The black box surprise 

An admitted Food Network junkie, it was with much chagrin that I missed out on all the foodie fun at the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival's annual Whistler Chef Challenge - essentially a three-round episode of Iron Chef. As much as I would have loved to abandon my desk to watch 10 of Whistler's most talented chefs (and sous chefs) face off on stage, it just wasn't responsible.

In lieu of attending the all-day challenge, I opted for the next best thing: catching up with the winner of this year's competition, Gaetan Charest, catering and executive sous chef at the lauded Bearfoot Bistro, to get the scoop on what went down.

For anyone unfamiliar with the format of the competition, here's how it works: 10 competitors were paired off to cook head-to-head, live in Village Square. The event is a great opportunity to elevate the culinary profession in the public eye, while motivating people within the industry to challenge themselves and think a bit outside the box.

The competitors were given just 30 minutes, a black-box mystery ingredient that had to be incorporated into their dish, a fully stocked pantry, and allowed to bring one of their own secret ingredients to the table. Then, they were let loose on stage to create in front of the crowd and judges. Those first-round dishes were tasted and scored, and the four highest-scoring chefs moved onto the second round, where they were given a new black-box ingredient and started the process over again. Finally, the top two competitors went head-to-head in the final round, with one last mystery ingredient to incorporate into a dish.

"Between each heat, you just have time to come back (to your restaurant) and wash all your stuff," Charest explained.

The true test of the chefs' mettle is, of course, their ability to work with whatever pops up in that dreaded little black box. Charest ended up with pork loin ("awesome"), squid (a "nightmare") and finally Bratwurst sausage in the first, second and third rounds, respectively.

"The second round really threw me off," he admitted.

Fortunately, the secret ingredients Charest brought to each round worked quite well with each of the black-box items, saving the day in the squid round with King Crab to round out his dish.

Clearly, Charest has gotten a firm hold on how to manage this creative exercise.

"You have to think fast, that's the thing, and meat always takes me a couple minutes. Sometimes, I don't know what I'm going to do, like we're still at half time, and I still don't know what I'm going to do!" he said, smiling.

Of course, competitors also had to contend with some slight logistical hiccups, as the stations' lost power mid-way through the second round, leaving the chefs scrambling. (They were awarded an extra five minutes because of the outage.)

"Me, I was lucky because I was going cold; the only thing I was using was my deep fryer," he said.

For that second challenge, he created a vibrant panko- and herb-encrusted calamari served on a bed of cold ratatouille and king crab, with a tomato juice vodka - including some Schramm vodka generously donated by a fellow competitor.

Charest was up against some tough competition this time around: in the semi-final round, he faced two-time reigning champ Maxim Ridorossi and sous chefs from the Four Seasons' Fifty-Two 80 Bistro and Bar and Araxi. But after coming in second in the competition last time around, he was determined to win.

In the final round, he was pitted against Clayton Beadle from the Four Seasons in a tight round that actually saw Charest go over the allotted time by over a minute - leading to a major point deduction.

"I was sure I was taking second place," Charest said.

But in the end, the penalty wasn't enough to bring down his overall score, and his final dish, which featured the sausages served with zucchini and tomatoes, won the judges over.

All in all, it was a very successful week for Charest; not only did he capture first place (and the $1,000 grand prize) here in Whistler, but he came in second at the 13th Annual Fetzer Great Beginnings Wine & Appetizer Challenge at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, pairing their unusual Gewurztraminer with a tailor-made appetizer.

And what did he do with his prize money? Bought some beautiful bottles of wine at the Playhouse auction for his personal collection, of course!



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