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.
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.
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!