It was certainly anyone’s podium as the eleven chefs approached the final test in a triathlon of challenges. For the first time in a long time, at least in my memory of judging the Canadian Culinary Championship, there was no clear superstar to beat, no one chef who floated effortlessly to the top of the pack. It was, in fact, a wild and wacky race, with chefs sprinting ahead as they impressed in one challenge, only to flail as they disappointed in the next.
The exception to that yo-yo pattern was with our guy. Yannick LaSalle, chef de cuisine at the venerable Les Fougeres in Chelsea, was steadily in the front part of the pack the entire weekend — in second place, in third place, until the final marks for the weekend cooking marathon were tabulated and lo and behold…they revealed his triumph!
As National Culinary Judge for the CCC, James Chatto, put it: “our new champion won his trophy by being consistent.” (To which he added) “He was a popular winner, great company for the entire weekend and a generous mentor to the students from Okanagan College who assisted his team. Our heartiest applause goes out to him today – Chef Yannick LaSalle of Les Fougères in Chelsea, Quebec, gold medalist…and now the new Canadian Culinary Champion.”
LaSalle was supported admirably well by two sous chefs, Julien Fournier and Alexander Bimm. Restaurant Les Fougeres owners, Charles Part and Jennifer Warren-Part, were there to cheer him along (Charles possibly recalling ‘his’ CCC of ten years before, held at the Banff Springs Hotel in 2009, as he now watches his young protegé command the 2019 stage.)
When the Mystery Wine was revealed it was from Mission Hill, the 2016 Vistas Edge Cabernet Franc from the benches of East Oliver. LaSalle turned to mushrooms for the marriage – ‘un hommage’ he called it, to BC mushrooms, with salty pancetta, a pungent gremolata and a sweet-bitter emulsion of raisins and capers. On top, a little arugula salad with a brunoise of celery root tossed in a vinaigrette using the mystery wine. Parsnip chips finished the plate. I found the citrus-herbaceous notes in the dish worked remarkably well with the wine.
Saturday morning, LaSalle was the third chef to meet the Black Box, an entirely vegetarian assembly of ingredients for the first time in the history of this competition. In it, Lion’s Mane mushrooms, Okanagan quince, sheep’s milk yogurt, a new breed of sweet potato from Manitoba, a bag of chestnuts in their shells, raw buckwheat (un-hulled), and Ontario-grown saffron.
The chefs who tamed the tooth-cracking buckwheat rose to the top of the heap at this competition. Yannick was one of those. He made a powder with the toasted kernels, adding panko and crushed coriander seed to crust a puck of sweet potato. Tucked beneath the cake was a nubbly sofrito using the mushrooms, quince and chestnuts, to which he added onion, garlic, ginger, chili and parsley, cooking it down and deglazing with white wine. LaSalle turned the yogurt into a refreshing sauce with mint and basil and added a good hit of lemon zest. It was a delicate dish, fresh, acidic, sweet and sour… nicely balanced and very pretty.
For Saturday night’s finale, LaSalle turned to the dish that won him gold at the regional event last October, working again with the Rougié duck magret from Quebec’s Eastern Townships, cured and hung for two weeks to dry. But rather than pairing duck with red currants, as he did in Ottawa, he worked with sea buckthorn berries. The dish began with a sheen of hazelnut oil on a small plate. A sofrito of fennel held together with duck gelée, scented with coriander and fennel seeds, and splashed with a glug of the wine chosen to pair with the dish — the 2016 Meldville Wines Chardonnay Barrel Select — topped the duck, as did a crumble of salty-good duck skins. A yummy fennel bulb chip was the toupé, coated with a simple syrup of fennel juice and Quebec absinthe, dusted with fennel pollen, sprinkled with fennel seed and dehydrated. A vibrant coulis of juiced fennel reduced with sea buckthorn and chilies, studded with a brunoise of pickled fennel, ginger, onions and tarragon lay beneath. Celery leaves worked admirably well with the wine, as did the scattering of chopped hazelnuts.
Surely, steadily, confidently… LaSalle won the day. And so, once again, for the third time in the history of the Canadian Culinary Championship, we have a gold medal winner from Ottawa-Gatineau! A wonderful showing for Chef Yannick LaSalle and his Les Fougeres team! We are very very proud!