No olive oil,
No Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese,
No scallops could be used…
Only Ontario’s best meats, produce and cheeses were allowed to be used at Ontario’s Culinary Challenge hosted by the National Arts Centre. I feel like I forgot a crucial component…Ah yes, let’s not forget the perfect pairings. These dishes could only be served with the finest of wines…Ontario’s award winning wines.
What an exciting competition venue, I could see and literally feel the organized chaos as soon as I entered the foyer doors of the NAC. Fifteen chefs hailing from various parts of Ontario were busy putting their final touches to their signature ‘Ontario’ influenced dish right up to the end. The smell as you entered the foyer was ridiculous – its times like these that I wish technology could provide us with ‘smell o’ vision’, so that I could fully share with you my experiences.
Being that Algonquin College sponsored this unique culinary event, each chef had three Algonquin culinary students aiding them with their signature dish. And support they needed, as the crowds were only getting bigger and bigger with every bite I took!
My role in this competition was an arduous one, trying to come up with an attack plan as to how I would manoeuvre myself amongst all these other food fiends…I mean enthusiasts.
Truth be told my plan was rather simple, stand patiently in line and mingle with others while I waited my turn to be presented with one of the signature dishes…like I said….hard work for this food lover!
NAC General Manager Nelson Borges and NAC Executive Chef John Morris who collaboratively came up with this novel concept, thought of everything to making this event stand out. From the selection of the chefs competing to the wines being perfectly paired to their dishes PLUS the swooning sounds of the live entertainment. Listening to the live band as I mingled was a nice touch… this was after all, the National Arts Centre hosting!
Everywhere I looked I would see people nudging one another as they gushed over the meal that they just ate. I was on a mission. I had to see who was going to be worthy of my prized ‘cork’. Upon entry of the venue, each guest received a glass of wine and a wine cork. This cork was to be used as a voting ballot to determine the winner of the event. And what a prized cork it was, little did I know the power that it was about to bestow me.
Slowly but surely as I made my way tasting and in some cases devouring some dishes, I managed to eat my way through the event. Now if I am being brutally honest, there were some dishes that spoke to me on different food levels than others. So, naturally I HAD to for quality control measures ensure that these meals were really up to snuff – in case I had any doubt. All of this to say, there were some chefs that saw me a couple of times in their lineup….and that’s when the ‘cork power’ played its mighty role.
Having a cork that was not yet spoken for was my little ace in the back pocket so to speak. The chefs didn’t seem to mind seeing me once, twice…let’s not go any further… as they all vied for the prized cork (the chef with the most corks would win the $10,000 grand prize). But all kidding aside, the flavor profiles from various dishes were distinct yet staying true to the essence of the meal without over compensating on other flavors.
Being carnivorous to the bone and having a penchant for all things meat related, I actually thought and naturally assumed that I would select a ‘meat’ dish for the winner. Some of the delicious signature dishes that tried to woo me over were: the beef tartar, the BBQ pork belly and the melt in your mouth lamb shank….I can go on but I’m salivating a bit too much. But as I have learned, there is always room to discover new ‘loves’ – I just didn’t think it would happen in a culinary competition though. Out of the 15 dishes, 3 were fish (Georgian Bay Pickerel, Ontario Steelhead and Quinte Perch) – The perch got my prized cork!
Chef Derek MacGregor from Le Chien Noir Bistro signature dish was: The Seared Bay of Quinte Perch with pan roasted ricotta gnocchi and what tasted very reminiscent of a perfect beurre blanc sauce to add to the flavor profile was off the hook! Seriously, I went up to have this dish a couple of times as I was blown away by the freshness of the ingredients and by how the perch just literally melted in my mouth. As for those pan roasted ricotta gnocchi’s…need I say more?!
Chef Derek MacGregor from Le Chien Noir Bistro signature dish: The Seared Bay of Quinte Perch with pan roasted ricotta gnocchi
My ‘runner up’ choice which coincidentally enough was the winning $10,000 dish was: Chef Louis Simard from the Chateau Laurier’s Wilfreds Braised lamb shank and mushroom ravioli. The lamb was just divine as it was super tender and the taste was delicious. The mushroom ravioli added a nice texture and flavor balance to the dish. Now, what was fun to see and eat was a generous piece of Gouda being torched….oh, how the aroma and taste were highly addictive!
Chef Louis Simard’s $10,000 winning dish: Braised lamb shank & mushroom ravioli with torched Gouda
Many competitors took the time to showcase their creative side in regards to their display booth, it was great to see their ingenuity at work.
Chef Louis Simard from the Chateau Laurier’s Wilfreds station and his display of microgreens
Chef Travis Barron from Northwinds Brewhouse & Eatery display of their variety of beers
Chef Louis Simard from the Chateau Laurier’s Wilfreds $10,000 prize winning moment and the Algonquin students who provided support to him
All in all the evening was a complete success and by the looks on the guests faces – everyone seemed to be more than content of this unique culinary event. Hopefully the success will mark the beginning of a yearly tradition.