All That Glisters

All That Glisters

Gold Medal Plates streaked across the finish line this week with events in Edmonton and Ottawa. Now we can resume normal programming—at least for this weekend, for I’m heading down to Stratford for three days on Tuesday. Luckily my wife will be at home to feed the guppies. Here are the final reports.

The Edmonton gala was a total triumph with vast sums raised for our Olympic and Paralympic athletes coaxed from a merry, civil and very well fed crowd of over 650—the largest number of tickets sold in the whole country. And, Edmonton provided us with another first—more on that later.

Touring the great hall at the Shaw Conference Centre where the chefs set up their stations, I found them all keen and itching to get started by half past four! The judges and culinary jury were also straining at the leash, but it would have been folly to miss Makoto Ono’s awesome little canapés served during the VIP reception, and we all exercised a commendable patience, listening to sledge hockey gold medallist Paul Rosen’s inspiring words and watching young athletes leap hurdles in our midst (the VIP salon is a large room). Then, as our watches tolled six, we raced for the elevators and the fun began. Ninety minutes later, the judges returned to the fold where we found an extraordinary unanimity in the scores we awarded.

Taking the bronze medal was David Cruz of Sage, who offered a perfectly cooked, pan-seared wild Baja scallop dressed with a delectable, almost puréed ragout of black truffle and chanterelles. A stripe of a robustly flavoured purée of roasted butternut squash decorated the plate alongside a fleeting moment of citrus salad. The pretty presentation was finished with a little sauce like the essence of chanterelle and a flourish of green basil oil. It was a beautifully balanced presentation and worked extremely well with the wine Cruz chose—Mt. Boucherie 2006 Gewurztraminer from Kelowna.

Our silver medal was awarded to another seafood dish, presented by Frank Olson of Red Ox Inn. In the starring role was a giant Australian prawn, marinated for a moment with orange juice and then sautéed very briefly, leaving it tender, juicy and altogether irresistible. Beneath it lay a slice of a lobster-and-scallop sausage, poached and then fried, with a charmingly lightweight texture. Olson added a loosely wrapped tortellini filled with a mixture of apple, leek, mascarpone and dill, and surrounded everything with a sauce of beet juice quickened with butter, ginger and vinegar. Served with Grey Monk 2005 Latitude Fifty Rosé, the pairing was the best wine match of the entire evening.

Our gold medal went to Judy Wu of Wild Tangerine, the first woman ever to win a Gold Medal Plates event. She prepared an “Olympian Duck Trio” that began with impeccably tender slices of duck breast that had been smoked with jasmine tea, acquiring a subtle but exotic aroma. A miniature Vietnamese-style salad roll contained duck foie gras, refreshed by chopped lettuce. The third component was a perfect little potsticker filled with minced shiitake mushroom and duck confit, its flavour ringing out across the palate like a carillon of bells. Wu decorated her plate with a tangy mandarin orange mayonnaise and a spoonful of bright green chili jelly that started sweet and finished with a sly spicy heat. The wine she chose—Lake Breeze 2005 Seven Poplars Pinot Noir from the Okanagan—worked well with all elements of the dish, especially the tea-smoked breast.

On to Ottawa-Gatineau for the final stop on our national tour. The Hilton Lac-Leamy was the venue, and, just as last year, the crowd of 450 was fully engaged, thoroughly enjoying the chefs’ creations and showing their pleasure with generous bidding. The standard of cooking was remarkably high with many dishes of an ambitious complexity: the good news was how often those lofty goals were reached. The judges were not unanimous in their favourites, but when all was said, done and tabulated, our three medallists met with everyone’s approval.

Taking the bronze medal was Ben Baird of The Urban Pear with one of the simplest but most effective dishes of the evening. He rubbed a dry marinade of toasted rosemary and garlic salt onto a quail breast then seared it, skin side down, on a high heat. The result was exceptionally tender meat with a crisp skin that Baird set upon a little pillow of a raviolo stuffed with a chunky mix of apple, cheddar cheese and duck confit. Winter kale wilted in butter brought a rich and bittersweet balance to the dish, and a vanilla-scented duck reduction was the finishing sauce. It all played very prettily with Black Prince Winery’s 2006 Cabernet Franc Reserve from Prince Edward County.

The silver medal was awarded to Matthew Carmichael of Restaurant 18, who offered a ginger-lacquered fillet of B.C. black cod. The creature is always a crowd-pleaser with its sweet, butter-soft flesh, but tonight it was particularly delectable, falling into glossy petals at the touch of a fork. The fish was laid onto carrot-coconut purée, the colour of saffron, sweetened with a trace of vanilla honey. Postage stamp-sized morsels of sugar snap peas provided unexpected crunch and freshness, and Closson Chase Vineyards 2005 Chardonnay, also from Prince Edward County, was a most delicious and sophisticated accompaniment.

Our Ottawa gold medal was won fair and square by Michael Moffat of Beckta Dining & Wine. And, it was won in dramatic fashion. Guests approaching the station were greeted with what looked like a small, soft, greenish-brown candy apple on a stick. It turned out to be foie gras suspended in apple cider through the molecular manipulation of red algae, its soft, luxe texture matching the rich flavour of the foie and the sweetness of the apple. The second element of the presentation was a tea-smoked oyster fritter served on the half shell and topped with mango “caviar” (puréed mango enchanted by another molecular technique into tiny spheres with a runny mango heart). The final treat was a slender cornet of crisp pastry. “Eat it from the top down,” suggested restaurateur Stephen Beckta. And we did, enjoying the shameless richness of Berkshire pork rillettes at the crown of the cornet, the tender chunk of belly pork that lay below it and the final, pungent envoi of very ripe epoisses cheese hidden in the point of the cone. The epoisses totally hijacked our palates and was served alongside a wine that managed to stand up to it well—Sumac Ridge Estate Winery Black Sage Vineyard 2004 White Meritage.

Now we know all the stars who will meet in Toronto from Feb. 7 to 10 at the Canadian Culinary Championship: Anthony Walsh of Canoe (Toronto), Martin Ruiz Salvador of Fleur de Sel (Halifax), Roland Ménard of Manoir Hovey (Montreal), Pino Posteraro of Cioppino’s (Vancouver), Paul Rogalski of Rouge (Calgary), Judy Wu of Wild Tangerine (Edmonton) and Michael Moffat of Beckta Dining & Wine (Ottawa-Gatineau). A fascinating cast of characters! Needless to say, anyone who wishes to witness this titanic struggle during the three days of intense competition will be more than welcome. It promises to be an extraordinary weekend of food and wine, including all sorts of extracurricular fun such as a day trip to Niagara’s finest wineries with David Lawrason, a rare Scotch tasting with me, an amazing dim sum lunch with chef Terrence Chan at Lai Wah Heen and an optional Sunday spent at Eigensinn Farm, where Michael Stadtländer is planning something extraordinary in the brumal forests of the north. Plus the actual competitions and galas, of course. Tickets can be purchased and details savoured at I very much hope to see you there.