The Canadian Culinary Championship 2015 – part one

16 Feb

To beautiful downtown Kelowna again for the 2015 Canadian Culinary Championship, ultimate test for each of our Gold Medal Plates regional champions. And what a very strong line-up we have this year! Some are better known than others but frankly any of them could win gold, each one sporting a rich and potent curriculum vitae. Here are the names of our 11 competitors.

Starting in the east with the champion from Aqua Kitchen & Bar in St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador, it’s Chef MARK McCROWE.

Our Halifax champion, from The Canteen in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, is Chef RENÉE LAVALLÉE.

Now our Montreal champion, from Restaurant Park in Montreal: Chef ANTONIO PARK.

Our Ottawa-Gatineau champion, from Absinthe Café in Ottawa is Chef PATRICK GARLAND.

Our champion from Toronto is chef at Canoe, Chef JOHN HORNE.

Our Winnipeg champion, from Jane’s, is Chef LUC JEAN.

And from Regina, from Wascana Golf & Country Club, Chef MILTON REBELLO.

Our Saskatoon champion, from the Delta Bessborough hotel, is Chef CHRIS HILL.

Our Edmonton champion, from The Westin Edmonton, is Chef RYAN O’FLYNN.

And our Calgary champion, from Market, is Chef DAVE BOHATI.

Finally, the champion representing all of B.C., from Hawksworth in Vancouver, is Chef KRISTIAN ELIGH.

In years gone by, chefs and judges have all stayed at the charming El Dorado hotel. This year, the competition’s entire cast is staying at the Delta Grand Okanagan hotel – and very comfortable it is, too.

As ever, my team of fellow judges outnumbers the competitors. Allow me to name them.

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, restaurant critic, writer, lecturer and anthropologist, ROBERT BEAUCHEMIN

From Ottawa, author and broadcaster, restaurant critic, senior editor of Taste & Travel Magazine, ANNE DESBRISAY

From Toronto, award-winning food columnist and food writer, currently an editor with The Walrus, SASHA CHAPMAN.

From Winnipeg, professional chef, culinary arts instructor and Director Food Services at Red River College, JEFF GILL.

From Saskatoon, cookbook author, journalist and food columnist, AMY JO EHMAN.

From Regina, award-winning cookbook author, photographer, tv and radio host and publisher of Savour Life magazine, CJ KATZ.

From Edmonton, wine, food and travel writer, certified sommelier and wine instructor, the founder of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium and publisher of The Tomato, MARY BAILEY.

From Calgary, teacher, broadcaster, author and restaurant columnist for the Calgary Herald, JOHN GILCHRIST.

From Kelowna, the distinguished chef, Culinary Manager of Okanagan College and the current President of the Okanagan Chefs Association, Chef BERNARD CASAVANT.

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, gab-gifted boulevardier and the editor-in-chief of Scout Magazine, ANDREW MORRISON, who serves as our Judge Invigilator, enforcing the rules of competition with an all-seeing, almost Sauron-like eye that is at once strict but fair.

Our adventure began on Wednesday evening when the lucky judges were invited to dinner at The Table, Chef Ross Derrick’s charming restaurant inside Codfathers Seafood Market (2355 Gordon Drive, (250) 763-3474). Owned and run by Jon Crofts, Codfathers is one of the best fishmongers in the country, offering superb sustainable seafood from fresh sturgeon to Gaspe smelt and is a vital resource for the chefs who compete in the Championships. The evening began with a merry contest, dividing the judges into three teams and setting them some challenges – shucking a dozen oysters, filleting a trout and making a ceviche. Great fun – and educational, too. We ate the oysters, and some gorgeous deep fried smelt – then we sat down for Chef Derrick’s dinner – a feast that began with the ceviches we had made ourselves, then progressed to a succession of treats – first, slender perogies stuffed with smoked onion and Keta salmon served with a roasted beetroot crème fraîche, winter greens and a bacon vinegerette; then the steelhead trout we had filleted ourselves (judge CJ Katz most elegantly) paired with tuna chorizo sausages made with the blood of the tuna and flanked by braised beans and spinach aïoli. Dessert chef Tina Tang made our afters – a dainty Chinese lemon egg tart with lemon mascarpone mousse, lemon thyme curd, pomegranate seeds and crushed honey comb. A fabulous time was had by all.

The competition truly gets under way on the Thursday evening with a reception for sponsors, media and guests. This year we held it at Howard Soon’s newly renovated and decidedly chic Sandhill winery, with Codfathers’ oysters and some delectable hors d’oeuvres from Poppadoms, Kelowna’s excellent Indian restaurant. There was a palpable aura of intensity emanating from the chefs and their sous chefs as each was introduced to the crowd and I conducted a short question-and-answer session. Completing each culinary team was a pair of students from Okanagan College who will serve as apprentices for the chef – always a brilliant learning experience for them. Then we handed over the mystery wine and the budget each chef must strictly obey – cooking for 480 guests but spending no more than $600. Could you throw a dinner party for $1.25 a head? I couldn’t. The chefs had 24 hours to create, shop for and prepare a dish that would perfectly match the wine. And what was the mysterious vino? David Lawrason only revealed it at the end of Friday evening, after we had tasted each chef’s dish: Stoneboat Pinotage 2012 from the Okanagan, a big, potent, purple red with a fruity nose but less fruit and more spicy complexity on the palate, smooth tanins and a well-judged measure of acidity. Each chef, brought up on stage to comment on the wine and describe what they had cooked, had different guesses and opinions about the wine, but one of them, Patrick Garland, identified it absolutely correctly. So did our judge Andrew Morrison, right down to the year. But what would the chefs decide to prepare with it?

Chef O'Flynn

Chef O’Flynn

Chef O’Flynn decided to draw on his European experience of dishes involving monkfish and red wine and went for fish, haggling for fresh sturgeon at Codfathers, which had stocked itself up to the gills in the hope that the mystery wine would be white. He felt the wine needed fat to balance its acids and tannins so he brought in a rich garnish of crème fraîche, devilled egg yolk and a dab of Northern Divine caviar. He turned to beetroot to build a sturdy bridge into the heart of the wine, smoking some red beets and puréeing them into silky, bittersweet heaven. He also made tiny cubes of beetroot jelly and a beetroot fluid gel, marinated some golden beets to the precise level of acidity of the wine and finaly made a beetroot crumble for texture. A sprinkling of crushed almond brought out the earthy note in the Pinotage and, all the time, the rich, succulent sturgeon was making its own sophisticated conversation with the fruitiness of the wine.

Chef Lavallee

Chef Lavallee

Chef Lavallée was almost vegetarian in her approach, creating  beautiful salad of barley and many kinds of beetroot, each one variously but perfectly textured and sliced into slender rounds. Threads of shallot and an array of radishes, sliced even more thinly, surrounded a mound of creamy, homemade quark; croutons of rye bread fried in duck fat provided an opulently rich contrast. Two dressings – a green goddess and a honey pistachio vinaigrette – brought tangy flavours to the party while crisp, crumbled fried speck and a scattering of Vancouver Island sea salt satisfied all possible cravings for saltiness. The beets and the croutons worked notably well with the wine.

Chef Horne

Chef Horne

Chef Horne felt the wine needed red meat but didn’t want to do a braise. Instead he chopped a delicious venison tartare tossed with crispy bacon. He turned the bacon fat into a soft white powder that lay in little hillocks along the linear presentation of the dish. Deep-fried bannocks, broken roughly in half, did double service as a bread for the tartare and as wicked little pillows of doughnut-like richness. Chef picked up the fruit in the wine with a dusting of raisin powder and garnished for freshness with wild chickweed harvested from the Okanagan.


Chef Rebello's "Illusion"

Chef Rebello’s “Illusion”


Chef Rebello offered a fascinating presentation, typical of his affection for culinary and visual puns. He cut lotus root into the shape of a marrow bone and confited it in duck fat, then he braised oxtail and spooned it inside instead of outside the “bone.” As so many of the chefs did, he felt the wine demanded fat on the plate, and rovided it by turning the fat from the oxtail into a dab of aïoli. A delectable puré of lotus, cauliflower and cashew nuzzled up to the lotus; a blueberry and blackberry gastrique that was almost jelly-like in its consistency echoed the fruit flavours Chef found in the wine. The finishing touch was a wafer-thin fin of translucent potato slices sandwiching flecks of cherry and beet sprout. He called this dish “Illusion.”

Chef Eligh

Chef Eligh

Chef Eligh was next, introducing his dish by saying he “wanted to keep it simple.” He chose to work with duck, a Yarrow Meadows duck breast, to be precise, perfectly tender and spiced with star anise, cinnamon, allspice and fennel – a single perfect slice of the meat lay upermost on the dish, fringed with fat and a nicely crisped skin. Beneath it was a mound of impeccably textured lentils dressed with a rich bacon vinaigrette while parsnip manned the flanks, on the left as a silky purée, on the right as crispy shards. Fronds of fresh fennel weed brought fresh, aniseedy flavour. It was a multi-faceted approach to the earthy spice of the wine that paid dividends while the Pinotage itself provided the dish with a fruity element that so often flatters duck.

Chef Hill

Chef Hill

Chef Hill also gave us duck, smoking the breast and presenting a slice of it pink and medium-rare. Showing impressive skills as a shopper, he bought four lobes of foie gras with much of the rest of his budget and spread them among the multitude by turning them into a mousse stretched with emulsified agar-agar and egg yolk. It tasted beautifully of foie and had the desired effect of taming the tannin in the wine. Beet also played a role – as a broad stripe of red beet purée and shards of golden beet on top of the duck. Pungent micro-arugula and hazelnut dust added more colour to Chef’s flavour palette while camolina oil, with its pleasing grassy note, and leeks confited in duck fat further boosted the richness of the dish. The most successful link into the wine remained the smokiness of the duck and the fatty, salty umami that lurked all over the plate.


Chef Park - the boudin brownie. Thanks to Karl Wells for the image

Chef Park – the boudin brownie. Thanks to Karl Wells for the image

Chef Park turned to pork and blood to tame the wine, cooking a soft boudin noir flecked with slightly firmer mini-dice of pork belly: the whole pudding looked disarmingly like a chocolate brownie. Jerusalem artichokes were everywhere – as crispy chips and also as a luxe, caramelized purée invigorated by puréed Granny Smith apple and hidden inside a crispy shell. Roasted vanilla oat crumble was strewn like granola and a second crumble of salty bacon added to the overall intensity of flavour. A smudge of vanilla dust kept its distance on the edge of the plate, in case we decided the granola needed reinforcements.

Chef Bohati

Chef Bohati


Chef Bohati decided chilled, nose-to-tail pork would provide the necessary fattiness to match the Pinotage. He made an oniony pork-belly rillette shaped like a sausage and flavoured with five-spice then set it over an aïoli of smoked ham hock sweetened with vanilla bean. A crispy blood wonton furthered the porcine cause, as did crispy deep-fried pig ear dusted with five spice powder. Earthiness came courtesy of marinated enoki and shiitake mushrooms; freshness was provided by a tissue-thin slice of compressed pear, prepared with some of the wine, lemon, cinnamon and sugar.


Chef Garland

Chef Garland


Chef Garland nailed the identity of the wine, characterizing it as “hot, with ripe fruit, warm spices, potent…” and matching it with juicy, shredded braised lamb shank. Those warm spices were echoed by white and black pepper, vanilla, clove and cinnamon in the braising liquid and by the black pepper and rosemary in a delicate biscuit. Fennel, tarragon and pea shoot salad with a walnut vinaigrette offered big fresh flavours and another line of approach into the wine. Crispy leeks were perfumed with sage and a smoked ham hock and red wine reduction was an extra sauce on the plate.

Chef Jeab

Chef Jean


Chef Jean gave us a dramatic presentation with his elements artfully arranged on just one side of the plate. His main protein was a coffee-rubbed short rib, seared and medium rare in the Korean style then sliced as if it were tenderloin. Beneath this was a white navy bean purée and a jumble various delectable things – brussels sprout leaves tossed with butter and speck, caramelized pearl onions, crunchy hazelnuts – all making significant contributions of taste and texture. A tangy wild blueberry gastrique worked well with the Pinotage and an unexpected hit of gorgonzola on the plate was a star turn, nicely meeting the rough-and-ready charm of the wine.

MW McCrowe

Chef McCrowe’s dish was the last one the judges tasted. He also worked with beef short ribs but in a more conventional manner, braising them until they were gorgeously tender then glazing them with a subtle mix of spiced rum and molasses. A generous spoonful of cherry compote flirted outrageously with the fruit in the wine while tart, crunchy, thinly sliced slivers of pickled plum handled its acidity. A salad of radisn and Italian parsley brought freshness and crispy parsnip chips were a final flourish. The judges admired the wine match – and so did the crowd of 480, who awarded Chef McCrowe the People’s Choice prize.

Meanwhile the judges pondered as their marks were processed. There had been plenty of different ideas and some boldly imaginative moments. No one had floundered and in the early stages of the weekend nine of the chefs were running in a close pack. Out in front of them, however, and by a respectable margin, were two pacemakers – Chef Eligh and Chef O’Flynn. In just a few hours, the second part of the competition, the dreaded Black Box, would begin.



Canadian Culinary Championship report (short version)

11 Feb
Chef Ryan O'Flynn's wine matching challenge dish

Chef Ryan O’Flynn’s wine matching challenge dish

To beautiful (foggy) downtown Kelowna again for the 2015 Canadian Culinary Championship, ultimate test for each of our Gold Medal Plates regional champions. And what a very strong line-up we have this year! Some are better known than others but frankly any of them could win gold, each one sporting a rich and potent curriculum vitae. Here are the names of our 11 competitors.

Starting in the east with the champion from Aqua Kitchen & Bar in St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador, it’s Chef MARK McCROWE.

Our Halifax champion, from The Canteen in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, is Chef RENÉE LAVALLÉE.

Now our Montreal champion, from Park Restaurant in Montreal: Chef ANTONIO PARK.

Our Ottawa-Gatineau champion, from Absinthe Café in Ottawa is Chef PATRICK GARLAND.

Our champion from Toronto is chef at Canoe, Chef JOHN HORNE.

Our Winnipeg champion, from Jane’s, is Chef LUC JEAN.

And from Regina, from Wascana Golf & Country Club, Chef MILTON REBELLO.

Our Saskatoon champion, from the Delta Bessborough hotel, is Chef CHRIS HILL.

Our Edmonton champion, from The Westin Edmonton, is Chef RYAN O’FLYNN.

And our Calgary champion, from Market, is Chef DAVE BOHATI.

Finally, the champion representing all of B.C., from Hawksworth in Vancouver, is Chef KRISTIAN ELIGH.

As is well known by now, the Championship consists of three contests: the Wine Matching Contest, where the chef must create a dish to perfectly match an un-named wine – and do it for 480 people on a budget of $1.25 a head. The Black Box, where the chef must create a dish using six of ten mystery ingredients in a black box, plus anything from a generous pantry. The Grand Finale, where the chef can present his signature creation and chosen beverage – to 630 people.

In the next few days, I will present a full report with details of each dish. For now, here is a précis of the competition as we saw it in the judges’ chamber.

David Lawrason’s mystery wine turned out to be Stoneboat Pinotage 2012 from the Okanagan, a big, potent, purple red with a fruity nose but less fruit and more spicy complexity on the palate, smooth tanins and a well-judged measure of acidity. Each chef, brought up on stage to comment on the wine and describe what they had cooked, had different guesses and opinions about the wine, but one of them, Patrick Garland, identified it absolutely correctly. So did our judge Andrew Morrison, right down to the year. What did the chefs decide this wine demanded? All but two found meat was the answer. Chef O’Flynn chose sturgeon which he sourced at a bargain price from Codfathers fish market, which had stocked itself up to the gills in the hope that the mystery wine would be white. Chef Lavallée was almost vegetarian in her approach, making a beet and barley salad (as pretty as a picture) with crunchy duck schmaltz croutons her only concession to carnivory. None of the chefs crashed and burned at this stage (as has happened in previous years) but when we had tasted all eleven dishes and totted up each judge’s marks it was clear we had two front runners a fair way ahead of the pack – Chef O’Flynn with his sturgeon and smoked beetroot, and Chef Eligh, who aced the pairing with a spiced duck breast, parsnip purée and perfectly cooked lentils with a bacon vinaigrette. The people’s choice award went to Chef McCrowe who braised beef short rib in spiced rum and molasses with a cherry compote.

Saturday morning brought the Black Box. This year, to encourage creativity and make it less of a race against the plating clock, we asked each chef to choose six out of 10 ingredients, dramatically revealed as his or her hour of competition began. The ingredients? Two live lobsters donated by Taste of Nova Scotia. A bag of tart Saskatchewan-grown sea-buckthorn berries donated by Northern Vigor Berries. An air-dried Rougie duck from Quebec, supplied by and donated by Two Rivers Meats in B.C. A bag of toasted hazelnuts. A bag of golden quinoa grown in Saskatchewan and donated by NorQuin. A bag of mixed Granny Smith and Honey Crisp apples. Yams. Turnips. Dried lavender. A tub of very fresh local ricotta cheese.

Our plan worked. The culinary standard of the dishes the judges received was much higher than in years gone by. There were plenty of similarities – the majority of chefs decided to offer pan-fried duck breast as a main protein – and if I never see yam purée again, it will be fine by me – but skills were definitely on parade. Stand-outs for me in terms of sheer technical ability was Chef Park’s dish. He made nigiri sushi, one of lobster sashimi, one of duck, using the quinoa and arborio as a makeshift sushi rice then brought in a second hot dish alongside – a miso soup with the firm ricotta standing in for tofu. Chef Bohati also thought outside the box, swiftly making some fresh pasta and turning it into agnolotti stuffed with lobster, yam and ricotta, finishing the dish with a crisp aple salad, a glaze from the roasted lobster shell. By the end of the morning, the pack had caught up with the two front runners and were treading on their heels.

And so to the Grand Finale. 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. Again, I will be commenting on each dish in the longer “director’s cut” of this report (including outtakes and bloopers). Meanwhile, let me describe the dishes of the three chefs who finished the evening on the podium.

Chef Kristian Eligh from Vancouver won bronze. His dish had an 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 morsels of carrot, celery and potato. The wine match was exceptional – Meyer Family 2012 Micro Cuvée Chardonnay Old Main Road from the Okanagan.

Chef Antonio Park from Montreal surged ahead to seize the silver medal. 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, julienne 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.

Taking gold and the Canadian Culinary Championship (the first time a chef from Edmonton has ever reached our patrticular podium) was Chef Ryan O’Flynn from the Westin Edmonton hotel. Having taken the lead on Friday evening, he had never really let it slip away. His dish was a thick and generous terrine of 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. The wine match – Sandhill Small Lots 2013 Viognier – was flawless.

To sum up – it was a competition conducted at the highest level by eleven chefs who all brought their A game, who took risks and who entered fully into the spirit of the occasion. 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.

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 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!


Restaurants For Change 2015

10 Jan


Read on for how to become part of this extraordinary movement in the fall of 2015!

But before you scroll down, there’s something I’d like to say, as Chair of Restaurants for Change: Thank you to the 25 amazing and committed restaurants who came together in 2014 to support local Community Food Centres and a national movement calling for a fair and equitable food system. You know who you are…

In Calgary, Charcut, Rouge and NOtaBLE

In Halifax: Chives Canadian Bistro.

In Montreal: Garde Manger, Le Bremner and Nora Gray.

In Ottawa: Atelier and Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar.

In Perth: The Masonry.

In Stratford: Foster’s Inn.

In Vancouver: Hawksworth Restaurant and Vij’s Restaurant.

In Winnipeg: Deer + Almond and Elements by Diversity Restaurant.

And in Toronto, Bar Buca, Buca and Buca Yorkville, Edulis, Jacobs Steakhouse, Richmond Station, Ruby Watchco, The Drake One Fifty, The Saint Tavern and THR+Co.

And thank you to our national spokespeople Ryan Donovan and Carl Heinrich, co-owners of Richmond Station, for their dedication, enthusiasm, and support.

On October 22, diners gathered in twenty-five restaurants in nine cities across the country, from Vij’s in Vancouver to Chives in Halifax, to raise awareness, funds and their voices in support of equal access to healthy food. Participating restaurants and sponsors raised more than $120,000 in support of local Community Food Centre programs and CFCC’s national leadership around issues of hunger, poverty and poor health. We believe chefs and restaurants are uniquely positioned to raise awareness of the critical juncture where sustainability and food justice meet. We look forward to expanding Restaurants for Change to more cities and restaurants in the coming years, and to growing the community of people who will speak out for healthy food as a human right.

 AND NOW>>>    The 2015 EVENT

Mark your calendars! The 2015 edition of Restaurants for Change will be held on

Wednesday October 21, 2015.


We’re seeking to expand Restaurants for Change to more cities and restaurants in 2015. For more information on restaurant participation and media and corporate sponsorship opportunities, please contact Valerie Tibbles, Director of Development at Community Food Centres Canada.

Valerie Tibbles, Director of Development, 416 531 8826 ext 233,

Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC) provides resources and a proven approach to partner organizations across Canada to create Community Food Centres that bring people together to grow, cook, share, and advocate for good food. CFCC also works with the broader food movement to build greater capacity for impact and to empower communities to work toward a healthy and fair food system.



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.
































Saskatoon Gold Medal Plates 2014

09 Nov
On the podium! Left to right, silver medalist Darren Craddock, gold medalist Christopher Hill and bronze medalist Simon Reynolds

On the podium! Left to right, silver medalist Darren Craddock, gold medalist Christopher Hill and bronze medalist Simon Reynolds

Winter finally caught up with us in Saskatoon… A sky of cloud-blurred sunshine like a Turner painting but snow on the ground and a cold breeze stirring the surface of the river. But nothing could deter the amazing crowd of 500 who showed up at Prairieland at dusk to revel in the party atmosphere, rocking it up and dancing in front of the tables to the brilliant music of Jim Cuddy, Danny Michel and (hip hooray) the incomparable Anne Lindsay on violin. Michelle Cameron Coulter (Olympic gold medalist in synchronized swimming) was our eloquent MC and Olympic diver Marie-Éve Marleau interviewed a score of other Olympians on the stage. Bidding was delightfully enthusiastic during the auction and the party continued late with a local glam-rock band channelling a vibe I haven’t seen since the early ’80s.

On the culinary side, each of the ten competing chefs brought their A-game, raising the bar for Saskatoon yet again. Discernible themes emerged from several of them – an affection for the superb local bison and for clever interpretations of First Nations food. It was a difficult task for the judges to decide between the best four or five dishes. Our Saskatoon judging panel is now led by Senior Judge, author and food writer Amy Jo Ehman, joined by writer and blogger at Noele Chorney, restaurateur and all-round gastronome Janis Hutton, pastry chef, journalist and blogger at sweetsugarbean Renee Kohlman, poet, chef-restaurateur turned author and culinary activist dee Hobsbawn-Smith, and last year’s Gold Medal Winner, Chef Trevor Robertson. When the discussion ended we were all very happy with our conclusions.

Simon Reynolds won bronze

Simon Reynolds won bronze

We awarded the bronze medal to chef Simon Reynolds of Simon’s Fine Foods who created an umame-bomb of a dish based upon superb Canadian lamb. He presented two little drums of the sirloin, cooked sous vide with thyme and a hint of truffle and topped each one with a finely minced tapenade of green olive and anchovy. Beside them he set a miniature spring roll with the lightest and crispest of wrappers, filled with moist, rich pulled meat from the shoulder. A smooth carrot and fennel purée lay beneath the sirloin and he added a sweet prune compote as a condiment. Perfectly textured haricot beans were a nice, earthy touch, paddling in a suave lamb jus and half a dozen crisp fried capers brought yet another flavour to the plate. All the elements worked beautifully together, producing innumerable permutations of flavour and texture. Chef’s wine was the marvellous 2011 Cabernet Franc from Lailey Vineyard in Niagara, a Cab that successfully bridged the divide between the fruit and the olives.


Saskatoon silver for Darren Craddock

Saskatoon silver for Darren Craddock

The silver medal went to chef Daren Craddock of Riverside Country Club, our gold medalist in 2012. He gave us a generous tranche of bison striploin, letting the meat speak simply for itself then used the tongue and cheek to create a dazzling terrine that fell apart at the touch of the fork, revealing a heart of foie gras as rich and firm as butter. Over this he scattered a crumble made of dried wild blueberry pemmican with some puffed wild rice for crunch. Two sauces were paragons of intense but lucid flavour. A green dandelion purée spoke of the wild prairies while the smoked corn emulsion was so good I could have eaten jars of it. Chef’s sauce was a reduction of the bison’s jus spiked with wild blueberry vinegar and a foie gras poivrade. His wine was the deep, dry, sophisticated 2011 Merlot from Dirty Laundry Vineyard in Summerland, B.C.

Gold for Christopher Hill

Gold for Christopher Hill

And the gold? Standing on the top of the podium when all was said and done was chef Christopher Hill from the Delta Bessborough hotel. He described his dish as a reflection of his Saskatchewan childhood, using “humble ingredients,” but there was nothing humble about the visual elegance of his presentation. He cooked lamb sirloin sous vide to the point of tenderness and created a “pliable sausage” from other parts of the animal, rolling it out until it was as thin as a fruit leather and cutting it into dainty ribbons. Tucked between the meats was a tiny carrot and some slices of ruby radish. Two green moments of pea purée made their own contribution while more peas had been transformed into a shard of pea wafer that rose like a dorsal fin from the structure. Chef’s sauce was a lamb jus sweetened with a sour cherry reduction and there was a spoonful of pickled mustard seed to provide tangy contrast. Microgreens (celery and radish sprouts) and bright yellow mustard flowers were the finishing garnish. The wine match was impeccable – the lamb and cherry flavours linking arms with the soft tannins and blackberry-cassis flavours of the 2012 McWatters Collection Meritage from the Okanagan.

So now we are more than halfway through the campaign and the line-up of chefs who will be heading west to Kelowna in February is a roster of formidable talent. Next week, Toronto and St. John’s!