A slight brush of a hand upon the ice, the chatter of a ski across a rut, a slapshot fired a millisecond late, an ingredient prepared then left off the plate, such are the minuscule imperfections that determine medal placements. Little wonder the chefs identify with elite athletes and the charity of choice selected for the Canadian Culinary Championships, Gold Medal Plates is to support Canadian Olympians.
Like the athletes competing in the Olympics, every chef is a winner before the competition even begins. However, in the heat of the moment as Tiger Woods might say, will they bring their “A game?”
In fact, everyone who gets a chance to experience this event whether through competing, purchasing a ticket, volunteering or representing Canada’s Olympians feels like a winner. I absolutely love the opportunity to meet some of Canada’s finest chefs and athletes. I have attended every year since it came to Kelowna. Imagine my joy when it was announced that it’ll return through to 2015! Not only is it a chance to see other Canadian chefs in action, it’s an opportunity to show off the Okanagan.
Let’s back up a little in case these championships are new to you. Gold Medal Plates was founded in 2003 with a goal “to raise substantial funds for Canada’s high performance athletes, while celebrating Canadian excellence.” And raise funds it has, with a combined net total of over $8.2 million for Canada’s Olympic athletes from 2004 to 2013. Gold Medal Plates celebrates excellence in Canadian cuisine, wine, the arts and athletic achievement. In 2013, competitions were held in 11 cities across Canada to crown a gold, silver and bronze medal culinary team and the gold team from each progressed on to compete nationally at the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna, BC, February 2014.
This year the competing chefs included Roger Andrews, St. John’s, Relish Gourmet Burgers; Kelly Cattani, Winnipeg, Elements the Restaurant; Marysol Foucault, Ottawa, Edgar (Gatineau); Lorenzo Loseto, Toronto, George Restaurant; Duncan Ly, Calgary, Yellow Door Bistro; Trevor Robertson, Saskatoon, Radisson Hotel; Martin Ruiz Salvador, Halifax, Fleur de Sel (Lunenburg); Paul Shufelt, Edmonton, Century Hospitality Group; Brian Skinner, BC, The Acorn (Vancouver); Danny St. Pierre, Montreal, Auguste Restaurant (Sherbrooke); and Jonathan Thauberger, Regina, Crave Kitchen + Wine Bar. Medal winners for 2014 included gold to Chef Loseto, silver to Chef Ly, and bronze to Chef St. Pierre.
The national competition is comprised of three main components: Mystery Wine Pairing, The Black Box and The Grand Finale. For the Mystery Wine Pairing, the chefs were presented with a mystery bottle of wine on the Thursday night at Hotel Eldorado. On a set budget of $550, they were charged with the task to procure ingredients and present a dish to best pair with the mystery wine. Oh yes, and this has to be pulled off for a reception at 6 pm, Friday, serving 425 guests and the judges at the Delta Grand Okanagan.
Mystery Wine Pairing
A highlight for guests that evening is they get to play along with the judges to select a winner for People’s Choice Award. Although that selection does not impact the judges’ official scoring it is highly coveted. Chef Duncan Ly of Calgary’s Yellow Door Bistro in Hotel Arts was pleased to be chosen. The mystery wine presented an array of characteristics which changed somewhat as it softened in the glass because it was a white blend of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris with a splash of Viognier and thereby added some challenge. For me, it had a delicious familiarity that I was unable to pinpoint. I smiled broadly when it was revealed as Laughing Stock 2012 Blind Trust from BC’s Naramata Bench which is one of my neighbouring wineries! It was hilarious to watch owners David and Cynthia Enns take a bow, accept all the praise the chefs had for their fine wine, and apologize to a few friends for bluffing them. Oysters were shucked on site by the engaging team from The Codfather’s Seafood Market along with suppliers from the Outlandish Oyster Guild. (At the Thursday private reception these oysters were served along with Northern Divine Caviar.) Guests were also treated to tastings of other wines from Penticton and Okanagan Falls before the mystery wine was poured and chefs’ dishes served. In the judging of these wines, Best of Show went to Painted Rock Estate Winery Syrah of Penticton, First Runner Up to Meyer Family Vineyard Tribute Chardonnay and Second Runner Up to Wild Goose Vineyards Gewurztraminer, both of Okanagan Falls.
Beyond what happens in the kitchens of the hotels and Okanagan College, the community is engaged as chefs use taxis to race about to various suppliers to obtain ingredients. Many of the chefs headed to RauDZ Regional Table after they received the mystery wine to tap into the expertise of Chef Rod Butters and his team and other members of the Okanagan Chefs Association to bounce ideas around. The next morning I joined a media tour of some of the outlets chefs might engage. At Illichmann’s Meats, Sausages & Gourmet Foods, a fourth generation family business serving the area since 1967, Judith Mercer and Daniel Illichmann told us chefs had been by to select from the fine quality of meats and sausages prepared in the store. Jon Crofts at Codfather’s Seafood Market had an early stampede of chefs. We also checked out The Okanagan Grocery and its line of delectable baking and Valoroso Foods, Importers of fine Italian food.
At lunch, we were joined at Poppadoms – Taste India! restaurant by a couple of the judges. The judges, too, each year are engaged in a local experience. This year on Thursday afternoon, the family and team from Poppadoms led a cooking class for the judges at Tantalus Winery building a menu paired with the award-winning wines. The judges were so enchanted, these two couldn’t resist an opportunity to enjoy a meal at the popular restaurant. Poppadoms sources the best of local ingredients and puts an Indian spice inspired twist on them including the creation of Indian-themed cocktails.
The Black Box
Next component is Saturday morning’s Black Box competition where chefs surrender cell phones and all other means of outside communication and are sequestered awaiting their turn. Once summoned, the chef opens the black box to reveal the six diverse ingredients and has 10 minutes to announce the two dishes he or she and sous chef will prepare. That leaves 50 minutes to produce them and every second of delay costs points. Last year, I didn’t volunteer for this component and missed the excitement so much, I couldn’t wait for it to come around! While guests don’t get to taste the chef’s creations, coffee is provided as well as dishes prepared by the Culinary Arts students of Okanagan College, where this event is staged. Moteas was also on hand to offer delightful tea blends. I am in such awe of how the chefs handle this tense situation, I volunteer to guard the sequestered room. As if competing myself, my heart palpitates each time the door opens to announce which chef is next. Guests in attendance are divided into two groups so they can alternate between watching remotely on big screen televisions in the dining room and cramming into the kitchen for a close view of the chefs. For me it’s a thrill to be on site and I can view the kitchen component later through the videos. I’m not alone in such enthusiasm. Take Mark Puttick, manager of Knifewear Kelowna: He sacrificed shop time to be locked in with chefs as support and was at the ready for any knife sharpening needs.
Once the chefs open up the Black Box, which this year included organic parsnips of Green Croft Gardens (Grindrod), carmine jewel cherries of Over The Hill Orchards (Saskatchewan), lion’s mane mushrooms of Champignon Le Coprin (Gatineau), honey butter of Cornet Family Farm (Nova Scotia), two whole dressed trout of West Creek Farm (BC), and whole organic chicken of Sterling Springs Farm (Kelowna), the array of dishes prepared was mind boggling. Captured below are just a few of them.
The Grand Finale
With barely a chance to exhale after that adrenalin-pumping morning, the chefs have to prepare their wine-paired signature dish for the judges and 600 guests at The Grand Finale. The gala begins at 5:45 pm with a VIP reception featuring appetizers of the previous year’s champion, Chef Marc St. Jacques from Auberge du Pommier in Toronto. The VIPs get a head start on the chefs’ stations before it’s wall-to-wall with folks vying to fill their glass with wine and secure the expertly matched dish. There is a silent auction to peruse and Olympic athletes mingle with guests as they negotiate the exquisite food and beverage stations.
The connection to the event’s beneficiaries was even more tangible with Sochi 2014 underway simultaneously and it was an honour to shake hands with former Olympians as they roamed the room. Guests are then seated for decadent dessert, a live auction and formal presentations. Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies and Barney Bentall entertained throughout the formal program. Their friendship and easy style together was a real treat. Later guests took to the dance floor inspired by the band Cover 2 Cover and many were reluctant to see the event end.
It takes a large team to launch such a championship. From Gold Medal Plates founders, its judges across Canada, Olympic athletes, the staff at COMLINKS Events & Marketing, participating chefs and their support, sponsors such as Deloitte and many others, Tourism Kelowna, Okanagan College Culinary Arts, hosting hotels such as the Delta Grand Okanagan and Hotel Eldorado, wineries and food suppliers to volunteers it is clearly a labour of love. Although volunteers don’t get to try all the chefs’ creations, they are fed well and have the privilege of an insider’s perspective. The whole event and those leading up to it are testament to Canada’s amazing culinary scene. Kudos to the chefs who agree to put it on the line out of the comfort of their own kitchens!
Watch for the 2015 dates for the Canadian Culinary Championships. Join me and other culinary enthusiasts enjoying the festivities in Kelowna, biting our nails and licking our fingers along with the competing chefs and their friends and family.