Canadian Culinary Championships: The Grand Finale

Canadian Culinary Championships: The Grand Finale

Three intensely competitive nights, three very distinct occasions. On Thursday evening, the Canadian Culinary Championship began with the black box competition held in the teaching kitchens of George Brown College. We restricted numbers to 65 guests so that the seven chefs could work in relative ease with their sous-chefs, assisted by some of the talented students at the college. GBC maestro John Higgins and I had deliberately chosen challenging items for the black box: flank steak from the brilliant Ontario supplier Top Meadow Farms (who generously sponsored all the black box ingredients), two Georgian Bay whitefish, a celery root, a bag of Ontario peanuts, a honeycomb oozing honey and (the only ingredient from outside the province) a hand of green plantains. The chefs all obeyed the rules, creating two dishes that used every ingredient plus whatever they needed from a communal pantry, and delivered the plates to the judges within the allotted time.

The second evening involved the wine-pairing contest with chefs creating a dish they felt to be the perfect match for our mystery wine. We took over The Century Room nightclub on King Street West, and the indie genius of the electric violin, Eugene “Dr.” Draw, amazed everyone with his passionate music. Marnie McBean spoke for the Olympians, and David Lawrason introduced the mystery wine he had chosen (a delicious Closson Chase Chardonnay) and its maker, Deborah Paskus, with the winery’s principal, actress Sonja Smits. Given only $400 to buy ingredients to feed 150, the chefs made great use of fish. Some of them had aced the black box competition; this time, others performed better, with Anthony Walsh winning the People’s Choice vote. Going into Saturday’s Grand Finale, held in the neo-classical elegance of the Arcadian Court, there were no obvious front-runners. All seven chefs were within six percentage points of each other.

This evening, the judges were segregated at a table behind a velvet rope, and food runners brought them the chefs’ creations with bottles of the accompanying wines. Did we think it was going to be easy? It was not. Every chef performed superbly, creating whatever dish he or she wished and choosing the wine to go with it. By now, the judges were able to recognize the way each chef worked, and we all found it fascinating to see their creative personalities so clearly expressed on the plate.

Martín Ruiz Salvador of Fleur de Sel in Lunenberg seared a scallop as perfectly as any I have ever eaten and set it on a delicious fricassee of smoked pork hock and white beans with shallots and chervil. Around it, he placed a little purée of salt cod and white bean, a ring of veal jus and a final green corona of peashoot oil. It was a glorious dish, beautifully balancing the flavours of pork, cod and bean. Martín chose to pair it with Inniskillin Pinot Noir Reserve 2004.

Michael Moffatt of Beckta Dining and Wine in Ottawa called his creation “snails and tails.” It consisted of an open raviolo filled with a rich ragoût of escargot and oxtail, chopped sun-dried tomato and morsels of leek and pear. Porcini enriched the braising liquid, and a micro-celery leaf perched on top as the garnish, but it was the sauce that lifted the dish to the heights—a blue cheese fondue made with Quebec Eremite cheese. Michael’s wine cut through it in a delectably refreshing way—Black Sage Vineyard White Meritage Reserve 2006.

Judy Wu of Wild Tangerine in Edmonton put together a plate that looked like a tiny model of the world’s fair, complete with a miniature Olympian flag. She chose to work with bison, slow cooking the short rib in Shao-Hsing rice wine and presenting it in a tiny box of waxed paper. Beside it was a bundle of fresh baby leaves and sprouts wrapped in a tender slice of bison tenderloin. And next to that sat a small, domed steamed bun flecked with organic flaxseed and filled with a dark, meaty braise of the bison’s tail meat. Judy’s sauces had amazed us all weekend, and she produced another star for this dish—a roasted sesame and chili mayo with hemp oil. Her wine was Lake Breeze Vineyards Seven Poplars Merlot 2005.

Paul Rogalski of Rouge in Calgary served his dish piping hot in a martini glass, frying delicate little black truffle gnocchi and morsels of beef confit—chuck beef he had brought with him from Spring Creek Ranch, Alberta. Underneath the meat were two sauces, one like a lobster bisque, the other flavoured with a rich mix of curry spices. The finishing touch was a sprinkling of dried hyssop petals from Paul’s own garden. The wine he chose was Mount Boucherie Estate Gewurztraminer 2006.

Roland Ménard of Manoir Hovey in North Hatley, Quebec, put together a presentation of extraordinary elegance and classic simplicity that had several of the judges gasping in respectful admiration. He chose to use Quebec foie gras, turning it into a “log” that was more like a stiff mousse than a torchon, perfectly cylindrical and of a diameter not much greater than my thumb. Beside it on the plate were a comma of wild ginger purée and a brunoise of beet mixed with apple cider pearls. Such delicate but perfectly complementary flavours! Roland’s wine was the Nk’Mip Cellars Pinot Blanc 2006.

Anthony Walsh of Canoe in Toronto presented a dish with two distinct elements. On one side was a scrumptious little artichoke tarte tatin topped with a slice of Richview squab breast roasted with Newfie screech and maple—probably the single most delicious thing we tasted all evening. On the other side of the plate lay a perfectly tender slice of Nunavut caribou leg with a miniature steamed onion that cradled a teaspoonful of a spiced ragoût of caribou neck. Dividing these treats was a heart nut smothered in Soma spiced chocolate. Jackson-Triggs Delaine Vineyard Cabernet Merlot 2005 was the chosen wine.

Melissa Craig of Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler decided to work with king crab. Inside a small cone of bamboo leaf (don’t eat it! Use the chopsticks!) was the very tender, juicy, rare flesh from the claw, garnished with tobiko and some soy-sauce pop rocks that were still popping when you held the cone to your ear and which then melted into sweetness on the tongue. There was a delicately flavoured crab croquette, spherical and golden-crusted, sitting on a little pool of mango-basil purée. Lastly, a demitasse of king crab soup—white, full-bodied with coconut milk and with a gentle lemon grass and chili hit. Melissa paired the dish with a bracingly acidic Tantalus Vineyards Riesling 2006, which the judges deemed to be the best wine match of the evening (and one of the few that could be described as adventurous).

While speakers Curt Harnett and Justin Trudeau held the attention of the crowd, the judges retired to their cell and crunched the numbers. It was agonizingly close. Only 0.03 per cent separated Martín Ruiz Salvador (76.7 per cent) in fourth place from Roland Ménard (76.73 per cent) in third. Anthony Walsh won the silver medal with a score of 79.92 per cent. And the gold medal winner, the Canadian Culinary Champion, was Melissa Craig with a score of 80.16 per cent.

It was a most significant triumph, especially considering that Melissa had only been invited to participate a few weeks earlier when the gold medallist from the Vancouver Gold Medal Plates event, Pino Posteraro of Cioppino’s, withdrew from the competition for medical reasons. Melissa had won silver and graciously stepped in to represent B.C. Next year we’ll do it all again—in Banff, Alberta.

One small postscript. Makoto Ono was the Canadian Culinary Champion last year, as loyal readers of this blog will know. He was also present this weekend and handed over his trophy to Melissa Craig on the podium. Makoto was hardly a household name when he entered the Gold Medal Plates competition in 2006—the friendly young chef of a 12-table bistro and gourmet store called Gluttons, in Winnipeg’s Italian neighbourhood. Late last year, he left that position, intending to travel. It was at a party
at my house that he met Annie Kwok, who suggested he speak to her son in Hong Kong. He in turn introduced Makoto to some investors from mainland China… The amazing result? In April this year, Makoto will open a 300-seat restaurant in Beijing, called Makoto. And it is just the first of a series of Makotos planned to open all across Asia in the next year. There isn’t a nicer, more modest chef in the world than Makoto Ono, and I am thrilled that he is poised to become an Asian superstar.