First Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Champion

First Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Champion

This weekend, in Whistler, B.C., we held the first ever Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championship—the culmination of a journey that started six months ago. Last fall, we crossed the country, holding Gold Medal Plates gala events in seven cities—Halifax, Ottawa-Gatineau, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. The purpose was to raise money for Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes but part of the show in each city was a cooking competition between the top ten local chefs. We awarded a gold medal to the winning chef from each city and invited them to Whistler for the weekend of February 1 through 4, to compete for the ultimate title. My challenge was to think of a format for the Championship that would truly test the chefs and in the end we came up with a three-part competition.

Part one, on Friday morning, was a black box competition where each chef had to make two dishes in an hour, using all five ingredients in the box—venison flanks, scallops, sweet peppers, quinces and seaweed.

For the second leg, we had brought each chef up on stage during our opening reception on Thursday evening and gave him an unlabelled bottle of wine and $300. They had 30 hours to create and cook a dish that was the ideal match for the wine. They could beg, borrow and steal ingredients from around Whistler but they couldn’t spend more than the $300. They had to serve the dish to 70 people on Saturday morning.

The third leg was a gala event with each chef presenting one dish to the crowd of 150. Our venue was the Hilton Whistler Resort and Spa where executive chef Jay Lynn proved the most generous and hospitable of hosts, helping us set up the black box contest in the kitchens of the attached conference centre, ordering in the ingredients and generally offering huge amounts of wisdom and advice to the judges as well as the chefs.The panel of judges was composed of the senior judge from each of our cities—Bill Spurr from Halifax, Sasha Chapman from Toronto, Anne DesBrisay from Ottawa, Jeff Gill from Winnipeg, John Gilchrist from Calgary, Judy Schultz from Edmonton and me. Our Vancouver judge, Jamie Maw, couldn’t make it for this weekend.

And so we began. Our star chefs were as follows: Mark McEwan of North 44° and Bymark in Toronto, who brought his own camera crew as he was filming the weekend for an upcoming episode of his TV show, The Heat. Ray Bear of Gio’s in Halifax. Michael Blackie of Brookstreet in Ottawa, who brought his sommelier and rented kitchen space in another hotel to give himself room to spread out. Makoto Ono, the 28 year-old owner-chef of a 12-table Japanese restaurant in Winnipeg called Gluttons. Michael Brown of the Westin hotel in Edmonton. Michael Lyon of Giorgio’s Trattoria in Banff. And Robert Clark of the renowned C restaurant in Vancouver. Each chef brought two assistants but could only use one of them in the first contest, the Black Box.

It was a wonderful morning. Crowded into the kitchens of the Conference Centre were 50 spectators, seven judges at a long table, three film crews and various photographers. We staggered the timing so that no more than three chefs were working together at any one time and Michael Blackie and his sous chef started the ball rolling—their dramatic intensity and focus setting a mood that lasted all morning. That was no surprise. All these guys had come to Whistler to win, not just for the bragging rights of becoming the first Canadian Culinary Champion but also for the grand prize—a free trip to Beijing in 2008. So concentration was only to be expected. What astonished the judges was that four of the seven chefs failed to use all five ingredients in the box, for which they were docked ten marks out of 100, and two others continued to plate their dishes after we called time, which lost them two marks. The only chef who fully obeyed the rules was Makoto Ono. He also cooked a spectacular clear dashi broth with the seaweed, made udon noodles and pan-seared the venison for one dish, seared the scallops and served them with quince chutney and red pepper foam for the other. After the first leg, Ono was in the lead with Ray Bear, Mark McEwan and Robert Clark hard on his heels.

Part two of the competition was held in the Hilton’s ballroom, lavishly decorated by the Gold Medal Plates team. The mystery wine was identified—a robust young Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 from Jackson-Triggs Okanagan, the sister wine to the Jackson-Triggs Grand Reserve Shiraz that won the International Wine and Spirits Challenge as the world’s best Shiraz in London last July. The winemaker, a delightful 25 year-old Australian woman called Brooke Blair introduced the wine and then joined the judges to assess the chefs’ work. Each one, not surprisingly, did an amazing job. Initiative had been part of the challenge for this leg and, as our camera crews followed the chefs around Whistler on their shopping/foraging expeditions, we learned a lot about their methods. The Hilton was off limits but many of our contestants borrowed from other chefs they knew at Whistler restaurants—the brilliant Melissa Craig, chef of Bearfoot Bistro, was particularly generous. Others had already made arrangements with Whistler’s gourmet food stores offering goodness knows what forms of barter for free ingredients. Receipts were gathered. Mark McEwan spent $299, including a bottle of Chablis for his assistants. Makoto Ono spent $90 and handed the remainder back, asking that it be put into the kitty for the athletes.

Once again, the dishes were delectable. Mark McEwan made a dazzling little shepherd’s pie out of caribou and bison and served it with a shot of gamebird consommé containing foie gras and wild mushrooms. Michael Brown courageously went vegetarian, wrapping brie and a ragout of wild mushrooms in a crisp phyllo pastry pouch. Michael Blackie smoked black cod, braised veal cheeks, crisped beets and added several gorgeous sauces to his offering, which worked superbly well with the wine. By the time I had entered all the marks into my cumulative spreadsheet it was obvious that this was going to be a very close finish. The top five chefs were all within three percentage points of each other! Whatever happened at the gala event would decide matters. One way or another, history was about to be made.

The gala was awesome. Over the course of the weekend we had hosted other little parties for our guests—a rare whisky tasting, very generously sponsored by Corby’s who provided half a dozen superb whiskies including Longmorn 15 Year Old, The Glenlivet 18 Year Old, a 30 Year Old Ballantine’s that is coming to Canada for the first time next October, and an amazing Laphroiag Quarter Cask that tasted like iodine-soaked oak. We had also held a cocktail party starring Stealth vodka and hosted by gold medal snowboarder Ross Rebagliati. Gold medal sledge-hockey goalie Paul Rosen was guest of honour at the reception and skier Steve Podborski hosted the gala.

This time, the chefs had carte blanche to cook whatever they wished and they took full advantage of such freedom. Michael Blackie, for example, presented a plate with three elements—a pancetta-wrapped rabbit loin with salmonberry “retention”; an egg cooked for 1_ hours at 64 degrees centigrade until it was a soft golden sphere which he stuffed with lobster, truffle and tobiko, refreshed by lime; and some gorgeous Charlevoix veal from Quebec with a morel crust, soy-stained foie gras, apple cheddar foam and his ‘B’ logo painted onto a postage stamp of purple jelly.

Mark McEwan played with a classic dish, Veal Oscar. He had some Dungeness crabs couriered up to the town and turned them into a soft pillow of a raviolo which he dressed with an intensely flavourful leek oil made from David Cohlmeyer’s baby leeks. He
braised veal shanks then crowned the super-tender meat with a “caviar” made from the bone marrow and with sliver of torchon of foie gras. He used three sauces—a crab bisque, the veal reduction and a beurre blanc.

Makoto Ono worked with tuna, presenting it three ways: ahi tuna tea-smoked and air-dried to crunchiness and strewn over a “Caesar” pannacotta with micro arugula; as a superbly tender herbed and garlic-touched, olive oil-poached bluefin tuna filet with saffron jelly, kalamata olive candy and a spicy purée of roasted red pepper and potato purée; and as a tartare with red beets on a small disc of daikon, crowned with crispy ginger threads.

All weekend long, the chefs thrilled us with their imagination, creativity, initiative, and technical skills. Each one of them was already a champion, honoured among gourmets. It might have been nice to celebrate and fête them all equally, but it is in the nature of competitions to produce a winner.

While inspiring music played, the chefs joined me on the stage. Stephen Leckie, head of Gold Medal Plates, held the great golden trophy in anticipation. The bronze medal went to Mark McEwan. The silver medal went to Michael Blackie. The gold medal was awarded to Makoto Ono.

I think everyone in the room had a sense that history was being made. There was a huge buzz that the polite young man from Winnipeg, very much the underdog, had triumphed over some of this country’s culinary superstars. And, as Makoto Ono stood on the podium holding the trophy and Brooke Blair the winemaker stood in the crowd and applauded, it was hard not to feel that this weekend was allowing us a glimpse of the future and the coming generation of chefs and winemakers.

A final piece of drama was provided by a landslide the following morning which cut off the Sea to Sky highway between Squamish and Horseshoe Bay. The judges had already left for the airport but Makoto Ono found his way blocked. Carrying his trophy, he abandoned his car, clambered over the fallen rocks and trees and hitched a ride down to Vancouver on the other side.

Meanwhile, those of us who had remained behind at the Hilton enjoyed an excellent Super Bowl party where chef Michael Lyon volunteered to cook dinner and served us the most superb bison tenderloin, ordered from a farm near Banff.

The marks were close, when all was said and done. At the final gala, the public also voted and by an extraordinary coincidence they ranked Mark McEwan and Michael Blackie first, with an equal number of points (8352). Some of the judges also placed McEwan first; others preferred Blackie. On every judge’s card, however, Makoto Ono came either first or second. He finished about four percentage points ahead of Michael Blackie, who was less than one percentage point ahead of Mark McEwan. Would things have been different if the chefs had used all their ingredients in the Black Box competition? Just to find out, I crunched the numbers again, adding back the penalty points the judges had subtracted. The margin of victory shrank but Makoto Ono still won.

So the first Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championship was over. It will soon be time to start planning the 2007 campaign…

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In other news… Last fall, Franco Prevedello paid a call on Yannick Bigourdan and David Lee of Splendido with an interesting proposition. Bigourdan and Lee’s planned venture on King Street West in the old Indian Motorcycle Café had just fallen through and they were smarting. Prevedello brought the smiles back. Now it can be told that the three men will be the partners in a new 7000-square-foot restaurant at 180 Queen Street West, the handsome new building near the north-west corner of Queen and University. The lease has been signed. The partners take possession in May and then work will begin, with Prevedello contributing his enormous expertise in matters of concept, design, systems and wines. An opening is planned for January 2008 and I don’t know which aspect of it all is more exciting—a new place by Bigourdan and Lee or Franco Prevedello’s return to the game he once dominated.