Photo courtesy Gold Medal Plates
The eleventh Ottawa-Gatineau Gold Medal Plates was a grand night of feasting and partying in support of our Canadian Olympic athletes. It was also, of course, a cooking competition, one that brings together ten of the National Capital Region’s finest chefs.
We ate incredibly well this year, the dishes as inventive, well executed and delicious as I can remember. It was also a fierce competition, at least in the judges’ room, with the top five chefs within a whisker of each other. Our deliberations took longer than they did in past years, and felt louder than usual!
At the end of the night, the podium was occupied with chefs Marc Doiron from Town, Jamie Stunt from Soif, and Joe Thottungal of the Coconut Lagoon, taking the bronze, silver and gold medals, in that order.
Seven of the ten competing chefs chose to work with fish. The one that swam to the top of the heap came from the little Kerala restaurant on St Laurent Boulevard, currently wrapped in construction paper. The ten-year-old Coconut Lagoon is in the midst of growing its small space. And after last night’s win, I would suggest more tables are a solidly good idea.
Chef Joe Thottungal won the bronze at last year’s competition. This year he reached the top of the podium with a dish that began with Pacific halibut soaked overnight in seasoned green mango juice. He then slow-poached the fish in canola oil infused with garlic, shallots and a profusion of Kerala spices – green cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, fennel seed and white peppercorns. It arrived topped with what Thottungal described as “Kerala curry crumbs,” a mix that included ginger, curry leaves and smoky black tamarind, splashed with coconut milk, then dehydrated such that the sauce became a super-charged red brittle, lending flavour, crunch and smoke to the moist, fragrant fish. To the side of the halibut was a mushroom aviyal (an aviyal is a vegetable side dish seasoned with curry leaves and fresh coconut, famously served at the Onam Sadya feast) with six sorts of mushrooms, speckled with curry leaves . The orange dobs on the plate were a red lentil-ghee emulsion cooked with mustard seed and asafoetida, the green a spinach and coriander hariyali masala. Thottungal finished the dish with garnet coloured ‘caviar’ pearls of beet juice spiked with ginger. Paired with the winning plate was the 2015 off dry Riesling from Huff Estates, which the judges found a superb match, the sweetness and tang, the mango and mineral notes, greeting the dish in a loving way, and completely refreshing the mouth.
Taking the silver medal at this year’s culinary competition was the winner of the 2013 Ottawa-Gatineau GMP, and silver medallist at the 2014 Canadian Culinary Championships. Chef Jamie Stunt, formerly of Oz Kafé, and now at Véronique Rivest’s Soif bar a vin. As is the way of things at Soif, the dish was built around the wine – a Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia 2009 Méthode Classique brut from Benjamin Bridge. (And, as it happened, it was also the wine awarded ‘Best in Show’ by the GMP wine judges, led by David Lawrason.) “We really like raw, briny things with sparklers,” Stunt explained to our judges’ table. He had looked further east of the Gaspereau Valley, to source the Fogo Island crab that was the star of his plate, mining its richness in four distinct ways, and pairing the crab with bison, presented as a carpaccio rimmed with bison jerky powder. It was an odd marriage, but one that worked incredibly well. Stunt had pickled quince and fashioned a quince vinaigrette, delivered a bit of crunch with a fried oyster and with bread toasted in crab butter, a hit of spiciness with lightly pickled radish, a richness with a crab aioli I’d like to eat a spoonful of every day for the rest of my life, and finished the pretty plate with salty pops of brilliant orange trout roe.
Our bronze medal went to chef Marc Doiron of Town restaurant for his ‘Forbidden Risotto’. Using Chinese black rice (called ‘forbidden’ or sometimes ‘emperor’ rice), Doiron had made a risotto of sorts, with powerful paella flavours. Embedded in the purplish-black puck of rice were chunks of spicy chorizo, juicy shrimp, and crackling bits of socorrat (a fancy word for toasty, crusted rice), the whole flavoured with gochujang, the essential fermented condiment of Korean cuisine and set over a romesco sauce. A salad topper featuring ribbons of fennel compressed in Sambucca, lemon juice and dill fronds, was a delightful energizer to the earthy-flavoured rice, as were the green dots on the plate – a gelée of chives, basil and cilantro. Anchoring a fennel tuile – a thin, brittle cracker in the shape of a ring – to the plate was a mousse of sea urchin. A wee garden of edible flowers prettied it all up. For the wine, Doiron turned to the 2014 Pinot Gris Cuivré from Stanners Vineyard in Prince Edward County, the only straw bale constructed winery east of the Rockies, and a good match to the dish!
And so it’s on to Kelowna for chef Joe Thottungal, to compete at the Canadian Culinary Championships next February. The Gold Medal Plates pan-national gastronomic campaign continues through next week, with Winnipeg and Victoria the only two remaining cities.
My thanks to my fellow culinary judges: to ‘Hill Chef’ Judson Simpson, executive chef of the House of Commons, chair of the Canadian Culinary Federation and international culinary judge; to columnist, television host and award-winning cookbook author Margaret Dickenson; to culinary instructor, food stylist, writer and seasoned TV cook Pam Collacott; to the president and owner of Thyme & Again Creative Catering and Take Home Foods, Sheila Whyte; to last year’s Gold Medal Plates winner (and two time Canadian Culinary Champion) chef Marc Lepine of Atelier; and to Gold Medal Plates culinary advisor, the Toronto writer and editor, James Chatto.
If you’d care to read about Thottungal’s competition, Canadian chefs from St John’s to Victoria, check out Chatto’s reports on each city’s champion. Thus far, as it happens, four of them are women.