How does one sum up a ten-hour long food extravaganza? A few adjectives spring to mind, including educational, inspirational and delicious!
The 2012 edition of Celebrity Chefs of Canada was all this and more. Part food theatre, part tasting party and all fun, the annual event is the brainchild of the National Arts Centre's executive chef, Michael Blackie, in support of the NAC's Youth and Education Trust.
As Chef Blackie explained, one of the event's goals is to showcase Canadian food and wine, saluting both the purveyors and preparers of the many wonderful products grown, harvested or produced across the country. To this end, Blackie invited nine of the most outstanding Canadian chefs and paired them with a team of local all-stars.
The afternoon cooking demonstrations professional yet playful; it was obvious that the chefs were enjoying themselves as they cooked, engaging in humorous, sometimes racy, banter while teaching about the special ingredients, techniques, tools and tricks they use every day. Midway through the demos, we were invited to sample a silky, delicious oyster soup, dubbed ‘Hogtown Chowder', as demonstrated by Chef Patrick McMurray of Starfish Oyster Bed and Ceili Cottage in Toronto.
Having endured mouth-watering aromas all afternoon, it was an eager mob that left the NAC Studio to hit the eight tasting stations at the conclusion of the demos. From my first taste - citrus marinated BC geoduck with ocean emulsion prepared by the 2012 Gold Medal Plates winner Mark Lepine of Atelier and Quang Dang (West, Vancouver) - through to my last - an encrusted lamb lollipop with butternut squash ravioli by Cesare Santaguida (Trattoria Vittoria, Ottawa) and Vikram Vij (Vij's & Rangoli, Vancouver), every mouthful was memorable.
It's impossible to pick a favourite but many in the crowd seemed to agree that the Oceanwise albacore tuna tartare with red miso vinaigrette created by Patricia Larkin (Black Cat Bistro, Ottawa) and the energetic Ned Bell (YEW, Four Seasons - Vancouver) was one of the night's best tastes. It was paired with Spearhead Brewing Company's Hawaiian Style Pale Ale; the hint of pineapple in the beer was terrific with the gentle spiciness of the top-notch tuna's vinaigrette.
I was excited to meet some of the chefs whose restaurants I've long dreamed of visiting, such as Susur Lee from Toronto. He and Matthew Carmichael (of Ottawa's Restaurant E18hteen) delivered a complex, flavourful plate of "chorizo style" St. Canut suckling pig with a saffron-mayonnaised lobster salad and parmesan-encrusted fennel. Zany, talented Lynn Crawford of Ruby Watchco in Toronto worked with Chef Blackie on a mighty tasty dish featuring artisan-style double smoked bacon wrapped around duck and other goodies, accompanied by mimolette gnocchi.
Game meats clearly play a large role in Canadian cuisine, favoured as they were by the team of Jonathan Korecki of Ottawa's Sidedoor and Jeremy Charles of Raymond's in St. Johns, who prepared wild Newfoundland rabbit three ways and also by Clifford Lyness (Brookstreet, Ottawa) and Jason Parsons (Peller Estate Winery, Niagara-on-the-Lake) who served duck two ways including a melt-in-your-mouth confit and a smoked, sous-vide magret that was so flavourful and tender. I also really enjoyed - and can't wait to try making at home, thanks to the supplied recipe booklet - the braised elk ribs with creamy polenta dished up by Jason Duffy (Arc the hotel, Ottawa) and Jason Bangerter (Luma, Toronto).
After several satisfying hours of tasting, the crowd shifted to the NAC's Panorama Room, site of an oh-so-hip after-party lounge where oysters were shucked and slurped, wines were sipped, and chefs and guests mingled to celebrate a long but very successful day. Three cheers for Canadian cuisine!