Thursday, April 5, 2012

All-Star Canadian Culinary Celebration: Celebrity Chefs of Canada

We were not sure what to expect when heading to Ottawa on Sunday (March 25, 2012) for the 2nd Annual Celebrity Chefs of Canada event at the National Arts Centre (NAC). We accidentally found the event online and did a double take because we could not believe the amazing line up of Chefs was for real. After attending the event it is official, we have been blown away and buzzing ever since. In fact, we are finding it hard to do this event justice with our blog post because there is just too much to say about this incredible day of Canadian food, Chefs and wine.

This all-star Canadian culinary celebration was organized by the NAC's Executive Chef Michael Blackie. During the evening reception we noticed Chef Blackie's portrait on the wall. What struck us is that the Chef is part of the NAC's artistic leadership team. As Chef Ned Bell said during his cooking demo, "we [Chefs] are artists, culinary artists." In the context of this event at the NAC, nothing could be truer when we say that this event is about recognizing these artists and their medium.

Celebrity Chefs are indeed a hot commodity these days, the new rock stars, or at the NAC, that often plays host to classical musicians, should the term be culinary maestros? The event could easily be described as a symphony of flavours. Given the day's roster included Susur Lee, Vikram Vij, and Lynn Crawford, this event is definitely one hot ticket. Consider the facts, the afternoon cooking demos attracted close to 350 people. An additional 400 guests came for the evening reception where we spotted Laureen Harper (wife of Prime Minister Stephen Harper) who, from what we could tell, was waiting in line to get a copy of Lynn Crawford's book signed. Over 750 guests, on a Sunday night in Ottawa for an evening of food and! The numbers alone demonstrate the drawing power with the cult of the Chef.

It is also worth noting that it is no small feat in smoothly serving 750 people during a 3 and half hour cocktail reception. To give you an idea, Chefs Larkin and Bell used just over 100 pounds of tuna for their service. Chef Santaguida mentioned making 960 raviolis. Chefs were assisted by members of their brigades but also Ottawa culinary students who helped keep the lines moving. Catering staff also did a great job in clearing empty plates off tables and keeping the reception running smooth.Besides highlighting Canada's culinary stars the event showcases Ottawa's food scene, more smart planning, by pairing a local Chef with a Canadian Chef in the creation of a single dish during the cooking demos. Besides being extremely educational, the demos gave us the chance to watch and be inspired by these talented individuals and their craft. Based on the comments made by the Chefs the distance between them meant their collaborative dishes were created over the telephone prior to the event. Also of particular interest was watching two Chefs plate the same dish. Same dish, same ingredients, different platings or creations. The chance to taste these creations during the reception that followed the demos was just pure gravy.

Is it art? Citrus marinated BC geoduck with ocean emulsion
The first team of demoing Chefs was Marc Lepine from Atelier (Ottawa) and Quang Dang from West Restaurant & Bar (Vancouver). The pair served up Citrus marinated BC Geoduck with Ocean Emulsion. If you have ever seen geoduck then you understand why the ingredient drew laughs from the crowd. We are lucky enough to have tasted geoduck before. It was served to us in a rich cream sauce at a Vietnamese restaurant in Vancouver and to this day we remember it as one of the best things that we have ever tasted. Giant bites of oyster. We were surprised to learn from Chef Dang that geoduck is rare in Canada because most of it is exported overseas. Dang made some good points in mentioning that it is unfortunate that we do not always get to enjoy our great Canadian bounty because it is exported for high prices overseas. These items can be part of our culinary attractions to our country by exemplifying our cuisine. Essentially we are selling and exporting a piece of our culture. The two Chefs are obviously inspired by innovation as liquid nitrogen made an appearance in addition to agar for the creation of beet jell-o. We were relieved to see that the ocean emulsion was not ocean foam. The chefs' dish introduced us to something we have never seen before, pomelo ash. Leftover pomelo bits are roasted until they turn into ash and add a subtle flavour, and interesting coloured garnish to dishes. The Chefs also mentioned using chive and apple cores to create additional ashes and flavours.

Chefs Quanq Dang (left) and Marc Lepine
 Chef Patricia Larkin from Black Cat Bistro (Ottawa) and Chef Ned Bell from The Four Seasons Hotel (Vancouver) was the next pairing. We know that this is not a competition but Chef Bell is an extremely charismatic and entertaining chef to watch who obviously works at it based on his trademark blue shoes. If you are looking to book a high energy Chef for a cooking presentation Chef Bell delivers. This high energy and enthusiasm comes from his obvious passion and love of his craft and food. How many people can work a room talking about their signature can of tuna? After watching Bell plate his dish it is also obvious that he is an extremely talented Chef. Not to be outdone Chef Larkin, who could just sit back and let Bell charm the crowd, also plated a beautiful dish that garnished praise from Chef Bell. The two Chefs served Albacore Tuna Tartare, Pickled Shallot Cucumber and Radish Red Miso and Lemon Vinaigrette, Black and White Sesame Praline. Chef Bell confessed his love of pickles during his demo. We see this trend as emanating from Korean and Vietnamese food or is it David Chang? As Korean food is one of our favourite cuisines we are thrilled to see this influence jumping into other styles of cooking. The Chefs described the sesame praline as being like those cookies you eat as a kid. We loved how the praline added a sweet crunchy garnish to the tuna. The presentation and serving of the tuna in a can during the reception was a nice touch.

Tuna tartare, pickled shallot, cucumber and radish with sesame praline

 Next on the bill, Cesare Santaguida from Vittoria Trattoria (Ottawa) and Vikram Vij (Vancouver). The pair served up Encrusted Lamb Lollipops with Butternut Ravioli. The dish was finished with a curry sauce and we were very disappointed to find out when we got home that it was not included in the recipe section of the event program. The main reason for our major disappointment with this omission is that the curry sauce was so damn delicious. We are glad the Chefs had prepared extra portions, "just in case," because we did go back for a second helping of this dish. We have eaten a lot of curry, we have cooked a lot of curry, we even use a mortar and a pestle to make our own curry powder but we have never tasted such a great tasting curry in our lives. Vij's reputation as a Curry King is obviously well deserved. We could have drank a cup of this sauce it was really that good. The kitchen staff happily gave us extra sauce with our second helping when we praised it's flavors. Light, creamy and a delicate curry taste, the sauce brought together the lamb and ravioli in a perfect balance. The dish was finished with a gremolata and was just another great touch to an already superbly flavored dish. If you think about it the individual components themselves are great tasting items, lamb and butternut squash that are only helped with a great sauce and garnish. What we also liked about the Chefs' creation was the way it showed Canadian style by reflecting our cultural mosaic, Indian and Italian cultures together.

Canadian Curry King Vikram Vij
 Next up was a solo act Patrick McMurray who offered us ShuckerPaddy's Hogtown chowder. McMurray was assisted by Chef Blackie who used chilli threads as a garnish for the dish. We mention this because we have never seen this ingredient before. The threads look like long threads of saffron and are a beautiful way of finishing a dish. McMurray has made a name for himself as a professional oyster shucker and is the Guinness world record holder for most oysters shucked in one minute with 38 oysters. There was a pause in the demos where we were treated to a serving of Murray's chowder. The fried oysters in the chowder make for some great bites because who does not like eating fried foods? Almost as impressive as shucking 38 oysters in one minute was the serving of over 300 portions of chowder during a 20 minute coffee break. The chance to eat a bite food after the cooking demos was very welcome because we simply cannot begin to describe the effects on your appetite of sitting in a room full of delicious aromas. We often found ourselves just closing our eyes and taking in the smell of the food during the demos.

ShuckerPaddy's hogtown chowder
 The demos resumed with Susur Lee and Matthew Carmichael from Restaurant 18 (Ottawa). Chef Carmichael has worked under Susur Lee and it was interesting seeing the reunited pair working together. The Chefs prepared "Chorizo Style" St. Canut Suckling Pig, Parmesan Crusted Fennel Lobster Salad - Saffron Mayonnaise. The two Chefs stood at opposite ends of the counter, each plating their dish. You could sense the mutual admiration the two Chefs have for one another with Lee earning a bit of awe or inspiration from Carmichael as they reminisced about their time together. During his demo, Susur Lee came across as very quiet, and extremely focused. The lack of talking combined with attention to his work meant that Lee finished his dish in record time. Both Chefs plated what must have been the prettiest plates of all the cooking the demos.

1,2,3... Look at Susur Lee
 Next up, the 2 Jasons, Chef Duffy from Arc Lounge (Ottawa) and Chef Bangerter from Luma (Toronto) with their offering of Braised Elk Ribs, Creamy Polenta, Tasty Crispy bits. We are a bit biased with this dish because we love elk meat. We happen to know a great provider of wapiti in Dunham and have enjoyed their elk tourtière on numerous occasions. The Chefs topped their dish in a great way with their Tasty Crispy Bits. Duck fat (we love it) is heated in a pan and ten you grab your bits around the kitchen, sliced garlic, thyme leaves, bits of torn bread, macadamia nuts... A great way of finishing just about any dish.

Braised elk ribs, creamy polenta, tasty crispy bits
 Jonathan Korecki from Side Door (Ottawa) and Jeremy Charles from Raymonds (Newfoundland). Chef Korecki is a recognizable face right now, the bandana sporting Chef is competing on the current season of Top Chef Canada. We ate lunch at Korecki's resto on Monday after the NAC event as part of our Top Chef Canada research. We were obviously in good company, we spotted Chefs Dang and Bell enjoying the food at Side Door when we walked in. The team of Korecki and Charles however get our villain of the show award because they served Wild Newfoundland Rabbit: Crispy Rabbit Ravioli, Rabbit Liver Mousse and Rabbit Terrine "Presse." Chef Charles mentioned he used 40 wild rabbits for the event. Remember our rule no rabbit or eating your bloggers (fans). Showing the wild rabbit to the audience we were struck with the difference of the flesh color when compared to the farmed rabbits you might find at your grocery store or butcher. The meat of the wild rabbits were a deep burgundy as opposed to the pale white flesh of the farmed variety. We do have to hand it to the Chefs for making a dish that uses all the parts of the animal with little waste. The chance to eat any animal that has not been raised under dubious conditions, especially rabbit. Korecki, like Chef Bell, is another fan of pickles, he has 24 kinds at his restaurant and they were used in finishing the dish. The two Chefs also presented the nicest looking dish of the reception using a cedar plank for the plating withwhite pine sprig for visual effect. The plating reminded us a lot of a Group of 7 landscape and it does not get much more Canadian, or artistic, than that.

Villains? Chef Jonathan Korecki and Chef Jeremy Charles
The Jack Pine White Pine: A trio of wild Newfoundland rabbit
Chef Clifford Lyness from Brookstreet (Ottawa) and Chef Jason Parsons from Peller Estates Winery (Niagara on the Lake) served up another one of our favorite food items, duck, with their Smoked Sous Vide Magret - Confit Leg. Chef Parsons caused us to have lots of envy with his cooking gadgets. Not to deter from the dish, the smoked and confit duck is the perfect example how simple foods when cooked to perfection are always a winner. Of course for the sous-vide a thermocirculator was used but Chef Parsons also had the coolest smoker that we have ever seen. Some of you might be familiar with the gadget because from what we could tell it seemed to work like a vaporizer. Remember we are talking about smoking here. The device, called a smoking gun, produces a enormous amount of smoke from a few wood chips or essential oil. The smoke is kept under wraps in a cloche with the food, infusing it with flavor. We have used a Cameron stovetop smoker at home for years and we love cooking with it in the kitchen and on the BBQ. Once you have smoked your own salmon at home there is no going back. The one drawback of the Cameron smoker in your kitchen is that it smokes up the house a lot so the the smoking gun system does look like a great way of smoking your food.

Smoked duck sous vide
 During the reception the company that sells the smoking gun had a table featuring some of their wares. Testek, a Québec company located in Delson, specializes in molecular gastronomy tools and supplies. Ever wanted to pump some spaghetti? Well now you know where to get it. In addition to a bunch of kitchen equipment that looks like it belongs in Tesla's laboratory we found the catalog to contain some of the coolest looking serving dishes, utensils, verrines, cardboard slider boxes, miniature coca-cola style bottles etc. If you are in the catering business it is definitely worth your while to check out Testek's line of products. These are wow factor presentation pieces that will definitely impress your clients. Take for example the dryspoon, hollow glass spoons that allow you to place a liquid inside (wine) and solid on top (cheese).

Designer Dishes & Toys from Testek
 Our final pairing of Chefs, Michael Blackie, Executive Chef at the National Arts Centre (Ottawa) and Lynn Crawford from Ruby Watchco (Toronto). Chef Crawford is one of the most recognizable Chefs in Canada because of her television work but it is a very different experience to see her in person. We said earlier that Chef Ned Bell was high energy and entertaining during his presentation well he has got nothing on Chef Lynn Crawford who is like a lightning bolt. Given her energy and enthusiasm, not to mention bitchin' kitchen chops, it is no wonder she has carved out a successful career as Chef and television star. With Crawford working the crowd and running around we almost felt sorry for Chef Blackie who seemed to be trying to keep things on track because they did have to prepare a dish after all. Despite being a blur on stage Crawford impressed us by inviting a 16-year-old volunteer for the event, and budding Chef, to cook with her on stage. The Chefs dish Was Seed to Sausage Double Smoked Bacon - Duck - Cranberries - Mimolette Gnocchi. Another excellent dish because we love duck but the mimolette (cheese) sage gnocchi was a real standout amongst all the dishes served during the reception.

Lynn Crawford with Chef-in-training
 Not to be overlooked the reception featured wine pairings from Ontario vintners. Allow us to take this moment to lament the fact the the Société des Alcools de Québec (SAQ) is really weak in the Ontario wine department because these were quality products. We had a bit of trouble juggling, or enjoying, our glasses of wine and plates food to take proper notes. A  handout, or including this information in the program, would have been nice because us Québécois would really like to know the names of the wines that were matched with the food. We did grab a few business cards and brochures from a few of the vineyards that included Diamond Winery, Lailey vineyard, Pelee Island winery, Peller Estates and Norman Hardie. One product that is really worth mentioning was from The Spearhead brewing company who featured their Hawaiian style pale ale brewed with pineapple. The pineapple is subtle, just a bouquet on the nose, and makes for a delicious crisp, satisfying beer that is unlike any we have ever tasted. The tropical notes pair really well with food but sadly for us in Québec this is yet another product that is not available in La Belle Province.

Chefs Blackie & Crawford: Duck sausage with mimolette gnocchi
 Coming from Montreal we know that our city likes to boast about its culinary reputation. We have also been hearing rumors that Ottawa's food scene was going places and shedding its reputation as not having any good places to eat. Judging from the caliber of the local Chefs at this event we can say that the rumor is true. Ottawa really got the big guns (long knives) out for this event. It only makes sense that our nation's capital should have great dining establishments and events when it already plays host to showcasing our national culture with it's museums and cultural institutions like The National Arts Centre. Montreal, Ottawa just kicked our asses with a capital culinary extravaganza that has all the makings of a destination event. Hear that High Lights Festival? Montreal we need to wake stop eating our foie gras poutine and watch our backs.

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