Imad-Eddine Makraji of Bab Kech wins gold at Montreal’s Great Kitchen Party.

An emulsion of judges and chefs. From left, James Chatto, Lilly Nguyen, Francis Blais, Gildas Meneu, Imad-Eddine Makraji, Tarik Belmoufid, Marie Paris and Robert Beauchemin.

We have had many different kinds of kitchen party in Montreal over the years; arguably, last night’s format was the best ever! It began with a very generous invitation from reigning Montreal champion (and CCC silver medallist) Marc-André Jetté to host the event in his restaurant, Hoogan & Beaufort. This allowed us to invite 16 VIP guests from our sponsors MNP and Air Canada, and to watch our five competing chefs and their sous chefs sharing the spacious open kitchen. In the end, they worked together like old friends, even helping the waiters bring out dishes to the guests. It was an intimate evening, very concentrated on culinary matters, but a wonderful time was had by all.

            It was a particularly merry reunion for the judges who hadn’t seen each other since 2019! We were led by our Senior Judge for Montreal, Gildas Meneu (TV and radio gastronomic journalist, writer, foodie, gourmet, butter lover), together with Senior Judge emeritus, Robert Beauchemin (writer, anthropoligist, food and restaurant critic extraodinaire); Lilly Nguyen, (award-winning cookbook author and wine enthusiast); Marie Pâris (head of the Gastronomie section at VOIR, and Montreal ambassador for website Star Wine List); and of course Marc-André Jetté as reigning champion. Gildas had invited five extremely talented chefs to compete, and they rose to the occasion superbly, providing dishes of great imagination and ingenuity that paid due homeage to the season and the province’s splendid produce. Our guests also had fun choosing a People’s Choice winner – and, for the first time I can remember, their deliberations produced a tie, shared between Imad-Eddine Makraji of Bab Kech and Tarik Belmoufid of Bistro 1843. The culinary judges were a tad more decisive.

Tarik Belmoufid’s bronze-medal dish

            We awarded the bronze medal to Tarik Belmoufid of Bistro 1843, who prepared quail from Quebec’s Kego Farms in two different ways. “It looks like a taco,” he joked, “and you can eat it like one, with your hands, just scooping everything up…” In fact it was created with breath-taking technical expertise and an artist’s eye for exquisite detail. The “taco” was in fact a crisp potato lattice, as dainty as golden lace, that cradled a moist confit of diced quail meat and soft, tangy apple; as a sauce, Chef had made a rutabaga fondue flavoured with cardamom, saffron and ginger. On top of it lay a wedge of the quail’s breast, crispy skin on, the meat perfectly juicy and tender and seasoned in the most subtle way with a blend of spices that surely included a suggestion of star anise. Close by on the plate was a small mound of a thick Jerusalem artichoke and potato purée topped with a teaspoonful of dramatically reduced and flavourful quail jus. A rosette of roasted butternut squash, slightly charred at the fringes, offered an alternative root, while tiny petals of pickled rutubaga added a refreshing tartness. Peppery baby nasturtium leaves were the garnish. As accompaniment, Chef chose a robust Quebec wine with a big acidic structure, Domaine de la Bauge’s Evolution Rouge, a blend of Frontenac, Marquette and Vidal from three separate vintages. It handled the subtle spicing well.

Francis Blais won silver

            The silver medal went to Francis Blais of Menu Extra,who charmed our guests with his energetic description of the dish. He also worked with quail but in an entirely different style, taking the film Babette’s Feast as his inspiration and cooking the breast of the bird “en sarcofage” – in a “coffin” of puff pastry that managed to be moist, crisp, buttery and ethereally lightweight all at the same time. The quail itself was marvellously tender, stuffed with a farce of smoked duck hearts and livers. Chef sauced it with an intense reduction of quail jus deepened with black garlic and resonant with umami, as was a small, densely textured mound of puréed chanterelles, the quintessence of mushroomness. A bundle of moist, perfectly cooked spinach represented the vegetable kingdom. It was a classic dish, impeccably executed and presented, and the wine match honoured its artistry – Nival’s 2020 Les Entêtés, which Marc-André Jetté considers to be Quebec’s best Pinot Noir. Its bright acidity, barnyard nose and excellent length were a fine match to the dish.

The gold-medal dish from Imad-Eddine Makraji

            Both of the above dishes were going to be hard to beat, but the last dish of the evening pipped them to the winning post. We gave our gold medal to Imad-Eddine Makraji of Bab Kech. As his dish was placed on the table, the judges closed their eyes and inhaled the heavenly aroma of spices that rose from the plates, redolent of Morocco but used, we soon discovered, with the utmost subtlety.  The principal protein was boneless beef chuck rib, braised as if for a tagine until it was fork-tender but still moist and juicy. A small rectangular slice was set on the plate, topped with a confit of figs and prunes and a sprinkle of crushed almonds. The second major element was an individual b’stilla – a puck-shaped pastry parcel filled with a spicy-sweet mixture of tomato, onion and cinnamon, dusted with its traditional “snow” of icing sugar. Beside it was a moist brunoise of saffron-scented potato, cooked exactkly to the point where it retained a little firmness and textural integrity. On top of it lay a crisp potato lattice shaped like a wheel, as finely cut as a stencil. A purée of sweet potato scented with cinnamon appeared as a broad orange stripe on the plate and the finishing sauce was a reduction of the beef braising juices infused with a raz al hanoute blend of 24 spices that a friend in Morocco makes specifically for Chef Makraji. It was a dish that intertwined deep but deft spiciness with moments of sweetness that enhanced and never hid the flavours of the ingredients. The wine match was wonderful with the meat and contrived to elevate the spices – Haywire’s 2019 Gamay from the Okanagan Valley.

            So we have another very strong champion to represent Montreal in Ottawa next February. Chef Makraji knows what lies ahead – he competed at the CCC once before as the sous for Chef Sophie Tabet in 2016.

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