by Andrew Morrison | The first ever Victoria Gold Medal Plates went down last Thursday night, pitting some of our brightest chef talents against one another. The competition has, in past years, been held in Vancouver, and decides which BC chef will represent the province at the annual Canadian Culinary Championships, which take place in Kelowna this February.
The duelling chefs this year were Darren Brown of the Fairmont Pacific Rim, Marc-André Choquette of Coal Harbour’s Tableau Bar Bistro, Kunal Ghose of Victoria’s Red Fish Blue Fish, Daniel Hudson of Hudson’s On First in Duncan, Jeff Keenliside of Victoria’s Marina Restaurant, Makoto Ono of Gastown’s Pidgin, Terry Pichor Sonora Resort on Sonora Island, Garrett Schack of Victoria’s Vista 18, Brian Skinner of The Acorn on Main Street, and Chris Whittaker of Robson’s Forage.
As a judge, I saw first hand how close the scoring was. Typically, only the top three chefs have their marks revealed, but I can tell you that there was only something like 7 percentage points separating 1st place from 7th place. So it was a very close run thing at the very top.
As always, there were some delicious oddities and outliers. Pidgin’s Ono, for example, chose to serve a sake and gin cocktail instead of a wine pairing with his otherwise perfect Onsen egg, smoked salmon roe and risotto (one of the best plates of the night). While not the least bit objectionable in and of itself, the sipper’s admittedly low intensity alcohol “burn” proved more of a barrier than a bridge. I saw the point and the purpose, but the little seafaring flavour bursts of roe begged instead for a juicy, coddling Riesling. Similarly, Vista 18’s Schack decided to double down on the different, serving a dessert – sweet potato beignet with chocolate and brown butter ice cream – next to a Scotch Ale. It was good eating, but there wasn’t much room for winning nuance in the sweetness, however multi-dimensional it might have been.
I suppose, then, that plating/pouring away from the savoury and the grape in cooking/pairing competitions is inevitably fraught with risk. It’s seldom rewarded in this particular arena, that is unless the results are revelatory in their perfection. That being said, I don’t want to put future competitors off from trying new things. It’s always great to see chefs swinging for the fences at the Gold Medal Plates!
I’ll have some final comments at the end as well as some photographs, but here’s the prime skinny from my boss at the event, James Chatto, whose palate and writing skills far exceed my own…
It’s always exciting to bring the Gold Medal Plates phenomenon to a new city. Last night we were, for the first time, in Victoria, British Columbia, where chefs from the city challenged their colleagues from elsewhere on the island, from Vancouver and from Sonora Island to see who would win the gold medal and progress to Kelowna in February. It was an extraordinary evening with a sold-out crowd of 500 completely involved in proceedings, with emcee Adam Kreek in fine form and more dancing to the music than I’ve ever seen at any GMP event. It seemed like half the room was up and rocking to a veritable orchestra of musicians – Jim Cuddy, Barney Bentall, Dustin Bentall and Kendal Carson, John Mann and Geoffrey Kelly from Spirit of the West, and trumpeter Daniel Lapp.
The competing chefs (representing Vancouver, Victoria and several Gulf Islands) also performed brilliantly, crossing the line like some kind of gastronomic peleton, all marks tightly bunched within a mere 12 percentage points. Fortunately, I had a brilliant team of judges to help me sort them out, led by co-Senior Judge, educator and international wine and food guru Sid Cross and co-Senior judge, author and editor, Andrew Morrison, alongside writer, blogger, editor and culinary judge, Shelora Sheldan, hotelier, international food and wine judge and Slow Food ambassador, Dr. Sinclair Philip, former chef, sommelier and innkeeper, now writer and editor, Gary Hynes, and last year’s gold medallist from our Vancouver competition, Chef Mark Filatow of Waterfront Restaurant and Wine Bar in Kelowna.
Taking the bronze medal was Terry Pichor of Sonora Resort on Sonora Island. Ambitiously, he included a foie-gras-filled raviolo on his plate, pulling off the textural challenge in a masterful way for the pasta was tender and the foie almost liquid. Under the raviolo was a cushion of duck leg confit surrounded by a rich butternut squash purée but the dish’s main focus were two slices of duck breast that chef had brined poached in duck fat with star anise, the pink meat ending up with the sleek and juicy texture of ham. A number of garnishes added nuance. Black garlic granola had a very fine texture, sprinkled onto the ravioli with a spoonful of the duck’s natural jus bolstered by a brunoise of pine mushroom. Candied squash seeds and a sprinkling of vividly purple young beet seedlings completed the plate. Chef Pichor chose Foxtrot Vineyard’s 2010 Pinot Noir from the Naramata Bench, a wine that picked up the mushrooms and brought a refreshing acidity to the dish.
Our silver medal was won by Darren Brown, executive chef of the Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel in Vancouver. He worked with local Camp River Farms pork belly, deliberately grown to be leaner than most pork belly, confiting it in Kahlua and carving a thin slice that had a lovely crust and a flavour like first-class bacon. The meat lay on a pool of poi made not with the traditional starchy taro but with much lighter lotus root, coconut and heart of palm. Limning the poi was a second sauce, a sweet pineapple and maple-mustard glaze thickened by a syrup made from Chef’s chosen wine. Sprinkled on top were some tangy mustard seeds, slices of crunchy betel nut, a cross of puffed white pork cracklings and a scattering of dehydrated pineapple flecks that worked particularly well with the wine. A final flourish of welcome green came from a floret of baby bok choy. And the wine? An old friend – JoieFarm Winery’s delicious 2012 Noble Blend, an Alsatian-style melange of Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Schoenberger.
Who won gold? Chef Brian Skinner of The Acorn in Vancouver, who achieved the exceedingly rare feat of winning at GMP with a vegetarian dish. His dish was a casual assembly of pale drums, some of them cut from smoked king oyster mushrooms, others turning out to be confited potatoes. Thumbelina carrots had been roasted to soft caramelization while others had been turned into “carrot meringue” like shards of paper-thin wafer. Minute braised shallots no bigger than chickpeas were a sweet component while acidity came from dots of intensely flavoured sherry fluid gel. A combination of mushrooms were used to make the fragrant mushroom jus and the coup de grace was a scattering of wild-foraged watercress. The dish was relatively simple but most effective, with every ingredient coming from within 100 miles of his restaurant, and the wine pairing worked on many levels. Clos du Soleil’s 2012 Chegwin & Baessler Pinot Blanc is delightfully aromatic with a hint of sweetness that worked with the carrot and shallot components and a sly acidity boosted by the sherry gel, all in a fine balance.
All in all, Victoria provided a very welcoming and energized West Coast adventure and Chef Skinner will be just as welcome in Kelowna in February.
Skinner’s win came as a pleasant surprise. That’s not because I thought anyone did a more masterful job, but rather because his dish didn’t contain any meat. It was, without a doubt, pretty damn perfect, as was its alliance with the well chosen Pinot Blanc, and even though the selfish glutton in me thought his efforts could have been hugely improved by a flashed paillard of veal or a mere nugget of pork tenderloin, I scored him high across the board (as did, evidently, the rest of the judges on the panel). He absolutely deserved gold.
As to what the vegetarian chef will do when he’s supplied with a meat/fish at the Canadian Culinary Championships’ gruelling (no other word for it) Black Box competition this winter is beyond me. Many years ago at the same competition we had a nut-allergic competitor who discovered peanuts in his black box. He had to have his sous chef sub in for him, which was hardly ideal. Needless to say, I’m sure Skinner will figure it out when the lid comes off, and it will be exciting to watch happens next.