The twelfth annual Canadian culinary road trip known as Gold Medal Plates rolled into Ottawa last night. Our city was the ninth of 11 cities to hold the competition — only Toronto now remains in the national campaign.
More than six hundred guests, chefs, sommeliers, brewmasters, winemakers, athletes, musicians, and volunteers packed the Shaw Centre to eat, drink and make merry. Our athletes were honoured, trips were auctioned off, musicians entertained us, and funds were raised to support Canada’s Olympic hopefuls. But the stars of Gold Medal Plates 2017 were the 10 chefs, feeding the crowd and presenting their plates to a panel of judges tasked with the gut-pleasing/wrenching decision of defining three winners. The winner would go on to represent Ottawa at the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna, BC, in February.
The competing chefs, some of them veterans from past years, but most of them brand new to the event, rose to the occasion with dishes of striking beauty, creativity, and finesse. The chefs chose to work with everything from eel to seal, elk to uni. Dishes were paired with craft beer, Canadian wines, Quebec cider, and Ontario sake. One chef even gave us a Manhattan, crafted with Ontario rye whisky infused with elk-marrow, fermented blueberries, and spruce. Indeed, Gold Medal Plates is no longer an event that teams up Canadian chefs with Canadian wines alone. Increasingly, beers and spirits are stepping up to play their hand in the matching game.
So at the end of the night, who stood on the podium? Well, curiously (and fabulously) they are all first-time competitors! And who will go on to compete in Kelowna? It was a night of firsts, as chef Briana Kim of vegan restaurant Café My House took the top spot, sharing the podium with Yannick LaSalle of Les Fougeres in Chelsea, and Steve Harris of Two Six Ate in Little Italy.
Harris took the bronze with a dish that focused over and over (and, charmingly, over) again on sea urchin: in a yummy little sausage with pork belly; in a delicate mousse encased in a smoky dashi broth gelée; and briny and sweet in its scooped-out naked form. Pickled kohlrabi, a whey-fermented ground cherry molasses, and squid ink tapioca pearls cupped in a squid ink chip finished the plate. Harris’ wine pairing was the 2016 Embrace Riesling from Casa Dea Winery in Prince Edward County.
The silver medal went to Les Fougeres chef de cuisine, Yannick LaSalle. Though his principal protein was wild Arctic char from Nunavut (cooked sous vide), it was the fantastic butternut squash purée on the pretty plate that was the most memorable element. Sourced from Roots & Shoots Farm, the squash was roasted and combined with beurre noisette, dry sherry, and LaSalle’s family’s maple syrup. The sweetness was tamed beautifully with bitter red endive, Venosta cranberries, and a vinaigrette of cranberry juice, maple syrup, squash oil, and ginger. For crunch: fried wild rice, crushed sesame seeds with coarse salt, and little squash crackers. The 2015 unfiltered Chardonnay from Norman Hardie Winery was a terrific match.
Briana Kim’s win represents a first in the history of GMP in Ottawa, and quite possibly in the country: a vegan dish out-muscling the meatier competition. Kim wowed the judges with a simple dish of mushrooms: miso marinated, smoked, and mousse-ed. Sharing the bowl were bursts of sweet and juice, which came from pickled pear and compressed cucumber, bits of charred cabbage, a slice of blistered shishito pepper, and petals of pearl onion. Kim then poured an umami-potent broth overtop, starring kombu and charred onion. Resting on the lip of the bowl: a brown rice cracker, speckled with fennel and coriander seeds. It was simple dish, but complex in flavour and beautifully balanced. Kim matched her dish not with wine (or beer or cider or rye), but with sake from the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company: Junmai Genshu, light and fruity, but also rich and complex, much like Kim’s dish.
Congratulations to all the chefs. It was a brilliant showing. And to Kim, your city salutes you!
She will now move on to the national competition this February in Kelowna. Not sure how a vegetarian chef will manage a black box competition that traditionally contains all sorts of meaty and fishy things … but it will be such fun to find out!
Enormously grateful to my fellow judges: House of Commons executive chef and chair of the Canadian Culinary Federation, Judson Simpson; Thyme & Again creative catering owner and industry trailblazer, Sheila Whyte; chef/owner of Atelier and two-time Canadian Culinary champion Marc Lepine; culinary historian, founder and publisher of Taste &Travel Magazine, Dr. Janet Boileau; last year’s gold medallist, chef Joe Thottungal of Coconut Lagoon; and national culinary advisor for GMP, James Chatto.