At the third annual Poor Chefs Competition, held February 22, 2018 at Ottawa City Hall, guests were treated to inventive demonstrations of how to stretch a dollar. A fundraiser for Operation Come Home, an organization that provides advocacy and support services for homeless youths, the competition exposes how challenging it can be to eat a nutritious meal on a limited budget.
Six competing chefs created dishes using just two ingredients from a list of commonly-donated food bank items and $3.15 of purchased groceries per plate. As Ottawa At Home’s food editor, I was invited to participate on the judging panel. I came away impressed by the chefs’ creativity yet reminded of how challenging it is to break the cycles of poverty and hunger.
The winner of this year’s event was Kris Kshonze of Soif Bar à vin in Gatineau. His dish was a flavourful stew of beans, mushrooms and beef broth, topped with a smoked oyster sour cream, crushed saltine crackers, julienned turnips and slivered green onions. Full of umami and textural contrasts, his dish incorporated canned three bean mix and saltines as his two food bank ingredients. For his efforts, Kris gets bragging rights, his name engraved on a trophy and a year’s worth of knife sharpening kindly donated by Chris Lord and the team at Knifewear.
Other competitors included last year’s champion, Harriet Clunie of the Beechwood Gastropub, who presented a dish of textured vegetable protein ‘meatballs’ on discs of pasta with zucchini and handmade ricotta, charred peppers and smoked almonds. Harriet’s tasty creation was all the more impressive given that she challenged herself to spend no more than $1 per plate in addition to the milk and eggs from the food bank list.
Stephen LaSalle of Andaz Hotel won the initial competition in 2016 but was unavailable to defend his title last year. He returned with vigour, creating a large, savoury crepe filled with mushrooms and chicken thighs which were confited in margarine. The crepe was topped with a perfectly poached egg (one of his food bank ingredients, along with the margarine) and a savoury sauce made from vegetable trimmings.
Joey Boileau of The Senate Tavern presented one of the prettiest dishes, a bowl of ramen brimming with noodles, pork tenderloin, vegetables, a soft boiled egg and broth, accompanied by a bok choy and crispy chickpea salad.
Jessica Willis of Big Easy’s delivered perhaps the most complicated plate, a multi-element dish described as a twist on the traditional Hoppin’ John famed in North Carolina.
The last dish of the night was, appropriately enough, a dessert prepared by David Schaub of The Ketchup Project. His ‘mock apple pie’ terrine, made of saltines, sugar and Chinese five spice, was served with an ‘ants on a log’ inspired salad composed of celery, raisins and endive, perched on a peanut butter hummus.
The Poor Chefs competition serves to highlight that while it may be easy for someone with extensive food knowledge to create delicious, inexpensive meals, for youth with limited culinary experience, preparing nourishing meals can be very difficult. Thankfully, Operation Come Home also runs an amazing culinary training program called Foodworks. It’s a subscription-based meal service run by veteran industry expert Mandi Lunan that sees youth participating in six month kitchen internships under the tutelage of acclaimed local chef Bruce Wood, who trains the youth to create the meals for delivery and also prepares them for future careers in the industry.
My fellow judges – Anne Desbrisay, Catherine McKenny, Sandra Plagakis and Rachael Wilson – and I had our work cut out for us to choose a winner yet our challenge was nothing compared to what those dealing with food insecurity face every day. We were well fed and well educated at this festive event, capably emceed by Steph “The Grilling Gourmet” Legari and Chez 106’s Eric Bollman. Congratulations to all the participants, supporters and organizers. Keep this on your radar for next February.