Great Kitchen Party of 2020: the pandemic edition

Things were done differently in this quite-different year. Glittery galas cancelled, gatherings reduced to tiny numbers, the good people who have staged Canada’s Great Kitchen Party (formerly, Gold Medal Plates) have had to come up with a new plan.

Conceived 15 years ago as a series of coast-to-coast culinary competitions in support of Canadian athletes and local charities, the Kitchen Party has become a fixture of Ottawa’s autumn social calendar, attracting hundreds of ticket-buying food fans to taste the work of local chefs, enjoy the talents of Canadian musicians, and support the needs of national and community causes.

Winning chefs in Ottawa (and eleven other Canadian cities) then moved on to compete at a national event, hosted in cities that have included Toronto, Whistler and Kelowna B.C. and, most recently, Ottawa.

This year, like so much of life lately, accommodations have been made. The national gala cancelled, the Plan-B became a pared down, local-only, series of events. Organizers invited about half-a-dozen chefs to create three-course dinners with matched wines to be home-delivered to a number of hungry supporters. Those take-away meals took place in Ottawa last night, as did an online, Zoomed-in show hosted by Denise Donlan and featuring some fine Canadian music curated by Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo.

As for the culinary competition, it too experienced some modification. On Wednesday afternoon, Thyme & Again’s Sheila Whyte and I (standing in for the usual seven-strong panel of culinary judges) were despatched to the six participating restaurants to evaluate the main dish of the 3-course meals they would deliver to last night’s at-home events.  With only outdoor dining allowed, we sampled impressive competition plates on restaurant decks, parking lots, a laneway, and one (Yannick LaSalle’s dish, from red zoned Chelsea, QC) in the backyard of a volunteered Ottawa home. Much of it under bucketing rain.

Marks were awarded for taste, presentation, technical achievement, wine compatibility and the elusive ‘wow’ factor.

Chef Yannick LaSalle, our 2019 Canadian Culinary Champion, built his dish around local Quebec lamb, Les Fougeres’ extensive garden, and happy memories of a Moroccan adventure. Harrissa spices, preserved lemon, orange, mint and sumac mingled forcefully with lamb three ways, the rare loin, braised shoulder and fragrant sausage, encircling a brilliant pile of orange-ed risotto (cooked in carrot juice) perked with pickled nasturtium buds and toasted pine nuts, and dotted with ruby red currants and mint leaves. A most delectable and pretty plate. His wine was the 2017 Syrah from Meldville Wines.

Scallops stared in the dish from chef Jason Sawision of Stofa restaurant, three whole beauties, seared to a golden crust, the anchors in a life ring of lovely elements. These included a carrot purée, braised red cabbage, baby roots glazed and stained with nori butter, shavings of crisped maitake mushrooms and a few dobs of what chef called an almond pudding. Laid on top were crunchy triangles of chicken skin studded with thyme leaves, ringlets of shaved celery and bright citrusy leaves of lemon balm. A pouring of piping hot lobster-chicken jus completed the pretty affair and Stofa’s sommelier Shane poured the Stratus 2016 White; bold, highly aromatic and gorgeous with the dish.

Onwards to the Holland Avenue deck of The Soca Kitchen, where the dynamic husband and wife team of Gustavo and chef Daniela Manrique served a dish inspired by their Venezuelan roots, an homage to the families they miss. The main component was a rich and subtly sweet stew of goat meat, long-braised in coconut milk, set on a yuca torte in a pool of saffron bisque. Perched on top was a raw asparagus salad, candied kumquats and a wobbly scallop, torched and dusted with fennel pollen. The dish was earthy and bright, rich and refreshing and the wine Gustavo poured – the elegant 2016 Small Lot Merlot from Thirty Bench was a very fine match.

To the ByWard Market next, where Restaurant e18hteen chef David Godsoe served duck – aged, brined, cold-smoked, spice-crusted, honey-glazed and roasted with hay from a friend’s farm. A tidy pavé with the confit leg, crowned it with a tranche of seared foie and turned the duck skin to a crackly crisp. Duck three ways met beets three ways, including pink kisses of fermented beet meringue. Duck adores cherries and here they were, some pickled and whole, a little more in pink dots of gelée. In a shiny copper pot was a juniper-steeped, gin-spiked gastrique enriched with duck demiglace. The chosen wine, poured by sommelier Kate Forsyth was the spicy and hugely juicy Two Sisters 2016 Cabernet Franc.

To our 5th chef, and to a canopy-covered empty lot just north of restaurant Fauna, where we were introduced to chef Billy Khoo’s dish. He presented a remarkably moist and crispy-skinned ballotine of guinea hen with a farce (stuffing) of rich lobster. He cooked the bundle sous vide, smoked it lightly with orange peel and served it with an unctuous, fabulous sauce Américaine, roasting and cooking down the lobster shells and hen stock with brandy and finishing with cream. Also on the plate, a yellow splat of pumpkin purée enriched and flecked with browned butter,  three little confit potato parisienne, some wilted black kale, briny sea asparagus lightly sautéed in olive oil, some wispy fennel fronds and a pile of crunchy fried, lightly seasoned taro curlicues. The dish arrived sous-cloche, preserving the treat of more lovely bitter-orange smoke, warming both the dish and our frozen faces. The wine chosen by sommelier Mike Rothon was an unfiltered orange wine, a 2019 viognier riesling from Therianthropy, five months on skins and stems, we were told. I didn’t adore the wine on its own, truth be told, but it was magnificent with the dish, slicing through the richness, loving the blood orange flavours, and managing the smoke like a champ.

Our final stop was at Gezellig on Richmond Road where chef Shane Brown had set up tables in an empty parking lot. By then, the skies were clear and we celebrated with a bit more duck. A lovely Ontario fall plate of stone fruits, bitter greens, and the last of the season’s corn. Brown had boned and whiskey-marinated the duck before stuffing it with a farce of the leg meat, liver, and port-poached nectarines, the stuffing wrapped in collard greens, the package trussed and roasted to juicy result. He sided the meat with creamed corn and pickled peaches and served an umeboshi (pickled plum) mostarda as condiment. Cave Spring’s Lauren Hayes-Van den Weghe poured us the 2018 Estate Pinot Noir and the match was spot on terrific.

Five hours later, soggy and cold, but extremely well fed, Sheila and I tallied our marks and hashed it out over mugs of mint tea, came up with our winner and called head judge James Chatto in Toronto with the news. Big congratulations to chef Billy Khoo and the entire Fauna team!

With the Canadian Culinary Championships of February 2021 cancelled, there will be no onwards competition of coast to coast gold medal chefs, gathered to crown a national champ. Billy Khoo is allowed bragging rights for sure, and also an invitation to compete again, properly you might say, in our next running of the competition. At the Great Kitchen Party of 2021, we hope to have ten chefs squaring off, and a full contingent of judges, including the KP champion of last year’s competition, chef Ian Carswell of the excellent Black Tartan Kitchen in Carleton Place.  

My thanks to all the chefs this year, to our chauffeur Sylvie Bigras, and to my co-judge, the intrepid Sheila Whyte.