“Comeback” might be a bit of a loaded word, but it fits to an arguable degree. After Rob Feenie left his eponymous Feenie’s restaurant and flagship Lumiere two years ago and landed as the Food Concept Architect for the Cactus Club chain, it could have easily been assumed that he had bought a one way ticket to the wilderness of the restaurant world. But last night, at the prestigious Vancouver Gold Medal Plates cooking competition, he bested nine of BC’s greatest chefs and reminded this town of his incredibly refined talent by taking gold. And he totally deserved it.
My friend and fellow judge, James Chatto, on how it all went down:
Last night, the Olympic city of Vancouver restated its intention to be regarded as Canada’s gastronomic capital with a dazzling sell-out fundraiser for Gold Medal Plates. The evening began with a VIP reception where lucky guests were treated to an array of Canada’s finest wines as chosen by GMP National Wine Advisor, David Lawrason, and Wine Access magazine. Last year’s gold-medal chef, Frank Pabst of Blue Water Café, provided a delectable accompaniment in the form of tiny pyramids of crab mousse topped with sustainable Canadian sturgeon caviar. Speeches were inspiring, pertinent and brief – then the crowd headed off for the first part of the evening, the chefs’ competition. The list of gustatory gladiators was the strongest ever gathered in this city, with every chef a potential winner, and standards were extraordinarily high. The final decisions were only reached after close to an hour of deliberation among the hard-working judges. Their reward was a sit-down celebration and some great music from Jim Cuddy and Stephen Page.
In the end, the bronze medal was awarded to former gold-medallist Pino Posteraro of Cioppino’s. He began by presenting an “amuse” – morsels of sweet, maple-marinated sable fish on a tangy jelly made from his chosen wine, a delectable Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend called Alibi from Black Hills Estate Winery in B.C.’s Okanagan valley. Then came a small bowl containing a perfectly textured raviolo filled with smoked sable fish and a dab of puréed potato. Beneath this was a bed of impeccably tender-firm green Umbrian lentils cooked in the broth that had poached the smoked fish, reinforced with some smoked olive oil. The sauce was a spot prawn cream subtly enhanced with traces of parmesan, lemon and Demerara sugar, a little of which had been turned into a snowy foam that capped the raviolo. All in all, a stunning affair.
The silver medal was awarded to Dale Mackay of Lumière. He presented a most elegant dish consisting of three components, with flavours that drew moans of pleasure from the judges. The principal element was a slice of a terrine en croute, its delicate frame of soft pastry shaped like an arched chancel window, but instead of stained glass Chef Mackay had layered several treatments of Sloping Hill Farm pork, using the gizzard, leg and belly, reinforced with foie gras and a topaz-coloured Okanagan quince jelly. Beside it, tiny turned radish, turnip, cornichon and poached quince had been lightly pickled – they looked like a handful of precious gems. On the right a rectangular strip of firm quince jelly was another sweet-tart condiment while a teaspoonful of pork jus completed the dish. Chef Mackay’s chosen wine, a tangy 2008 Tantalus Riesling from the Okanagan, was a luminous match.
The gold medal, not for the first time, was awarded to Rob Feenie of Cactus Club. He began his dish with a teaspoonful of sorbet made from parsnip, pear and pineapple, perfectly judged to introduce flavours in his chosen wine, a big, bright 2008 blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne from Road 13 in the Okanagan. Two principal elements on the plate that followed wowed the judges: first, a brick-shaped portion of layered Virginia Jacobs duck meat confited sous-vide for 24 hours to the peak of tenderness. Beside it, Chef Feenie posed a small boudin noir made of pressed chicken from Polderside Farms in Chiliwack, subtly enriched with foie gras. A dot of puréed fig was one garnish, matching another illusory moment in the wine; on top of everything lay a flavourful slice of flash-frozen truffle. More truffle was chopped up and mixed with a vinegar-based sauce, its acidity muted and mellow. The dish had its own thrilling and resonant harmonies and eventually emerged as a most worthy winner.
Congratulations to all the chefs who performed so well, and to the judges who had their work cut out determining a winner from such a talented field. Chef Feenie goes on to the Canadian Culinary Championship in Vancouver in November which is already shaping up to be the mother of all gastronomic confrontations.
It was a spectacular, very well-served evening. I didn’t get up from our table once so I have no idea how the mingling went. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t take many photographs and zero video (if you want to see how it went down last year, take a look here).
Competitor’s dishes arrived every ten minutes or so, so we had time enough to inspect, taste, and ruminate without feeling too rushed. I saved my marking for the very end this time, and tried to allow myself some pleasure with each plate. The order in which the courses arrived made sense according to the wine pairings: light whites and seafood first and then the red meats and bolder wines. In the end, it felt we’d buzzed through a well considered 10 course tasting menu. I was sated as such. The closest experience that I can compare it to would be last winter’s CTS Senza Frontiere dinner at Cioppino’s, where many of the exact same chefs were doing the cooking (video here). It was the sort of meal that one floats away from, immersed in a dimension of satisfaction that seldom makes itself available.
The after party upstairs in the Bayshore was a straight up hoot, too. I found myself in a small huddle of wine appreciators who’d somehow gotten hold of several bottles of Bordeaux from the 1960’s and 1970’s, and we went to town on them like children through Fanta at a birthday party. Big thanks to whoever paid that particular bill!
Next up for winner Rob Feenie will be the Canadian Culinary Championships. He will represent our region against the winning chefs from the other cities of Canada in three gruelling competitions in late November (more info here). If you’d like a refresher on the process, press play on last year’s video below…