Well folks, he did it again. Commandingly. Again.
It was déjà vu at the Canadian Culinary Championships 2016, as Ottawa chef Marc Lepine, together with his Atelier team (sous chef Jason Sawision, chef de partie Justin Champagne, and sommelier Steve Robinson) soared ahead of the pack at the mystery wine pairing competition and then won the “Black Box” pretty handily. Entering the final stretch with a commanding lead, he had only to recreate the stunner that saw him podium at the Ottawa competition in the fall (without any cracked tuiles or overcooked trout) to keep his position and win it all. And so he did.
Lepine won gold at this event in 2012. Four years later, with Sawision and Robinson again by his side, he has recaptured the title “Canadian Culinary Champion,” will be bringing back the cup and the glory to Ottawa, and aren’t we a mighty proud bunch!
On the podium with Lepine last night were the silver and bronze medallists, Calgary chef Matthew Batey of The Nash Restaurant and Vancouver chef Alex Chen from Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar.
Batey’s final dish featured a luscious hunk of Alder smoked sablefish, paired with a pressé of octopus with sturgeon caviar from Northern Divine, juicy bursts of pickled apple, and a sabayon enriched with sea urchin. He paired this with the Road 13 2011 Sparkling Chenin Blanc from Oliver, B.C.
Chen’s dish was “all about the broth” as he told the judges multiple times. It was certainly a broth of fascinating umami depth and sparkle and in it we found a bacon-wrapped ballantine of chicken stuffed with truffles and tarragon, a stalk of celery lined with a foie gras mousse, and a little fondant of celery root crowned with truffle. His wine was the Foxtrot Vineyard 2009 Pinot Noir from Naramata.
The competition really began last Thursday night when each of the 11 chefs, representing cities from Vancouver to St John’s, were handed a bottle of unmarked wine, a wad of cash and a bunch of taxi chits. Their job? To scour the Kelowna markets and with a paltry amount of money ($500) buy all ingredients to create a dish that would match the wine, feed the crowd of 400, and impress the judges.
Gold Medal Plates wine adviser David Lawrason had given them a pretty versatile wine — the Tawse 2014 Gamay Noir as it turned out — and it provided the chefs with lots of opportunity for interesting pairings. As the wine was blind, the event was judged blind.
The Atelier team gave us a dish of ling cod cradled within an olympic ring of straw potato, set in a shallow bowl. Next to the fish, a pile of braised oxtail. Nestled on the bottom of the bowl, some torn basil leaves, a ring of pickled leek, cubes of al dente beet and potato and a smear of umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum). Over this, tableside, was poured a sparkling beef broth fragrant of star anise, sharpened with the salty-sour of the pickled plum paste.
When the marks were tallied, Marc’s dish was ahead of the pack by a significant margin, a fact known only by the judges. And could I pick out Marc’s plate? Well, I had an inkling — there was something about that potato ring …
Saturday morning, after all phones were handed in and the chefs were tucked away in a back room of the Okanagan College kitchens, with coffee and croissant and breathing exercises, each was brought in one by one to encounter the contents of the black box. Seven ingredients, all Canadian, and all had to be used to create one dish to feed 10 judges, within a one-hour time allowance. (Marks are deducted if a chef goes over time, or misses an ingredient and, of course, if the dish bombs.)
In the box this year: whole, uncleaned squid; ground elk; ox-eye daisy capers; black salsify; Ontario peanuts (roasted, unsalted); Hana Tsunomata (multicoloured sea vegetables from Nova Scotia) and, in honour of the International Year of Pulses, whole red lentils from Saskatchewan.
Right, then … 10 minutes to examine the contents of the box and declare the dish to be made, a further 50 minutes to execute it and to plate 10 of them. We had a few elk-stuffed braised squid dishes, some elk meatballs, a squid ceviche. One dish featured a peanut broth, another a peanut brittle. One chef made an elk and squid sausage studded with peanuts, another an elk-filled ravioli. One chef went over time, one chef’s meatballs were utterly raw inside, some of the squid was remarkably tender and some of the squid was pretty tough … it’s a tricky competition, this one! And every year I give thanks that my job is to eat, not to cook.
Lepine’s dish began with a nubbly, loose peanut sauce that acted as a tasty glue for two wee elk meatballs deliciously wrapped in a sweet-and-sour glaze, and for one small lentil fritter. He and sous chef Sawision had cooked and whipped some of the salsify and piped it onto the plate, and made 10 perfect perforated crisps (did he really bring a hole punch in his knife kit?) with the rest of it (leaving the salsify unpeeled, to show off its striking black skin.) There was also a sharp salsa verde on the plate, and a seaweed salad with a sashimi of squid. And for the second time, when the marks were tallied, the Atelier team ended up on top.
Lepine’s final dish was the dish that secured him the gold in the November Gold Medal Plates competition in Ottawa. He entered the judges’ room with his Dr. Jekyll machine to brew the corn-cob broth (infused with roasted corn husks), before pouring the amber liquid into each judge’s waiting bowl. In that bowl was steelhead trout, smoked, glazed with miso, molasses and Newfoundland screech, dusted with licorice pollen and set on a porridge of barley and roasted corn, scattered with aromatic seeds, fresh dill, crispy cured pork belly, and smoked Nameko mushrooms. Rising out of the bowl, a perfect tuile ring, flavoured with fennel and coriander seed. With the dish, a glass of Le Clos Jordanne Vineyard Chardonnay, 2012, from Twenty Mile Bench in Niagara.
He did not stumble. In fact, he won this one, too. And at about 11 p.m. Kelowna time on Feb. 6, Marc Lepine become the 2016 Canadian Culinary Champion, making history as the first chef to win twice.
It was a weekend of very, very good eating and it gave us all a clear sense of how vibrant and varied and delicious is Canadian cuisine, paired with great Canadian wines and craft beers. The competition was stiff, and the chefs were all in top form.
Marc Lepine and his team were simply in toppest form. Huge congratulations to them.
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