One night; winner takes all. The prestigious Gold Medal Plates culinary competition on Nov. 9 is a combo cocktail party (for guests) and a high-stakes evening of frenzied prepping and plating (for the 10 chefs).
The victor earns bragging rights — and a trip to Kelowna in February for an even more intense two-day showdown against the winners from across the country.
Last year, Absinthe chef/owner Patrick Garland took top spot with seared quail breast stuffed with foie gras, a braised thigh croquette, cinnamon cap mushrooms, frittered shallot, confit grapes, and a gewürztraminer reduction. This year, the reigning champ returns as a judge.
Here, the chef gives City Bites Insider a behind-the-scenes idea of what it’s like competing at Gold Medal Plates — and what tips he’d give to this year’s winning chef as they prep for the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna on February 5 and 6, 2016.
Are you psyched to be a judge at this year’s Gold Medal Plates?
I’m really psyched to try all of the plates and to be part of the process. When I was competing last year it was so busy that I didn’t even get to see what everyone else was making. I’m glad! Some of those dishes were so amazing that it would have been intimidating. I’m a little uneasy about the judging part.
I find it a little stressful to pass judgment on my colleagues who have put their blood, sweat, and tears into their plates, especially when on any given day some of them might be able to kick my culinary ass.
Once a winner is chosen, can you help them prepare for the Canadian Culinary Championships?
Definitely. There’s even a lucky suitcase that gets passed along to each year’s winner to take with them. It’s basically a knife kit and a first-aid kit. I kept all the information binders that I was given in Kelowna, as well as all of my preparation notes, so I’ll pass those along too.
Did previous Gold Medal Plates winners help you prepare for Kelowna?
They were a huge help. I picked their brains. One night I went for dinner with Marc [Lepine, Ottawa GMP winner in 2011], Marysol [Foucault, Ottawa GMP winner in 2013], and Jamie [Stunt, Ottawa GMP winner in 2012] and asked them everything I could.
And now that you’ve competed on the national stage, what are your key pieces of advice?
Be true to yourself. Don’t cook outside your comfort zone. When I competed in the wine-and-food pairing portion of the competition, I cooked a dish that paired perfectly with the wine, but it wasn’t something I would normally cook and the judges could tell. You don’t have to be too literal.
Also — and this is for the earlier Gold Medal Plates round as well — think about bright flavours that are high in acidity. Dishes with spark. Gobs of cream and butter are great, but at the end of a long night of eating, the judges just want a big glass of water!
What was the schedule like in Kelowna?
Up at 5 a.m. to prepare; compete each night; back to the hotel by 1 a.m. — for two days running.
Did you get to enjoy the town?
Yes, we were surprised by how overwhelmingly happy people were for us to be there. All the chefs were really made to feel at home. The one place that sticks out in my mind is Codfathers, which is a fish place. We went there three times — everyone was so accommodating and pleasant. Great food.
Was winning Gold Medal Plates last year good for business?
It certainly didn’t hurt. We felt busier and it was good for us as a team — working towards a goal and achieving it.
Having competed twice at Gold Medal Plates (in 2008 and 2014) and once at the Canadian Culinary Championships (in February 2015), would you do it again?
In a heartbeat! But it is incredibly stressful. I think if you invited the chefs who have done it before, about 50 percent would jump right in to compete again, while the other 50 percent would run screaming in the other direction.
Change of topic. There are rumours that you’re planning a renovation of Absinthe. True or false?
We’re planning a renovation over March Break. I’ve always felt that our intentions aren’t totally in sync with people’s perceptions of Absinthe. I think a lot of people think of us as fine dining, but we tend to think of our food as more down to earth — it’s dining that’s fine rather than fine dining.
Why do you think that is?
I’m not sure, but we intend to do a better job of getting our vision across. I’m from this neighbourhood. I grew up in Hintonburg and went to school at Connaught and Fisher Park [High School]. I want people to think of Absinthe as a Hintonburg tradition since 2003 and that the people who work here are invested in the community.
So how will the renovation change perceptions?
For a start, we’re moving the bar from the back of the restaurant to the front so you can see it from the street. I want people to feel comfortable stopping in for a drink and a couple of appetizers. You don’t have to come for a full meal.
Right now, Absinthe is one really big room, which can get noisy. We’re going to add a panel that allows us to hive off large groups so that they can have privacy for their event. It also makes it less distracting for everyone else.
We’ve got plans for a couple of booths at the back, so people can hang out and look out over the restaurant — see what’s going on.
And you’re going to do all this over the course of a few days in March?!
That’s the plan. Everything is being built off-site so when the time comes, we can demo over a weekend and then move all the new furniture in over a few days.