What is it that makes professional kitchen battles so appealing? Whether it’s Food Network’s Iron Chef (a guilty pleasure of mine), Top Chef, Dinner Party Wars, Chefs vs City or Glutton for Punishment, we can’t seem to get our fill of sweat-drenched, knife-wielding warriors tackling dinner ingredients like an eight-year old on a sugar buzz with a brand new box of Lego.
The culinary showdown — a meal with a side order of drama and entertainment — has been adapted in recent years as a fundraising format. First there was Gold Medal Plates and now Duelling Chefs, a series of dinners hosted by Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar that draws diners out to Westboro on Monday nights and raises money for various charities.
Last Monday was the third battle of its second season and I was invited to be a judge. In what would become a fascinating study of old-guard classical French cuisine vs. modern/global bistro cuisine (one might call it pedigree vs. pizzazz) the competition pitted Juniper’s team against Serge Rourre of Le Baccara, one of only four recipients in Canada of the CAA-AAA prestigious Five Diamond Award. Unlike other $200-per-ticket battles which have been a tougher sell (this week’s Flying Piggies duel was “postponed”), this one was sold out.
Each team prepared all four courses (an amuse bouche, a fish course, a meat course, and dessert) and the judges/audience received two of each course served side by side. We were not informed which team was responsible for which plate. The judges were then asked to evaluate each dish according to taste, the use of an essential ingredient, originality, presentation, and texture.
While Chef Rourre was the unanimous choice of all three judges, I found it curious to discover that an overwhelming number of Duelling Chef victories so far have gone to Juniper. After watching the competition unfold, I can start to see why.
First of all, there’s the home team advantage. On Iron Chef, all competitors are working on foreign turf so neither team maneuvers the kitchen with complete ease. Then there’s the question of fairness in terms of who actually competes on each team. How is it that Juniper is able to compete using two head chefs (co-owners Norm Aiken and Peter Robblee) while the other restaurants feature a single head chef?
And finally, if I understood this correctly, the wines were paired with Juniper’s menu: another advantage for the home team. This was certainly the case with the main dish featuring pork tenderloin: Juniper’s was smoked, while Le Baccara’s was simply roasted with herbs. The wine worked much better with Juniper’s dish.
But as it turns out, fairness isn’t really what’s important to the culinary showdown. What appeals to the audience is the same thing that appeals to us about watching any competitive sport: we are swept up in the game of winners and losers. And in this case, the biggest winner is the audience, who are the double beneficiaries of the quest for bragging rights.