Gold Medal Plates burst upon Winnipeg last night with a spectacular show, some superb cooking and a first-class selection of wines and beers. Jim Cuddy and Sam Roberts had the sell-out crowd on their feet, and so did the parade of Olympic and Paralympic athletes, led by Adam Kreek who emceed the evening with his customary energy and charm. Adam was named the first ever recipient of a new award offered by GMP – the Stepping Stone award, honouring athletes who are embarking on a new career after retiring from competitive sport. In Adam’s case, embarking is the appropriate word – he and three friends are rowing from Dakar, Senegal to Miami, Florida in December.
Last year’s Winnipeg event was amazing but this year surpassed it. The chefs’ marks were incredibly close. Three judges had a tie for first place and there was much discussion between us all – Senior Judge, chef and chef-instructor at Red River College, Jeff Gill, writer, broadcaster and producer, Arvel Gray, writer, food critic and co-author of The Manitoba Book of Everything, Christine Hanlon and last year’s Gold Medal Plates champion, Chef Michael Dacquisto. In the end, we reached a contented consensus.
Our bronze medal went to chef Michael Schafer of Sydney’s at the Forks. He amazed us with a dish of “bacon n eggs” inspired by Japanese notions. There were three separate elements on his plate. The first was a peeled soft-boiled egg, glossy, white and wobbly on the plate, crowned with a crisply fried shiso leaf and a miniature salad of lightly pickled enoki mushrooms and sesame. When we cut into the egg we discovered that the yolk was gone and in its place was a rich, tangy chuka tare sauce that flooded out over the plate until it lapped against the other two elements. Here was a dainty roll of tamagoyaki omelette tgopped with chopped green onion, morsels of smoked bacon and crunchy red tobiko roe. There was a perfect cube of braised pork belly wrapped in crispy potato and touched by a second sauce of karashi mustard. It’s a bold move to use eggs as your major protein – so often a problem for wine – but Chef Schafer avoided that trap by pairing his dish with beer, a fabulous, heavy, bittersweet IPA from Microbrasserie Charlevoix in Quebec called Dominus Vobiscum Lupulus.
Jamie Snow of Amici at Nyakwa won our silver medal with a brilliantly conceived dish he described as “Manitoba on a plate.” At its heart stood a cube of incredibly tender, moist pulled pork from a local Berkshire pig, the meat turned into a terrine to hold its shape though it was as loose and rich as a confit. Chef Snow had crusted it with a crust of hot mustard and puffed wild rice and set it beside a small pond of borscht sauce made by endlessly straining classic borscht vegetables then applying modified tapioca starch to give it a satin mouth-feel without a trace of fat. The surprise was the hit of horseradish in the sauce which worked brilliantly with the pork. Next to the meat was a slender perogy, as tender as could be, filled with nippy white Cheddar cheese, nestled against a dab of crème fraîche. A third, contrasting sauce was a green pea purée spiked with dill and the dish was completed with some pungent pea shoots dressed with cold-pressed Manitoba canola oil. It was a flawless plate and matched brilliantly with Bulldog amber ale from the local Half Pints brewery, its innate hoppiness nicely brought out by the horseradish.
Our gold medal was awarded to Chef Östen Rice of Wasabi Sabi. His dish had a personal narrative, inspired by the gravlax his Scandinavian grandmother used to cure but given a Japanese twist to reflect the style of his restaurant. Instead of salmon, he worked with butterfish, curing the super-soft, almost creamy raw fish with beet juice that stained a crimson rim around each slice. Contrasting the texture, he gave us a fresh, crunchy, sweet-tart slaw of julienned Fuji apple and golden beet tossed with a chiffonade of shiso leaf. There was another suggestion of shiso (and more subtle crunch) in the compressed cucumber pieces on the other side of the plate and another pickly moment in the mound of gently marinated sea asparagus. A scrumptious taro crisp with a hole punched out of its middle stood tall in a tiny hill of orange-coloured tobiko roe bound with a beautifully judged wasabi mayonnaise.It was going to take a wine of character to stand up to all those sweet-sour elements but chef found one in the 2010 Gewurztraminer from Gray Monk in B.C., a delicious gewurz’ with the acidity and the lush weight to perfectly balance the dish.
What a great night! And now we have another champion for our rendezvous in Kelowna next February. The competition grows ever more intense.