Voila! The 2020 Canadian Culinary Championships podium. Silver medallist, Montreal chef Marc-André Jetté of Hoogan & Beaufort; gold medallist, Vancouver chef Roger Ma of Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar; and bronze chef Emily Butcher from Winnipeg’s deer + almond. (First time Manitoba has been on the podium since Makoto Ono won the very first CCC in 2007).
After many years of being hosted in the west (balmy Kelowna for the past 9 year, but also Whistler, Calgary, Banff, Vancouver), the Canadian Culinary Championships have now a splendid new home. They are where they absolutely belong: in Canada’s capital. Or, at least, so says this Ottawa girl.
This was the 14th year I’ve had the honour of sitting on the judging panel for the CCC. It has become Canada’s foremost culinary contest, one that brings chefs from across the country (12 of them this year, winners, all, in their respective cities’ competitions) and puts them through their paces. They come to display their talents, to push themselves out of comfort zones, and to work their tails off over a weekend of challenges.
This year’s crop of chefs had exceptional culinary gifts. And infectious enthusiasm for the regional cuisine of their respective homes. We saw it over and over again: that keen desire to put their province (ocean, prairie, forest, plain), their passion and heritage on the plate. From the BC coastal terroir of Vancouver chef Roger Ma’s winning dish, to chef Butcher’s awesome ode to the humble turnip (“inspired by our harsh Manitoba winters!”), to the tasting of wild Newfoundland partridge that St John’s chef Kyle Puddester plated.
The weekend began with the Mystery Wine Competition, held at the Canadian Aviation Museum, and judged blind: we knew not which dish belonged to which chef. This is a contest where the match of food with wine counts for 30% of the marks. The wine was exceptionally food friendly, which helped. It was the 2017 Pinot Noir from Prince Edward County’s Closson Chase Winery.
Saturday morning in the kitchens of Algonquin College, the chefs met the Black Box. In it, wapiti eye of the round (from the fabulous Elk Ranch in Kanata), parsley root, haskap berries, pickled fiddleheads, rolled oats, black kale, and a wee jar of phytoplankton, powdered. The chefs who did more than sear a medallion of elk and serve it with a parsley root purée, haskap jus, and a kale chip rose to the top of the heap — for the BB, 30% of the marks are allotted for creativity with the ingredients.
The finale on Saturday night was where the chefs, usually with some seasonal tweaks, reprise the winning dish from their regional competitions. From our bronze medallist, chef Emily Butcher, a celebration of the humble turnip. Other than a lightly charred hunk of perfectly cooked sable fish, cured in birch syrup, plus a brunoise of juicy apple, a bit of candied apple, a crabapple gel, some shredded romaine and crispy wisps of leek, it was turnips that commanded attention. Here was a disc of turnip cake studded with foraged porcini mushrooms and chunks of a sweet, chewy Chinese-style pork sausage seasoned with rice wine, soy and cinnamon. There were wee Hakurai turnips presented three ways — in raw shavings, lightly poached, and hollowed out to receive a shiny yellow frosting of Manitoba’s caviar, whitefish roe. Chef then poured over a warm, sweet broth made with lacto-fermented turnip juice and caramelized turnip stock, rounded with a little cream and butter, and drizzled with celery-fennel oil. Her wine match: the 2018 Pinot Gris from Tightrope, on B.C.’s Naramata Bench.
Our silver medallist, chef Marc André Jetté of Montreal’s Hoogan & Beaufort, brought a mini hibachi with him, on which he grilled hundreds of luscious oyster mushrooms. These smoky beauties he paired with torched, pickled onion, delicate crisps of smoked bread, pale yellow dobs of matsutake mushroom gel, a rich earthy mushroom puree, red vein sorrel leaves and shavings of the aged, raw milk Louis d’Or cheese. His pairing was the 2017 Métis Rouge from Niagara’s Pearl Morissette, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir.
And from our gold medallist, Roger Ma: set in a delectable shellfish emulsion, a ring of BC coastal pleasures including a solitary honey mussel, steamed and basted with miso butter, a soft disc of uni custard crowned with salmon roe jewels and dobs of a meyer lemon gelée, a slice of potato and scallion terrine wrapped in bull kelp and then some more bull kelp, a lightly pickled square and fried fronds to shatter in the mouth. Chef Ma chose the 2018 Unicus Grüner Veltliner from Culmina Family Estate Winery to match his dish.
Representing Ottawa, chef Ian Carswll of Black Tartan Kitchen in Carleton Place didn’t quite reach the podium, but it seems he reached something else. As he told the judges on Saturday night “This has been an amazing experience. The entire weekend challenged me both physically and mentally in a way I have never experienced and I feel so inspired from working with such great culinary talent around us.”
And then he added of the competition: “It was also absolutely terrifying.”
(My thanks to photographer Ben Champoux for the use of some of his terrific images.)