The tallies are in from the Canadian Culinary Championships on Saturday night and - ta da - top honours went to Mathieu Cloutier from Kitchen Galerie in Montréal.
Now please don't cry, West Coasters. While Vancouver's own Rob Feenie was the hometown favourite, he placed fourth. But organizers assure us all the top place chefs were within a few percentage points of each other. And how could they not be?
Each of the participating chefs had to have won solid gold during the Gold Medal Plates competitions held in his or her respective city this fall. The Gold Medal Plates, by the way, capture a nice synergy where the best in the kitchen help the best in the sports arena. Almost $3 million has been raised through these popular chi-chi events for Canada's Olympic and Paralympic athletes.
This past weekend was the grand finale cook-off for all the Gold Platers from across Canada. (Vancouver's Gold Plate event, won by Feenie, was back in October at the Westin Bayshore.)
No, I wasn't lucky enough to be there, but by all accounts it was a grand affair, throughout all three stages.
The whole thing started on Thursday with a catchy concept. Each of the competitors was given $400 cash to buy whatever they needed from Granville Island market to make wee plates of culinary delights for 250 guests and the nine judges on Friday night. Now that's a pretty slim per-plate budget.
Not only did the delights have to amuse the palates of all and sundry, they also had to be well-matched to a mystery wine the chefs were given the same time as their shopping money. (It was Black Hills 2008 Alibi, a sauvignon blanc/semillon blend from the Okanagan.)
The "people's choice" in this part of the contest was our French-Canadian compadre, Monsieur Cloutier.
Next came the "black box" challenge and talk about pressure-cooker pressure. The chefs had to build two dishes for the judges with previously unseen, unknown ingredients that were revealed only an hour before the dishes had to be served.
Oh, and they were also given only 10 minutes to "declare their intentions," so they couldn't fudge and change their minds halfway through the process.
Now, stand back for a minute and ask yourself how you might do in a public arena pulling together, in a masterful way for a set of master judges, arctic char, whole quail, dragon fruit, Arborio rice, fennel and Hoppelganger India pale ale from R&B Brewing in Vancouver. Any sweat on your brow yet?
On Saturday the grand finale was held - dinner for 400 guests that the chefs had only the afternoon to prepare for, assisted by four helpers. It was dubbed "anything goes."
Monsieur Cloutier walked away the winner with his dish centred around a rack of rabbit - very tiny - cooked in duck fat and served with a foie gras parfait, spinach wrapped around a rabbit rillette (basically a pâté) and lightly pickled beets. His wine of choice? A chardonnay from Ontario's Prince Edward County.
Other than the foie gras, it sounds all very Canadian and very delicious to me. But can you imagine the impressive collective imaginations and stainless-steel nerves of these chefs as they compete in such arenas?
In the true spirit of culinary Olympics, I say toques off to all of them for their chutzpah, talent and knowledge, regardless of who took home the gold.
And in honour of M. Cloutier and in the interest of building better appreciation for our French compatriots, who are not always top-of-mind out here in the West, I offer you the following French-Canadian classic from another French-Canadian classic, Madame Benoit.
Born in Montreal in 1904, Jehane Benoit (see, she did have a first name) was, among other things, featured on CBC's Take 30 for years, explaining and demonstrating French-Canadian cuisine to a huge following of fans.
She wrote dozens of cookbooks and had her own cooking school in Montréal, which attracted some 8,000 students in just four years. Starting in the mid-1930s, she also ran The Salad Bar, one of the first restaurants in Canada to concentrate on vegetarian dishes, once again proving that everything old is new again.
In her own culinary way, Madame Benoit, who held a degree in food chemistry from the Sorbonne in Paris, probably did more to bridge the gaps between East and West, French- and English-speaking Canada than just about anyone else.
While this recipe wouldn't win any Gold Plate awards, this "old-fashioned" pea soup from Madame's Library of Canadian Cooking has stood the test of time in my life, namely as "gold" comfort food, perfect for snowy days.
You do have to plan ahead, but it's super inexpensive, easy to make and delicious - plus you'll have leftovers to warm up after you get off the mountains and trails to serve to your pals, Quebecois and otherwise.
Madame Benoit's Old-Fashioned Quebec Pea Soup
1 pound salt pork, lean and fat
1 tbsp. dry mustard
1 pound dried peas
8 cups cold water
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 tbsp. coarse salt
1/2 tsp. savory
1/4 tsp. dried mint
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
1 clove garlic, minced (or more to taste)
1 can hominy corn
1 cup dried bread chips
1 tbsp. butter
Rub the salt pork with the dry mustard. Cover and refrigerate for 12 hours. Meanwhile, sort, wash and then soak the peas in the cold water for 12 hours. In a soup kettle, place the peas and their water, the pork, onion, coarse salt, savory, mint, parsley and garlic. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer three to four hours, or until the peas are tender and the soup appears to be creamy. Add the hominy and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the bread chips and the butter. Taste and adjust your seasonings, then serve with some nice hot bread you've crisped up in the oven.
As for M. Cloutier's winning creations, you can enjoy them at his own restaurant, Kitchen Galerie the next time you are in Montréal. There he and his partner serve up an ever-changing menu based on the equally ever-changing offerings from the nearby Marché Jean-Talon (Jean-Talon market) that would make you think you are at home on Granville Island, whatever language you speak.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who never thought she loved pea soup until she tried this recipe. Merci, Madame!