Change is usually always a good thing, and the changes made at this year’s CCC Black Box competition were that.
In past years, chefs had to use all the ingredients in the box to create two dishes (or one year, they selected 6 out of a possible 10 ingredients); this year, there were seven ingredients in the box, and the eleven competing chefs had to use all of them, but applied to one dish only. With a catch. The highest marks were given for a category called ‘Creativity’. This in response to last year’s slate of technically correct, but rather safe (and what you might call dull) dishes. The goal was to have the chefs think outside the box, as it were, to push themselves beyond the obvious.
And we got that. These were the Black Box ingredients: whole squid (uncleaned, with quill and beak and eyes and ink sac), ground elk, black salsify, Ontario roasted unsalted peanuts, ox-eye daisy capers, Hana Tsunomata (multicoloured sea vegetables from Nova Scotia) and whole red lentils from Saskatchewan. We had chefs given us a Mediterranean inspired elk stuffed squid, we had an elk and nut sausage, a dish featuring a peanut broth, another featuring elk ravioli, sweet and sour elk meatballs, squid ceviche… so lots of very fine ideas, and the calibre of cooking was high. Only one chef went over time (penalty is severe) which is always a heart-breaker.
Marc Lepine with sous chef Jason Sawision knew the ropes and they knew the kitchen. This was, of course, the second time for both Atelier chefs. And they work like Fred and Ginger, these two: calm, cool, sashaying around their station getting on with the job.
On the bottom of the plate, a peanut sauce. On top of it, three balls – two of elk (in a sweet and sour sauce) and one lentil fritter. They had made a a gorgeous puree out of the salsify, a seaweed salad with raw squid, a classic salsa verde to bring a shot of acid to the plate, and overtop, like a ribbon, an unpeeled black salsify perforated chip (yes, with a hole puncher.)
The dish came together after careful, thoughtful, big-time outside of the box planning that looked like this:
And so now we head into the Grand Finale – the final part of the competition, where all the chefs will reprise the dish that won them gold in the respective cities.
I’ll report back.