Canada’s Great Kitchen Party (formerly known as Gold Medal Plates) rolled into Ottawa for its 13th year this past Thursday. A few things about the event have changed — notably its name and fundraising focus — but at its heart this party remains the country’s most prestigious cook-off. Held in 11 cities from coast to coast, it still propels the winning chef of each city to the venerable Canadian Culinary Championships (still held in February, still in Kelowna, BC, and still a thrill).
This year, that thrill belongs to last year’s silver medallist, Chef Yannick LaSalle, and his team at Restaurant Les Fougeres. I remember ten years ago to the month, his boss, Charles Part, won gold (also with duck!) at the 2008 Gold Medal Plates. And so the torch has been passed to a younger generation at this Chelsea restaurant, now celebrating 25 years of culinary excellence.
LaSalle’s dish wasn’t overly complex: it didn’t score big in the ‘wow’ department. But it was delicious and meticulously conceived in every respect. It began, he told us, in the Fougeres gardens where “the red currants caught my attention”. The protein LaSalle chose was more the vehicle for those currants and for other lovely bits and bobs. He worked with the magret of moulard duck, fattened for the production of foie gras, cured for a day, hung for 14 more, and then sliced thin and set in a shallow pool of hazelnut oil into which was added, at table, droplets of a scarlet currant sauce, sharpened with currant vinegar and sweetened with beet syrup. A duck skin crumble and little potato crisps dusted with black garlic salt lent crunch. Black garlic reared its lovely pungent head in a purée as well, piqued with seedy mustard, and local black walnuts appeared as a dust, grated over baby nasturtium and gem marigold leaves. The beets were poached with lemon verbena and pressed with tangerine marigold “to bring out the herbal flavour” and to work, remarkably well, we all thought, with the 2015 Meldville Cabernet Franc from Niagara’s Legends Estate Winery.
Second place went to Chef Daniela Manrique, from The Soca Kitchen for her ‘Mar + Tierra,’ a delightful combination of rich pleasures. A pristine slice of raw hamachi belly was overlaid with Spain’s prized pig, a cut of roasted Secreto Ibérico ham from the shoulder of the Pata Negra breed. These treats were placed on an orange smudge of rocoto chile purée which woke us up from our protein stupor. A vinaigrette starring black garlic and Pedro Ximenez, the great dessert wine of Spain, moistened the plate, as did a thick dollop of crema spiked with aji amarillo chilies. Dehydrated kalamata olives, lemon zest, crispy capers and Acadian caviar all lent pungent, briny flavours. There was just a hint of kaffir lime too, gentle but sly, in compressed pearl onions. The 2016 Small Lot Chardonnay from Niagara’s Thirty Bench was an admirable match.
The bronze medal was awarded to Jason Sawision and his team at the one-year-old Stofa. (His restaurant had made such an impression on me, and on many, in its first few months, that an invitation to compete was delivered to this restaurant in its infancy. Almost unheard of.) Aged duck breast again, this time cooked sous vide, seared off, glazed with miso honey and dusted with pink peppercorn, dehydrated orange zest and coriander seeds. Duck leg too, fashioned into a little sausage spiked with lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, Thai red curry paste and soy. Orange loves duck and it re-appeared in a bitter-sweet preserved orange marmalade, which played beautifully with a salty mayo of fermented black beans. Beneath the duck was a mound of black eyed peas tossed in a Thai Nam Prik sauce. There were some lovely Hen of the Woods (Maitake) mushrooms, sharp petals of pickled pearl onion, and one baby bok choy lightly steamed. At the bottom of the plate, a crunchy nori and tapioca spiral. Sawision poured a piping hot dashi duck jus spiked with an added hint of orange. His wine was the Domaine Queylus 2016 Cabernet Franc from Niagara’s Lincoln Lakeshore VQA.
And now a note on the GCKP: The gala fundraising event and culinary competition known, for a dozen years, as Gold Medal Plates was re-named this year to reflect a new tone and focus of care. Funds raised (to date, $15 million directed to Canada’s olympic athletes) are now dispersed more widely, to not one but three worthy causes: B2ten, which supports amateur athletes; MusiCounts, which matches kids to instruments they might not otherwise be able to afford; and local chapters of Community Food Centres Canada (like our own Parkdale Food Centre).
‘The Great Canadian Kitchen Party”s subtitle ‘The Road to the Canadian Culinary Championships’ reminds us that the event might sound jolly and casual, but the food is taken very seriously. I’d like to acknowledge our panel of judges, as ever, for their impeccable palates, their thoughtful attention to every plate and every glass and for their delightful company. Thanks to Judson Simpson, Chair of the Canadian Culinary Federation and Executive Chef of the House of Commons; Marc Lepine, chef-owner (and now author) of Atelier and our country’s only two-time Canadian Culinary Champion; food philanthropist and owner of Thyme & Again, Sheila Whyte; culinary historian Dr Janet Boileau, publisher of Taste & Travel Magazine; and last year’s gold medal winner, chef Briana Kim of Cafe My House.
Next report on chef LaSalle will come from Kelowna in February!