Now It Can Be Told

Now It Can Be Told

The third meal alluded to in last week’s post was an extraordinary progressive dinner hosted by Stephen Leckie in celebration of his 50th birthday. Stephen is the founder of Gold Medal Plates (of which more later) and draws his friends from an extraordinarily broad cross-section of life—avant-garde musicians, major political figures, Olympic athletes, filmmakers, captains of industry, the occasional ink-stained wretch. At 5:30 last Saturday evening, sixteen of us rendezvoused at Célestin, where we stood about breaking the ice, drinking gimlets and eating torchon of foie gras wrapped in prosciutto. An hour or so later we trooped out onto the sidewalk. There stood a monstrous white vehicle like some kind of stretch SUV which Stephen introduced as the Culinary Chariot. It looked as if it might be capable of flight, all gleaming and weirdly lit like a car from another dimension. We climbed in, settling onto luxurious leather sofas while a sound system regaled us with dulcet airs and various light and laser shows charmed our eyes.

And so the evening began. We travelled in state from restaurant to restaurant, and, when we reached our destination, we remained in the amazing vehicle and food was brought out from the restaurant and handed in to us. Oysters at Starfish. Some kind of amazing venison-en-croute terrine and another paté of foie gras at Thuet. At Splendido, David Lee passed in little bowls of extraordinarily tender smoked beef propped up by perfectly turned vegetables. From time to time, Eugene Draw, violin virtuoso extraordinaire, improvised a musical commentary on the food we were eating. I have been a huge fan of Eugene since I heard him play six years ago, out in a meadow around a blazing bonfire as night fell at Michael Stadtländer’s Eigensinn Farm. Now he has a band and has progressed from busker to star but he played solo for Stephen Leckie that night. By 9:30, we had reached North 44º and there we bid farewell to the Culinary Chariot, sitting down to a succession of desserts. It was a brilliant party and could serve as a perfect blueprint for anyone else who might wish to rent the vehicle (the only one of its kind in Canada). Post a comment below and I’ll pass on details.

I was honoured to be included in Stephen Leckie’s party, especially considering I haven’t known him that long—only since I joined the Gold Medal Plates team, six months ago. “But what is this Gold Medal Plates?” you ask. It’s a fundraising campaign, now in its third year, which raises money to support Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes. The way we do this is to hold sumptuous galas in major Canadian cities where 10 of the very best local chefs compete, setting up a food station, bringing three or four assistants and cooking a single small dish. Each chef is paired with an Olympic or Paralympic athlete who may or may not be a huge asset gastronomically but who certainly adds lustre to the station, chatting to the crowd. The chefs’ creations are judged by a group of professional judges and also by a culinary jury of local gourmets. Every guest gets to taste the chefs’ creations, to mingle with Olympians and Paralympians, watch athletic displays, listen to good music and hobnob. Then it’s time to sit down for dessert, to bid on auction lots and to be inspired by great Canadian athletes like Catriona Lemay Doan and Paul Rosen. Meanwhile I’m taxing my counter-mathematical brain tabulating scores from my judges and jurors to see which chef wins the gold medal, which the silver and which the bronze. It’s important. The winning chef from each city will compete in a three-day culinary competition in Whistler in February (all tied-in to the winter Olympics in Vancouver/Whistler in 2010, see?). The winning chef from that marathon gets a free trip to the Beijing Olympics in 2008—which I think is a very cool prize.

We had the first Gold Medal Plates gala in Halifax this week. It was a great occasion, with over 500 guests and Nova Scotia’s finest chefs rising to the occasion. Taking the bronze medal was Chef Martin Ruiz Salvador of Fleur de Sel. Taking the silver medal was Chef Michael Howell of Tempest Restaurant. The gold medal winner was Chef Ray Bear of Gio restaurant who presented a gorgeously rich, succulently tender kobe beef short rib which he had slow-braised for five hours and dressed with the beef’s own reduced jus and a truffle foam. Local chanterelle, pine and imperial mushrooms were also part of the presentation, chopped up together, with peas and turned root vegetables for colour and for their sweet, autumnal flavours. A creamy celeriac purée and a streak of red wine gastrique completed the plate, with a crunchy little ribbon of celeriac as the final garnish.

Over the next few weeks, Gold Medal Plates events are taking place across the country. The plan was to make this the most important national culinary competition in Canada and I think we have already done that. This is such a nation of far-flung city states, existing in ignorance of one another. Bringing the best chefs together from so many cities and also building a network of judges and culinarians across the country can only be a good thing, I would suggest. And it’s all for a good cause.

To find out more about the Gold Medal Plates in Winnipeg (November 2), Edmonton (November 6), Toronto (November 9), Vancouver (November 14), Ottawa (November 16) and Calgary (November 22), you might want to seek out their web site. It’s all there, including lists of the chefs competing in every city and how you can buy a ticket. I urge you to come to the party—it really is tremendous fun.

I had a delightful time in Nova Scotia, staying a few extra days and pottering around, eating my weight in oysters, scallops, clams and lobsters, trying the Nova Scotia wines (Jost Muscat was the clear winner in that field), scavenging jetsam from the beach at Blue Rocks, and studying model ship building techniques in various museums from Halifax to Lunenburg to such good purpose that I can now cut jogs into my nibbing strake and bevel my futtocks simply as strong as any man in Illyria.

Back in Toronto, I learn that Rob Bragagnolo, who impressed so much with his molecular-influenced cooking at Lobby earlier this year, has an intriguing new gig. He and his former sous chef at Lobby, Sergio Fiorino, will be sharing the open kitchen at Fumetti, on Brant Street. Fumetti is the reinvention of the very short-lived Eight Restolounge and the name means “little clouds of smoke”, the slang term for speech balloons in Italian fotoromanzi comic books. “The restaurant Fumetti is the embodiment of such fotoromanzi,” explains Bragagnolo, “the live-theatre kitchen stimulating and challenging all of the senses through the use of, for example, smelling swatches, plume atomizers, culinary mis-en-scene, etcetra…” It sounds most interesting and should be up and running in two to three weeks’ time.

Now some very sad news—the sudden tragic death of a guy who was a friend of many people in the restaurant industry. For the last decade, Trinidad-born Yussuf Mohammed, known to everyone as Prince, delivered the goodies from primo suppliers La Ferme to chefs all over the region. Last week he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was only 59 years old. “Everyone knew Prince,” says Tory Edwards of Didier. “He was such a lovely,
upbeat guy—always happy. I believe I am speaking for many restaurant people in and around Toronto when I express great sadness for the loss of this unique and lovely man.” Tory tells me that the owners of La Ferme, Nadine and Jean Marc Ridel, have put together a journal in memory of Prince, eventually to be given to his family. The book will start at Didier, and make its way around all the Toronto restaurants La Ferme supplies so that chefs and owners who knew and appreciated him can add their thoughts and comments. La Ferme has also sent a letter giving the opportunity to assist Prince’s family in the hope that each establishment can raise money to ease the difficulties they now face.