And the nominees are…
It seems fitting on Oscars night to mention the Ontario Hostelry Institute’s annual gala where gold awards are handed out to the chosen luminaries of Ontario’s hospitality industry. These are our own Oscars, really, and the winners are selected by past awardees under the aegis of the OHI’s chair and president (for lo these 24 years), J. Charles Grieco. It’s good and proper to honour the industry’s stars but the OHI serves another purpose, providing scholarships and bursaries to talented young people who might not otherwise be able to afford professional training. It also supports the up-and-coming young idea with its 30 under 30 program. Funds raised at the gala provide the wherewithal to do this important work and it’s also a lovely evening out. This year’s gala and awards dinner takes place at the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto on April 24. Buy a ticket or a table at www.theohi.ca.
Mr. Grieco has given me permission to name this year’s honorees in advance of the great event.
Educator: Deborah Pratt, Winery public Relations, Great Estates of Niagara.
Media/publishing: Jennifer Bain, author and Food Editor at the Toronto Star.
Chef: the great Arpi Magyar, Executive Chef and Proprietor of Couture Cuisine.
Supplier: Lynn Siegal of Hilite Fine Foods Inc.
Foodservice-Chain Operator: Annie Young-Scrivner, President, Starbucks Canada.
Independent Restaurateur: Tony and Mario Amaro, Co-owners, Opus Restaurant.
Hotelier: Heather McCrory, SVP Operations, Americas, Fairmont Raffles Hotels International Hotels & Resorts.
Artisan: Jonathan Forbes, Founder, Forbes Wild Foods.
A powerful list indeed, and sincere congratulations to them all.
I dropped into Ici Bistro this morning, invited by chef-patron Jean-Pierre Challet, who had some news he wanted to share. J-P and I have been in conversation, off and on, since about 1988, when he was chef of the Inn at Manitou and I was just starting out at Toronto Life, and I am always interested in what he has to say. On the quiet north-west corner of Harbord and Manning, Ici has been his domain for the last five years – intimate, charming, casual, 25-seats which have to be reserved weeks – even months – in advance. Everyone loves Ici, including J-P himself. But, come the end of April, he is moving on.
“Sit down while I make us some breakfast,” he suggested, “and I’ll tell you about the plans.”
Here is the gist of it. In May, J-P is returning to The Windsor Arms, the boutique hotel rebuilt and reopened by developer George Friedmann in 1999, with J-P as the original chef. But this time, J-P is going in with a different concept, basically moving his successful Ici into the recently redecorated restaurant space beside the Courtyard. Instead of 25 seats, he will have 40, but Ici’s brigade travels with him and so does his philosophy of “bistronomy” – together with the reasonable prices that have always made Ici such good value. He’ll be cooking there four nights a week, in person, and taking occasional weeks off to carry on with the renovations of his farm near Lyon in France.
And another thing – Friedmann is backing him with a retail bakery in the old market space opposite CityTV on Queen Street West. J-P’s famous croissants will be for sale there along with a glorious selection of quiches and fruit tarts and pies – a huge treat for a part of the city that is so poorly served with top-quality bakers and patissiers.
And Ici…? J-P isn’t sure. He intends to retain control of the space, maybe install a protégé behind the stoves… We must wait and see.
Time travel is possible and I have experienced it. Last Thursday. At The Fifth. That famously slow freight elevator carried me back 15 years as it rose to the fifth floor. And when the heavy wooden doors slid apart, everything was as I remembered it. A log fire blazed in the hearth. Candles twinkled on linen-covered tables and gleamed off the old wooden posts and beams of that timelessly elegant space. And there in the tiny kitchen was chef Didier Leroy, tousled black hair and all, hard at work grating black Perigord truffle into oeufs en cocotte, looking exactly the same as he did in the year 2000 when I named his work at The Fifth the best food in Toronto.
Bringing Didier back for a guest appearance was just the latest brilliant idea from owner Libell Geddes (though there are two even more recent brainwaves to be found at the bottom of this post). The Fifth Grill’s resident Executive Chef, Brad Livergant (one of Brad Long’s talented protégés) was delighted to share his stoves for the evening. I was delighted to taste Didier’s impeccably disciplined, refined cooking once again in such a beautiful setting.
He began by sending out a disarmingly simple amuse – a toonie-sized disc of perfect pastry spread with a teaspoonful of finely chopped ratatouille, sprinkled with a suggestion of parmesan cheese.
I couldn’t resist ordering the oeuf en cocotte Perigourdine. There were two of them, identical in their ramekins, each one a dark and blissful well of flavour. The egg’s yolk was still runny, thick shavings of truffle and cubes of foie gras nestled over and beside it, then the whole treasure trove was drowned in a dark, heavy Madeira reduction. It was spectacularly rich, the silken textures cut by the accompanying wine, Norman Hardie’s razor-sharp, minerally 2012 Riesling.
My date, Libell Geddes, chose Didier’s alternative appetizer, a subtle, delicately flavoured tartare of loup de mer, the fish’s natural sweetness enhanced by a generous amount of chopped fresh herbs – chives, parsley and capers amongst them. Again, the wine match was spot on – Château Tour de Mirambeau 2012 Sauvignon Reserve – all elements lifting the sea bass into the light.
Chef proposed two main courses, one of them a salmon fillet Dieppoise, the juicy fish smothered in shrimp, mussels, mushrooms and a white wine sauce. I had the lamb – a gorgeous rib off a rack that Didier touched with a little goat cheese and tapenade then wrapped in a ball of crisp, glossy puff pastry. It shared the plate with a small square of carrot mousse, almost as ethereal as foam, and a single roasted and peeled cherry tomato. Such a spare presentation! Nothing added but a little reduced lamb jus to serve as a sauce beside the other pristine flavours. Domaine de la Montagnette 2012 Côtes du Rhône Villages came along for the ride.
And to finish, a juicy tart tatin with a shot of calvados or a puck of dark chocolate mousse robed in even darker chocolate and topped with a flourish of gold leaf. A shot of Crème Yvette was the charmingly retro accompaniment.
It was a beautiful meal, a reminder of how seductive classical French cooking can be. Since his own restaurant closed, Didier Leroy has been consulting with Charles Khabouth, who is opening a twin of Bloor Street’s Bistro La Societé in Montreal. I hope he comes back to do another evening at The Fifth, though, truth be told, I would follow him anywhere.
Now, as promised, two more fabulous ideas for this weekend at The Fifth.
Tonight sees the opening of its Ice Alley bar, an outdoor ice bar in the famous alley off Duncan Street. “You see this throughout the winter in Switzerland,” says Libell Geddes, “so we thought we’d try it here.” From 9 p.m. onwards there will be fire pits, Russian-themed Stoli’ cocktails and mulled wine and a giant outdoor screen for watching the Olympics. Direct access to The Fifth Pub House lets you pop in to warm up and get something delicious to eat.
Tomorrow morning, The Fifth Pub House is opening before dawn (6:30 a.m.) for the gold-medal hockey game. Promised are “Caesars, Breakfast Food, Beer, Friends, Hangover Support Groups.” What a great place to see our warriors do what they do best! The Fifth Pub House can be found at 225 Richmond Street West (the red doors). 416-979-0390.
The Bero web site describes Chef Matt Kantor’s food as “modernist re-interpretations of Spanish and Mediterranean cooking,” a promise that has misled some into expecting ElBulli-style molecular metamorphoses; and while bero means “heat” in Euskara, the language of the Basque people, this isn’t Mugaritz either. It’s really much more sensible to visit a new restaurant without any preconceptions at all, especially when the chef does not have a long local track record (I never went to any of Kantor’s Secret Pickle supper club events). And though I had a decent sandwich and soup for lunch once at Commissary (this location’s previous incarnation – two out of three of the same owners), that memory is equally irrelevant.
The little room is more attractive than it was. Yes, there are moments of open brick and barn board, but they read as urban domestic, not hipster grunge. The ambience feels more like someone’s dining room, with gentle lighting, a shelf of books and comfortable, well-padded chairs. High stools at the long wooden bar also look inviting – somewhere to sit and explore the list of interesting cocktails (a temptation we resisted this time). Service was friendly, attentive and knowledgeable and though Chef Kantor was not in the kitchen this night and therefore unable to describe his creations as they were brought to the table, our server did an admirable job. As did chef de cuisine, Chris Scott, whose cv includes L.A.B., URSA and Acadia. A succession of sophisticated, accomplished, surprising and, above all, delicious dishes emerged from the kitchen. Sometimes, when a chef decides to be unusual or avant garde, the results are pretentious or chi-chi – not when the thinking behind the food is as coherent and the execution as confident as we experienced at Bero.
There is no à la carte – just two tasting menus, one of seven dishes ($98 + $63 for wine pairings), the other of four ($68 + $36 for wine pairings). If you choose the latter option, you have a mix-and-match choice of three dishes for each course, a polite way of giving the customer a measure of control.
I began with a dish minimally described on the menu as “hen egg – lamb neck – potato – nori.” The components filled the small, deep bowl of a broad-rimmed soup plate. Two crisp, nori-dusted potato chips formed a broad cross that hid a poached hen egg, its runny yolk barely contained by the just-set pouch of albumen. Beneath the egg was the braised, pulled lamb neck meat, rich, sweet and extraordinarily moist and tender. But one had to dig to find it for the lamb and the egg were all but buried in silky whipped potato. The bursting of the egg yolk was the key that unlocked the door to the riches – gorgeous soft textures offset by the potato crisps. Imagine a marriage of oeuf en cocotte and a very high-end shepherd’s pie… Quite the appetizer. An ounce or two of Tawse Riesling cut through everything like an acidic scalpel.
My second dish (“octopus – sweet potato – piquillo – pork”) was equally successful. The grilled octopus tentacle was tender and juicy at its plumpest diameter, tapering to crispness. A salty chunk of braised pig face, its surface nicely caramelized, turned out to be as unctuously soft as a terrine. A single slice of sweet piquillo pepper refreshed the protein, its simplicity subtly pointing up the dramatic transformations imposed on the sweet potato. Here it appeared as a purée, barely spiked with something that might have been mustard. There it was turned into powdery crumble. At the north and south of the beautiful presentation it showed up disguised as a piece of roasted carrot. Sure, it was all very clever, but also meaningful on the palate and a textural tour de force. The suggested wine, Viña Cartín 2012 Albariño, was a fine choice, with refreshing acidity but enough stone-fruit fragrance to harmonize with the piquillo and the sweet potato.
At this point the kitchen sent out an extra dish to all four of us – a single, supple tortellino stuffed with a spicy farce made from lamb neck and shoulder, seasoned with paprika and a hint of garlic. Four slices of black truffle worked their way in among the flavours while an intensely lamby reduction showed off the kitchen’s mastery of a classic demi-glace. The aromatic oak and weight of Flat Rock Chardonnay was an inspired match.
Duck came next – two thick, tasty, sapid slices of red breast. My mother always served “sand” with roasted game birds – fine bread crumbs finished in the oven that picked up fat and juices on the plate in a most delectable way. Here, the kitchen adds two little mounds of rye crumbs to this dish to a similar effect. I thought I tasted caraway in the crumbs, but it may just have been the flavour of rye. There were other little gustatory ghosts on the dish – like harmonics from unplucked guitar strings: I’d swear I tasted dill on the tube of soft broccoli mousse. I only know one chef who has ever made magic from broccoli stalks – Susur Lee in his Lotus days. Here they had been cut into a brunoise and lightly pickled, a good condiment for the duck and a dazzling contrast to the dish’s final component, a soft, earthy purée of morcilla blood sausage. Malivoire’s 2012 Small Lot Gamay was a precisely judged match.
Given the kitchen’s meticulous care for detail and talent for presentation, dessert was always going to be interesting. Unexpectedly, it was the least dainty of all the dishes, centred with a thin, biscuitty tart shell filled with a dense, sticky purée of Asian pear. Chunks of sherry-soaked financier cake and a quenelle of earl grey ice cream shared the plate which was finished with a squiggly extrusion of white mascarpone.
They offer a second dessert at Bero, should one be required, or there is a cheese option (a very small amount of cheese for a $12 add-on). Instead, you would be advised to wait for the mignardises – wobbly, sugar-crusted negroni jellies, melt-in-the-mouth chocolate brownies and salted caramel squares on the night we were there.
Bero meets so many of the criteria I cherish in a small restaurant – excellent service, a relaxed ambience, basic comforts, interesting drinks and food from a chef with a personal vision and the technical skills to back it up. There’s really no need to try to categorize it much beyond saying it’s proudly contemporary and gastronomically fascinating. None of us had a dish that failed to please, though the menu changes often enough, I gather, that regular customers will be guaranteed new adventures. Next time I go, I’ll fork out the necessary pair of C-notes for the 7-course dinner with drinks and tip. That’s pricey for Leslieville, but not for the quality provided at Bero.
Open for dinner only, Wednesday through Saturday, Bero is at 889 Queen Street East (on the south east corner with Logan). 416 477 3393. www.bero-restaurant.com.
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.
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.
As Canada’s Olympic athletes have shown us, the road to victory can be arduous. That was also the case for many of the judges making their way from Eastern Canada to Kelowna, B.C., to serve on the judiciary panel of the Canadian Culinary Championships. Thirteen hours door-to-door, in my case, thanks to the weather at Pearson and missed connections. Which made our ultimate rendezvous all the sweeter. Across the street from our hotel, the lovely Eldorado, stands a comfortable, cool, contemporary restaurant called Cabana. It was there we gathered, to be greeted by a glass of Bella sparkling chardonnay and an array of other brilliant wines very generously donated by Lindsay Kelm of the British Columbia Wine Institute.
We are 13 judges this year. Travelling, like the sun himself, from east to west, they are: from St. John’s, Newfoundland, broadcaster, food columnist for the Telegram, author and host of his own tv show, One Chef One Critic. KARL WELLS; from Halifax, journalist and restaurant critic for the Chronicle-Herald, who overcame his fear of flying to be with us in Kelowna, BILL SPURR; from Montreal, former pastry chef, author, journalist and since 1999, fine-dining critic and food columnist for the Montreal Gazette, LESLEY CHESTERMAN; from Ottawa-Gatineau, author and broadcaster, senior editor of Taste & Travel Magazine and former restaurant critic of the Ottawa Citizen, ANNE DESBRISAY; from Toronto, award-winning food columnist and food writer, currently an editor with the Walrus, SASHA CHAPMAN; from Winnipeg, professional chef, Liverpool fanatic, culinary arts instructor and Director Food Services at Red River College, JEFF GILL; from Saskatchewan, award-winning cookbook author, tv and radio host and publisher of Savour Life magazine, and our senior judge in both Regina and Saskatoon, CJ KATZ; from Edmonton, wine, food and travel writer, certified sommelier and wine instructor, publisher of red tomato online and the founder of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium, MARY BAILEY; from Calgary, teacher, broadcaster, author and restaurant columnist for the Calgary Herald, JOHN GILCHRIST; from Kelowna, Instructor in Baking and Pastry Arts right here at Okanagan College, PERRY BENTLEY; from Vancouver, world-renowned wine and food judge and the wine and food guru for Western Living magazine, SID CROSS; and also from Vancouver, author, teacher, restaurant critic, boulevardier and the editor-in-chief of Scout Magazine, ANDREW MORRISON. Andrew is also the CCC’s Culinary Referee and the man who will be responsible for enforcing the rules throughout the weekend.
Here was a merry meeting – and Cabana did us proud. We tasted a smoked duck confit crostini with drunken cherries and a fig reduction. We further calibrated our palates with a salad of roasted baby beets and corn, served on a bed of peppered arugula with orange vinaigrette topped with herbed Happy Days goat cheese and shaved rainbow radish. Some of us couldn’t resist one of the restaurant’s renowned specialities – deboned chicken wings stuffed with cream cheese. Then there was thickly sliced chateaubriand, crusted with a cinnamon coffee rub and set over a buttermilk honey parsnip mash and a smoked apricot purée. Three chocolate mouthfuls closed the occasion – one just a foam that melted into air in our mouths, another a fluffy milk chocolate mousse, the last a heavy, wickedly intense terrine. A fine start to a weekend of professional eating.
The treats continued on Thursday. It is the generous custom of Tourism Kelowna’s Catherine Frechette to devise a gently educational culinary adventure for the judges as a team-building preamble to the competition itself. This year we were driven up to Tantalus winery on the brow of a ridge overlooking the valley. We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be tremendous fun. There to meet us were luminaries from the winery and also the chefs and bartender from Kelowna’s splendid Indian restaurant, Poppadoms (948 McCurdy Road, 778-753-5563, www.poppadoms.ca). It’s a family business, with Jas Dosanj and her daughter Aman in the kitchen, and her son Harry a most inventive bartender. Our task this sunny but very cold morning was to work as cooks, aproned in black and divided into pairs, set to prepare six different dishes that would eventually become our lunch. To help us work, Mark Puttick, manager of Knifewear Inc, was there to lend us an array of marvelous Japanese knives, while Jas and Aman moved amongst our prep tables, offering advice.
I paired up with Sid Cross and we set to work making a Keralan vegetable dish of potatoes, carrots, parsnip and onions in a coconut sauce spiced with handfuls of julienned ginger and garlic, green chilies and cardamom, cloves, peppercorns and roasted ground fennel seeds. Harry provided inspiration with miniature shots of his prize-winning cocktail, a creation he calls a Harry Berry that mixes Okanagan Spirits whisky, Tantalus Pinot Noir, a syrup made by reducing maple stout, and a shot of blackberry lemonade, all finished with a moment of egg white. I’m usually pretty good at imagining what a cocktail is going to taste like but I was most surprised by the suave, tangy, subtle flavour of this one… An excellent invention!
While our dishes were finishing in the Tantalus ovens, Jas showed us how to make chapatis and then let us try. We soon had the balls of wholewheat flour and water dough rising like balloons on our butane burners.
Lunch was amazing! It didn’t hurt that we had a good number of actual chefs on the judging panel. I can say without fear of contradiction that we go into the first element of the competition tonight – the mystery wine pairing contest – as a very focused posse, ready to do our duty in passing judgement on 11 of Canada’s finest chefs.
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.
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…