Coast to Coast
A huge treat this week was the world premiere of a feature-length movie, The Islands Project, written and directed by Michael Stadtländer. The great chef showed it at the Royal Cinema on College Street on Thursday evening to a large and enthusiastic crowd as part of the eco-friendly Planet in Focus film festival. First came a charming, funny and scary short documentary movie, P is for Papaya, by a young filmmaker called Aube Giroux. The story tells of her obsessive love for papayas, a passion suddenly threatened by the discovery that most of the papayas that reach us in Canada come from the U.S. and are genetically modified by the addition of a gene collected from a particular virus. Needless to say, the rest of the world shuns this Frankenfruit, but our beloved government has decided not to tell us about it, so Canadians and Americans continue to gorge. There aren’t many delightful anti-GMO films, but this is one.
Stadtländer’s film was equally compelling—a gentle chronicle of what he did over the summer holidays: driving his converted school bus cum solar kitchen to the Gulf Islands of British Columbia and creating immortal meals on each island, helped from time to time by chefly friends like Vancouver icons Vikram Vij and Tojo. The food is totally seductive (especially if you love manila clams and beach oysters), but the charm lies in Stadtländer’s eccentric aesthetic. He rescues an old plastic baby doll from the town dump, christens it Captain Organic and poses it throughout the film in bizarre but appropriate postures. I hope I’m not playing the spoiler if I reveal that the Captain finds a mate in the last reel and ends up in a plastic-Toyland coital embrace in the Pacific surf, à la From Here to Eternity. Nobody saw that coming. And then there’s the antique wooden TV set that Stadtländer also finds at the dump, hollows out and uses, passim, as a prop for interviewing farmers he meets along the way. Turning back to look at the audience at our viewing, I saw 200 upturned faces, wide eyed and smiling, utterly rapt inside Stadtländer’s marvellous vision. He had resisted the opportunity to preach or make heavy points, didn’t even mention that his plan to cook a solar-powered haute cuisine dinner in the Fort McMurray oil fields was vetoed by the oil companies. I wish I could say the film will be coming to a cinema near you, but I don’t think he has yet found any distribution.
On Monday and Tuesday, prior to all the above, I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Gold Medal Plates fundraising gala was my primary motive, of course, but I managed to squeeze in a trip to the Maritime Museum to humbly converse with two of the ship modellers who work there, building fabulous, museum-quality models from scratch. What passed between us had best remain a secret, but I’m much more optimistic than I was about my creaky futtocks and sagging shrouds.
The night before GMP, we went out with chef Ray Bear of Gio, last year’s winner and therefore a judge rather than a competitor this year. We finished our evening at Gio, where they brought us the most tender dish of squid I have ever eaten. Bear blanches them in bouillabaisse, flash fries them and dishes them up with chorizo, baby tomato and a touch of pineapple, but it’s the provenance not the recipe that makes them special. These are female squid that lay their eggs at night in the rolling Atlantic then head inshore, around a headland and a wharf, to an eight-foot wide pebble beach, where they launch themselves onto dry land to expire. Bear has been down there in the moonlight and tried to save the foolhardy creatures by putting them back in the water, but they just leap onto the beach again, heaven-bent on suicide. Jacques Cousteau would have a field day. Local fisherman use them as free bait, tipping their hat to the gods of the sea. Bear gathers them up and brings them back to his restaurant to become an improbably tender offering to a grateful clientele. This is why we go to the Maritimes, for dishes like Bear’s squid. At Gold Medal Plates, however, all but one of the competing chefs opted to cook meat.
It was an awesome event. Curling champion Colleen Jones was our emcee, quickly putting the room at ease, and mogul skiing superstar Jennifer Heil was the inspiring guest speaker. The evening began with a VIP reception, where our current Canadian Culinary Champion, Makoto Ono, wowed the crowd with his unique hors d’oeuvres. Then, the 2004 gold-medal-winning chef, Christophe Luzeux of Windows at the World Trade and Convention Centre, and the 2006 champion, the aforementioned Bear, were inducted into the Gold Medal Plates Hall of Fame.
Out in the chefs’ salons, all eyes were drawn to the elaborately decorated station of Chef Sam Jaggi of Taj Mahal and Thai Chin—an amazing construction that included palm trees, a fountain and statues of Hindu deities. On either side of the room, athletes engaged in judo and wrestling bouts until a basso gong brought in Chinese dragon dancers who led the multitude into the second part of the evening.
Taking the bronze medal this year was Craig Flinn, of Chives Canadian Bistro, who presented a “Valley Corn Tasting” made of three components. First was a perfect little shepherd’s pie of juicy lamb, crowned with a purée of Yukon Gold potatoes spiked with corn kernels and aged gouda cheese. Beside it perched a miniature fritter of trap-caught Canso shrimp, smoked over maple wood and bound in a light, corn-flecked batter. Completing the dish, a chunky piece of exceptionally tender bacon, braised with apple and cinnamon, was set upon a little mound of succotash and strewn with crispy sweet potato threads.
The silver medal went to Christophe Luzeux, who presented the evening’s only fish dish—a fillet of seared halibut, crowned with a Szechwan-spiced glaze over strands of daikon and marinated seaweed. Sharing the plate was a perfect little scampi, dressed with a yuzu beurre blanc, its softness contrasting beautifully with the textures of stir-fried edamame, carrot, shiitake and red onion beneath it. A black puffed rice chip held a teaspoonful of tangy pepper squash chutney topped with a pea-sized ball of ginger ice—an exciting variety of temperatures!—which in turn concealed a grain or two of flying-fish roe.
This year’s gold-medal-winning chef, Martin Ruiz Salvador of Fleur de Sel in Lunenburg, also took bronze last year. Salvador began his dish with beef shank on the bone, slow braising the meat then mixing it with the bone marrow, some minced cep mushrooms and a little foie gras for extra richness. Then he filled the bone with the mixture and served it with a smooth, rich purée of parsley root and a foie gras and cep foam. The plate was finished with a dash of chive oil and a veal jus and port reduction. Salvador now goes on to compete in the Canadian Culinary Championship in Toronto next February, joining Anthony Walsh of Canoe in the arena.
I can’t finish without mentioning the most extraordinary cheese board I have ever seen. It was the grand finale of the wedding feast of Afrim Pristine (chevalier du Taste Fromage de France and a scion of Cheese Boutique) and his delightful bride, Heather Mays. The whole day was a joyous triumph, but when the curtains parted to reveal les fromages, all 230 guests sighed in amazement. A great trestle had been set up, groaning with 690 pounds of cheese—including eight whole mimolettes, towering minarets of brie, mountains of comté, parmigiano-reggiano and dozens of other species. An amazing and humbling spectacle, never to be forgotten. Heartfelt congratulations to the happy couple and their families. Pictures will no doubt be posted very soon at www.cheeseboutique.com.