainy mustard, sliced dill pickle and crunchy little caraway rye croutons. I shall always have horseradish with my scallops from this day on.

            Popcorn pork are little breaded nuggets of crisply deep-fried pork: perfectly greaseless, they are the apotheosis of bar snacks. Cheddar cheese croquettes are molten inside their crisp crusts, a dip of purèed apple-chipotle sauce acting as a cool and fruity accompaniment. Split pea fritters are like miniature bhajis, crisp and piping hot, meant to be dipped into the finely minced pico de gallo sauce alongside. As gourmet-bait, Lee also includes crisp fritters of chicken skin, served in a rack with a dish of chili vinegar for dipping.

            After all this, we only had room for one dessert – a clever, not-too-sweet, banana-toffee tart topped with masses of whipped cream and shattered dark chocolate.

            It has taken a long time and several million dollars to set Carbon Bar in motion but the team at the top know their business. Next year, Lee plans to introduce chef’s tasting menus for the hightop near the open kitchen and the 30-seat private dining room on the second floor.

            The Carbon Bar is at 99 Queen St. E., (great company for George, just a few doors east). 416-947-7000.  



Montreal Gold Medal Plates 2013

04 Dec


Nick Hodge of Ice House won bronze

Nick Hodge of Ice House won bronze


Antonio Park of Restaurant Park in Westmount won the silver

Antonio Park of Restaurant Park in Westmount won the silver


Gold went to Danny St-Pierre from Auguste in Sherbrooke

Gold went to Danny St-Pierre from Auguste in Sherbrooke

Yesterday we flew into Montreal - in and out – to meet up with a merry group and set out into the city in a luxurious and colourfully lit stretch charabanc to find our 2013 Montreal Gold Medal Plates champion. Ten first-class contenders had already emerged from the other 10 cities across the country where we had held our gala events; but how could we show up in Kelowna next February without a Montreal star? Impossible. Hence the road-trip, a “GMP plan B” that has worked very well for us before. Four of us represented GMP – our fearless leader, Stephen Leckie, our two senior Montreal judges, Lesley Chesterman and Robert Beauchemin, and me, together with World Champion short-track speed skater and three-time Olympic medallist Isabelle Charest, and many new friends from Deloitte and Impact de Montréal. We visited five very different restaurants, tasted five exceptional dishes and emerged at the end of it with a very worthy new champion.

I must say, the marks were scarily close. Kudos to the chefs, who welcomed us into their restaurants and honoured the rules we insisted upon – with one exception… Of which more later.

Our bronze medal was awarded to Nick Hodge, Texas-born chef of the ruggedly unconventional Ice House, a brilliant, casual restaurant with its roots in the southern U.S. The splendidly bearded Hodge introduced his dish as “Quebec-Mex” and served it up on an earthenware dish with a handle – very rustic and effective. The heart of his concept was local Wagyu beef brisket, cool-smoked over Texas oak wood then cooked sous vide for 72 hours. The texture he achieved by this method was remarkable – not fibrous, perfectly moist, with a crispness and firmness to the meat that met with universal appreciation. The block of beef sat on the edge of a drift of silky corn pudding, made from organic Quebec corn whipped with egg yolk, a knob of butter and a little salt until it was utterly smooth. The second sauce on the plate was in total contrast in terms of flavour, a black and intense sour cherry mole, laboured over for days and involving dried fruits, nuts, seeds, dried chilies, and – instead of using traditional but foreign-to-Canada chocolate – toasted wild elderflowers, that Chef explained had a kick just like inhaling cocoa. This sauce was amazingly deep, tangy, layered and great with the beef. The finishing touch was a garnish of fresh and pickled watermelon radish cut to the minuscule size of those tiny, worthless Sharjah postage stamps that every schoolboy collected when I was a nipper. The final flourish, the panache to the dish, lay on top – a crunchy, dehydrated, pickled, flattened okra. It was a sturdy, forthright dish with great depths of flavour in the three main components. Chef Hodge matched it with Norman Hardie’s unfiltered 2012 County Cabernet Franc, a wine that “screamed fresh cherry” to Chef Hodge and inspired the mole sauce. Like the garnishes, it contributed refreshing acidity along with its own fruity personality.

Our silver medal went to chef Antonio Park of Restaurant Park in Westmount, who also won silver last year. I have to say, his dish was exceptional – complex, technically impeccable, imaginative… Alas, there was a serious issue with the beverage he chose to accompany it. Gold Medal Plates is a celebration of Canadian excellence and we insist the chosen drink must be Canadian, whether it be a wine, beer, spirit or anything else. Chef Park paired his drink with a fine green tea from Japan brewed with brown rice. As a result we were obliged to score him a zero for Wine Compatibility, a category that commands ten percent of the total marks. We took our lead from the Olympic athletes we strive to support: break the rules of your particular discipline, and you must suffer the consequences. This in no way detracted from Chef Park’s fabulous dish which was centred around snapper. Introducing his creation to the table, Chef Park explained that he had used seven acupuncture points to numb the living fish into a state of neural oblivion before dispatching it and preparing it three ways. First there was a tartare, the raw fillet chopped and mixed with a sauce of yoghurt, ginger flowers, minced shallots, Japanese microchives, onion, carrot and Japanese plum that had been fermented for two months before being introduced to its fellow ingredients. It was a divine tartare. The second “way” was a seared fillet, still raw in the centre but lightly charred on the edge – absolutely gorgeous! The third way involved the fish’s bones, boiled down to make a broth in which to poach some yellow soshito peppers (with some three-month-old kimchee to add a touch of pep). Over to the side was a finger of seared foie gras. Did it belong with the snapper? Would, say, monkfish liver have been more à propos? Either way, the foie was totally yummy. There were many other elements in the bowl. A red sauce of pickled anchovies in wine vinegar, olive oil, garlic and ginger, spiked with a dash of Korean red pepper sauce, added serious umami. As did molecular pearls of balsamic vinegar marinated in soy sauce. As did the tissue-thin ribbons of bacon that lay on top of the fish, alongside burdock chips and shavings of white truffle. The final component, and the only heavy-handed moment on the plate, were some hard, crunchy “chips” made from deep-fried albacore tuna. Such a complex, delicious, intellectual construction! Most of our group scored it very highly indeed. If only that tea had been from Canada…

And then there was our gold-medal-winning dish, from chef Danny St-Pierre who has a restaurant called Auguste, in Sherbrooke. In order to make life easier for the judges, he had borrowed a downtown-Montreal restaurant space belonging to the Soupesoup chain, and was there to greet us and present his composition. His protein was beef tongue, sliced as thin as carpaccio and arranged into a rectangle on the plate. It was incredibly soft and tender – not slimy or stringy, as tongue can be – and its flavour had been subtly boosted by an umami-crazy drizzle of balsamic, soy and Vietnamese fish sauce. Truly subtle… If he hadn’t described it, I wouldn’t have sussed it at all. Other components were strewn about on the bed of tongue. We found shaved radish, soft discs of purple beet, crispy little croutons with the diameter of nickles that had been infused with bonemarrow, chopped chives, dots of cranberry purée like warm, tangy jam spiked with five-spice flavours that reached out to the wine, some finely grated parmesan. On top of it all was a quail egg, sunny side up, its runny yolk providing the simplest but most sublime of sauces to the tongue. Chef St-Pierre found his wine first and then created the dish to match it – and what a wine! It was something I had never tasted before. From the Venice range, grown and produced in Quebec by the Carone winery, it was a lightly chilled 2011 Cabernet Severnyi (a variety normally associated with the Czech Republic) – full-bodied, fruity, intense, purple, like some civilized cousin to a Baco Noir. A really good match for this dish!

So we found our Montreal champion. And that concludes the Gold Medal Plates 2013 campaign. Eleven chefs are coming to Kelowna in February – on the same day that the Sochi Olympics open, coincidentally. After the intense three days of competition, we will be crowning our own Canadian Culinary Champion. If anyone would like to join me there, just let me know ( and we can talk. It’s going to be AWESOME.


More treats

29 Nov
The below-mentioned panettone - grappa-touched - ambrosia

The below-mentioned panettone – grappa-touched – ambrosia

Marolo Cuneesi alla grappa di Barolo

Anything that ends with the words “alla grappa di Barolo” is likely to attract my attention. Especially if they are cuneesi. These are the renowned little chocolate-coated treats invented in the town of Cuneo by Pietro Galletti more than a century ago. They look like wee domes of dark chocolate with a layer of dainty cake inside, and another of chocolate ganache, its texture something between a marshmallow and a Milky Way. Galletti flavoured his with rum but these particular examples are saturated in Paolo Marolo’s grappa di Barolo so they taste decidedly grown-up and delicious. Where can you find them? Contact Sarah Liberatore at – she’s the exclusive agent in these parts. And you might want to order one of her Piedmontese Marolo-grappa-soaked panettones for the festive season. It is an ideal base component for a classic English trifle when smothered in fruit, jelly, set custard and whipped cream.


Villa’s Authentic Sauces

I first met Vivian Villa in the 1990s – when I used to put together Toronto Life’s Food Shop Guide, a gruelling but educational occupation every summer that had me driving from dawn to nightfall for six or seven weeks, from Oakville to Markham to Pickering, visiting and tasting and following the most obscure gastronomical leads. Does Toronto Life still send its food columnist out on such a marathon? Your guess is as good as mine. But that’s where I met Vivian Villa and tasted the fabulous pesto she was making and marketing at the time. She recently started doing it again, with a series of absolutely brilliant pestos, salsas, dips and sauces, all natural and profoundly flavourful. My favourites are the arugula pesto and the classic Genoese basil pesto (sulfite- and gluten-free, with no added salt or preservatives) but there are many to try, and they work with more than pasta, transforming potatoes, vegetables, pilaffs, grilled chicken… They are intense enough that you only need a spoonful per serving: and now they’re all over town. Find out more at


VIP Pinot Grigio (LCBO 272351, $12.95)

Why buy a Pinot Grigio from Argentina? It’s a reasonable question. VIP provides the answer – and  it has nothing to do with the chic label or the robust 13.3% abv. The floral, apples-and-pears nose is refined and a little shy; the immediate impression on the palate is also delicate, lightweight, clever and very dry. And then suddenly an intense illusion of bosc pears swoops in out of nowhere to supercharge the crisp flavour. The end result is more Granny Smith than the usual Pinot Grigio citrus. Sharp, clean as a whistle, lovely balance. A class act.



Ottawa-Gatineau Gold Medal Plates 2013

19 Nov

The last big party of the 2013 Gold Medal Plates campaign had been the first to sell out and anyone who thought Ottawa on a Monday night was going to be a tough crowd had their mind changed last night. It was a brilliant affair with a full roster of Olympians, eloquently bilingual emceeing from Sylvie Bigras and a blazing performance from our musical stars Jim Cuddy, Anne Lindsay, and Spirit of the West’s John Mann and Geoffrey Kelly.

The gathering of chefs was also notably strong, with two of them proving something we have noticed across the country – that this is the year of the rabbit, gastronomically speaking. And they gave us some other fascinating dishes, most memorably lamb neck in a mole sauce garnished with maguey worms from René Rodriguez of Navarra Restaurant. It was the first time we have served worm at a GMP event and they were crispy, spicy and delicious. More importantly, last night female chefs outnumbered male on the podium – for the first time in Gold Medal Plates’s history.

So the judges had lots to think about and discuss and I was fortunate to have such a dazzling group beside me, led by our Ottawa-Gatineau Senior Judge, author, editor and the city’s finest restaurant critic, Anne DesBrisay, together with 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, culinary Olympian, Chairman of the Canadian Culinary Federation and Executive Chef at the House of Commons, Jud Simpson, and of course last year’s gold medal winner, and silver medallist at the Canadian Culinary Championship, Chef Jamie Stunt.

Bronze for Chef Katie Brown Ardington of Beckta Dining & Wine

Bronze for Chef Katie Brown Ardington of Beckta Dining & Wine

We awarded the bronze medal to Katie Brown Ardington of Beckta Dining and Wine. Her elegant dish consisted of three major elements and she instructed us in the order in which we should eat them so that flavours and textures would build from delicate to intense. The first figure was a sleek block of ahi tuna sashimi crowned with a black crust of salty pork bone ash. The tuna sat on a bed of finely minced grilled leeks in a porcini vinaigrette. The central component was a stack of firm, glossy slices of king eryngii mushroom that had been poached in a pork demiglace. They were strewn with threads of crispy leek and pork rind and on either side were dots of crème fraiche topped with golden whitefish caviar. Part three was slices of a dense, soft-textured lobster sausage, spiced as powerfully as any chorizo with paprika and cumin and set over a dab of red-eye mayo (mayo with espresso and pork fat). Pickled shimiji mushrooms were the tart little garnish, together with a crisp, strongly seasoned potato and lobster chip. A scattering of lemon balm leaves finished things off. The whole dish was a clever and delicious weave of seafood, pork and mushrooms with its own strong sensory narrative and it worked well with Chef’s chosen wine, the dry, sparkling Dolomite Brut from Cave Spring Cellars in Niagara.

Silver for Chef Jonathan Korecki of Sidedoor

Silver for Chef Jonathan Korecki of Sidedoor

We gave the silver to Jonathan Korecki of Sidedoor. Escorting his dish to the judges’ table, he explained that it was a play on a Singaporean laksa soup with all that traditional treat’s intense features transformed on our plates. Three seafood elements served as protein anchors to the idea – a tender cured spot prawn, a perfectly bronzed scallop and a similarly sized piece of arctic char, cut on the bias, its postage stamp of skin crisply intact. Lapping all three was a rich laksa foam (like a sort of coconut béarnaise) and some ramen noodles that Chef had made himself from parsnip. Partially dried wands of green dinosaur kale added colour and a vegetable component while halved sea buckthorn berries brought a tart acidity. Tiny slices of red chili added further excitement while Chef finished the dish by grating on an XO dust made by drying a paste of scallop, prawn and char soaked in fish sauce. The judges loved the bold combination of flavours, the texture of the seafood and the wine match – Megalomaniac Wines 2012 Sparkling Pinot Noir from Niagara.

Gold for Chef Marysol Foucault of Edgar

Gold for Chef Marysol Foucault of Edgar

We awarded the gold medal to Marysol Foucault of Edgar, in Gatineau, by a unanimous decision. She introduced her dish to the judges by first enthusing over her chosen wine, a big, rich 2011 Chardonnay known as ‘The Brock’ made with Niagara River fruit by Closson Chase of Prince Edward County. “I’m so in love with this wine,” she explained, “I wanted to build a very earthy dish around it, a dish that also expressed the terroir of Quebec and Ontario.” Her answer was to begin with wild boar belly, cured for 24 hours and then slow-cooked sous vide for 24 more before a final crisping. We each had two succulent pieces and sandwiched between them we found a juicy piece of rabbit loin, cooked separately sous vide. The meats sat on a rich, loose-textured mousse of rabbit liver and brown butter and there were two sauces in play, one a soft chestnut purée seasoned with espalette and lemon, the other a beautifully judged beet gastrique. Pure white dice of pickled turnip brought the necessary sweet acidity to cut the boar’s fattiness while beside them Chef had placed a beignet made with a dough formed of parsnip flour and fried to a golden crust. She garnished the dish with a single nasturtium leaf and a crispy hank of lichen cured in sortilège maple whisky.

Chef Foucault was a popular winner. She is also a writer, visual artist and competitive gymnast, talents which may or may not be of value in Kelowna next February when she competes at the Canadian Culinary Championship. Now we have one last champion to find, two weeks from today, in Montreal…

And now, here is the Ottawa event wine report from GMP’s National Wine Advisor, David Lawrason

A Sparkling Finale in Ottawa
by David Lawrason

The 2013 Gold Medal Plates season came to an end in Ottawa on November 19 with a sparkling evening at the National Arts Centre that saw three chefs pair with Ontario bubbly.  One waltzed off with the Best Of Show Wine Award, and two were swept onto the podium with their respective chefs.

The Best of Show Award went to Cave Spring 2009 Dolomite Brut, a razor sharp, tingling, classic Niagara sparkler named for the genre of limestone that underlies the Niagara Escarpment.  It also was matched to the bronze medal seafood dish by chef Katie Brown Ardington of Beckta.  The Dolomite narrowly squeezed by runner-up Tawse 2010 Grower’s Blend Pinot Noir, one of the better balanced and structured pinots of the 2010 vintage.  Third spot went to Lailey 2011 Brickyard Chardonnay, an elegant yet fulsome wine.

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 winning wineries have increased odds in a draw to spend a week at Borgo San Felice in Tuscany.

Two of the three judges who joined me in Ottawa are good friends and partners with me at The third, our guest judge, is Canada’s only elected wine expert. Michelle Rempel MP for Calgary Centre-North is the Minister for Western Economic Diversification and a graduate of the Advanced level of the International Wine & Spirits Education Trust.

Janet Dorozynksi is the Global Practice Lead for Foreign Affairs and International Trade, helping stock Canada’s embassies and helping Canadian wineries promote and sell their wines abroad.  Call her Canada’s Chef de Mission du Vin. She is also a veteran wine competition judge with the National Wine Awards of Canada.

And Rod Phillips, is Ottawa’s  long, and still standing, and still feisty wine columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.

But back to the podium, where Closson Chase 2011 The Brock Chardonnay, took top culinary honours when matched to a wild boar belly by young Gatineau chef Marysol Foucault.  Closson Chase rep Keith Tyers was present in Ottawa, and said the victory was no fluke.  He revealed that he had made four trips to Ottawa to discuss and tweak the match.  As a reward, both are off to the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna.

Silver medal winning chef Johnathan Korecki of Sidedoor chose Megalomanic 2009 Sparkling Pinot Noir with his seafood medley.

Other wines poured this night included an impressive pair of reds by Thirty Bench, a winery more recognized for its riesling and chardonnay. The Thirty Bench 2011 Red is an impressive, firm, cellarworthy blend of cabernet and merlot, while the Thirty Bench 2011 Small Lots Pinot Noir is a surprisingly big and firm pinot that also needs some cellaring time.  Thirty Bench is owned by Andrew Peller Wines, our National Celebration Wine Sponsor, who generously donated Wayne Gretzky 2012 Cabernet Merlot and Trius 2012 Sauvignon Blanc to the Ottawa proceedings.