In the dozen years I’ve been helping adjudicate the Canadian Culinary Championships, there has never been a more impressive parade of dishes at the Mystery Wine Pairing. Yes, the wine is stripped of a label, known only for its Canadian content and colour, and yes, 30% of the marks are for the food-wine match…. But this is also a Poor Chefs’ competition, and that ups the fun and the challenge. Each of the 11 competing chefs is given 500 bucks to feed 400 people and a dozen judges. They may find cunning ways to make the budget stretch a little — plead for bargains with the fishmonger or make an entirely vegetarian/vegan dish (as did three chefs, including Ottawa’s own Briana Kim) — but the rules are very clear, the receipts are pored over, and every ingredient on the plate must be accounted for.
It used to be, in years long past, we’d get a lot of brown rice and lentils. This year, we had a fare share of delicate fish dishes, conceived to work with the wine we now know as the Fort Berens Estate 2016 Pinot Gris from the little town of Lillooet in the Fraser Valley. Winnipeg chef Mike Robins won the “People’s Choice Award” for his luscious lobster bisque.
Ottawa competitor, Briana Kim of Cafe My House, stayed true to her food and gave us a vegan dish to match the Pinot Gris. In the centre of the plate was a mushroom and mustard seed ‘panna cotta.’ Drifting off it was a crunchy ‘soil’ of nuts and spices – cashew, fennel, cinnamon, nutmeg. Kim roofed the custard beautifully: a charred leek chip, pear (poached in the mystery wine) with mustard seed, a mango and guava ‘honey’, parsnip chips and a puffed rice noodle standing tall. She delivered some smoke to the dish in her puree of rutabaga and tarragon.
A few hours sleep, and then it’s the Saturday morning Black Box. Chefs are brought into the kitchen of the Okanagan College one by one and presented with a box of seven ingredients. In it this year: Beausoleil oysters, Zinfandel grapes, Cripps Pink Apples, milled flaxseed, organic kohlrabi, a whole rabbit with its liver, and a container of Saskatchewan feta.
Three of those ingredients – the oysters, cheese and the rabbit – Kim would never put on Cafe My House plates. She likely knew the black box would contain animal protein, but seemed un-flapped. The hours of preparation and practice paid off, and she gave us a terrific dish: making ‘poppers’ of rabbit, stuffed with its liver and the feta; an oyster and parsley cream, and toasted flax seed crunchy granola. She made a pale green jam with the kohlrabi, and a stunning crimson sweet and sour sauce splashed with sesame oil, using the apples and the grapes. A tip given her by (two-time CCC winner, chef Marc Lepine) to practice her black box using only 55 minutes, rather than the allotted hour, clearly bore fruit: the Kim and Mueller team were as cool as cucumbers, and their dishes were prepped, prettied and polished with minutes to spare.
For the third competition, The ‘Grande Finale’, chefs returned to the dishes that won gold in their own city’s GMP contest, earning them the chance to show them off again on a national stage. Some tweaked them a little, as did Briana Kim, but mostly the crowd and we judges got a taste of the 11 dishes that had podiumed from coast to coast, with the beverages chosen to match. For Briana Kim and team Cafe My House, that meant I had the pleasure of re-tasting her stunning mushroom dish. I thought her miso-marinated cremini mushroom cake was even better than it was in November. Her goal had been to get it to the texture of steak, a challenge with a vegan dish. But she nailed it, managing a crust on the cake that was cunningly meaty. She added a portobello mousse, leaves of charred cabbage, petals of pearl onion, dobs of a yuzu coulis, and shisho. These contributed layers of flavour and texture. So did the juicy pebbles of pickled Asian pear. Kim then poured a steaming charred onion broth perfumed with kombu over top and finished the bowl with a couple of rice crisps studded with fennel and coriander seed. Her pairing was the fruity Izumi of the North Junmai Genshu sake from the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company in Toronto.
The Briana Kim team did incredibly well, standing tall with its plant-based cuisine going horn to horn with its meaty competition. It’s a tough and tiring competition. And Kim’s dishes were gorgeous, technically complex and delicious. I was incredibly proud of her. And though she missed the podium, I hope she feels the experience was worth the monumental effort! She is certainly gold in our town!
At the end of the night, on the podium were chefs from one end of the country to the other: Vancouver, Montreal and Halifax, with Alex Chen from Boulevard Kitchen in Vancouver taking the gold. His dish was presented in an empty tin of Northern Divine caviar set on a plate scattered with seaweed. Inside was the stuff of dreams —certainly now on my list of death bed dishes. Wild B.C. shellfish (Dungeness crab, side stripe shrimp, geoduck clam, horse clam, and sea urchin) set in a chowder the texture of custard, topped with a geleed seafood consomme made (and set) from a stock of sturgeon heads and bones. To finish the dish: three dobs of Northern Divine caviar, a lacey coral cracker blackened with squid ink and a spongey sort of brioche that looked like tufts of Angel food cake, but flavoured with clam juice and green-ed with bull kelp powder. Wildly good.
The silver medal went to chef Eric Gonzalez of Montreal’s L’Atelier Joël Robuchon for his duo of bison and foie gras, the two joined with protein, rolled and cooked sous vide. An onion confit and coulis of haskap berry and blackberry lay beneath the meat, while black truffle paste comets circled it. What blew my mind were the two tiny yellow towers, token-sized circles of butternut squash sandwiched with a glue of squash puree, crowned with petals and chives.
First time a Halifax chef has ever reached the podium at the CCC! So kudos to chef Barry Mooney of Gio. His final dish was a powerfully flavoured, sparkling-clear pork consomme, poured at the judges’ table, over and around a slide of ham hock terrine. On it were a number of delicious treats: scallops, foie gras, pickled carrot and carrot puree, haskap jellies, dill fronds and a lacey tuile of squid ink for a crunchy, salty, fishy finish.