Thursday, February 10, 2011

Almost Famous Chef Competition & a Valentine's Day Recipe

Shots of the chef's cooking the Calphalon Kitchen

Early this week I attending the judging and tasting of San Pellgrino's Almost Famous Chef Regional Canada Competition at the Calphalon Culinary Center in Toronto.  The Almost Famous Chef Competition started nine years ago and gives culinary students all over the US and Canada the chance to compete and be judged by nationally renowned chefs at the final competition in Napa in March.   I brought Carole from The Yum Yum Factor and No reEATS with me and while neither of us really knew what to expect, but were excited to go.

After arrival and check in, we heading down to the reception to check our coats and were immediately handed a glass of bubbly.  Anyone who knows me knows that this is an instant way to win me over, I love champagne, cava, prosecco...if it's sparkling I generally like it.  So I was a happy girl. As members of the press we were then whisked up to the kitchen where some of the students were still cooking their dishes (they have staggered start times and 2 hours to prepare their dish for the 8 judges). To say that this kitchen was gorgeous is an understatement.  I don't know about Carole, but I was green with envy at the racks of beautiful pots and pans, the spotless counters and gorgeous appliances, it was perfect.  Once I got done ogling the kitchen, I watched the cooking.  I have never been in a competitive kitchen like this before and you could absolutely cut the tension with a knife.  That being said the chef students were very calm, periodically checking their time and moving through their respective dishes.   We hung out a little, watched them work and took some photos before heading back down to hear some of the dish presentations and taste the food.

Ahhhh, I love wine & cheese
Throughout the next hour and a half we heard each chef present their signature dish, the dish that represents them and that they would serve at their own restaurant.  I loved hearing each chef describe their dish and why they chose the ingredients they did.  The description that stood out to me the most was from Chef Nathalie DeRosier, her dish was Scallop and Braised Veal Cheek. She spoke about her dish being inspired by the region of Charlevoix which is right at the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway where you can smell and almost taste the salt of the sea in the air.  She also spoke about the philosophy that food should be served with what grows around it.  It was clear she had alot of passion for her dish which I think is so important in being a chef and even a home cook.   

The Calphalon kitchen's interpretation of Chef Francis Traversy's Pate Chinois (top right); A shot of the plates though the overhead presentation mirror (bottom left); the dish as presented to the judges (bottom right)
For each dish that was presented, we were able to taste a pared down version that was put together by the chefs at the Calphalon Center.  The food was all very good but I have to be honest I did want to try some of the inspiring dishes.  There was a running theme in the dishes of sweet paired with savory, which, as evidence by the title of this blog, is something I am fan of.  For the most part it the dishes were successful, though after trying 8 different version of it I was really craving some spice and heat.  In between each taste Carole and I often found ourselves back at the cheese board, nibbling on Niagara Gold, Beemsters Aged, Mexicana Cheddar (a flavorful chipotle studded old cheddar) and my personal fave Riopelle. 

Once each dish was presented and tasted the audience was given the chance to vote for their favorite dish.  Carole and I had a bear of a time picking one to vote for.  I voted for Chef Amanatidis' dish because if I had to pick at a restaurant based on the descriptions that one stood out for me.  I loved the bread pudding as the startchy side.  Once the voting was done and tallied, it was time to announce the winners.

Chef Daigle's winning presentation (top left); Chef Daigle after the award announcement (top right); The Calphalon Kitchen's interpretation of Chef Daigle's dish (bottom right)

The Grand Prize winner, and the chef who would go to the finals competition in Napa was Chef Jean-Francois Daigle.  Chef Daigle made a delicious Honey Seared Bison Tenderloin and received a resounding cheer as his name was called.  Being a hometown guy from the George Brown Chef's School he had plenty of fans in the audience.  

Chef Amanatadis' dish (top left); Chef Amanatadis at work in the ktichen (top right); The Calphalon Kitchen's interpretation of Chef Amanatadis' dish (bottom right)

Next it was onto the the People's Choice Award, which was given to Chef Christina Amanatadis from the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Vancouver.  She won with her Seared Duck Breast with Chestnut-Chai spiced Bread Pudding. I was pretty pumped that my choice won.  

A big thank you to Eden Spodek for inviting me to the event and to the Chefs & culinary schools:
  • The George Brown Chef’s School: Wendy Mah & Jean-François Daigle 
  • The International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Vancouver: Christine Amanatidis & Winston Lin 
  • École hôtelière de la Capitale (Québec City): Alexandre Raymond & Francis Traversy 
  • Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec (Montréal): Nathalie Des Rosiers & Emile Balk 
Also a thank you to the judges, for taking on the near impossible task of critiquing the excellent food:

  • Chef Jeff Dell, Executive Chef for Milestones Restaurant in Toronto 
  • Chef Laurent Godbout, Chef Owner of L’Épicier in Montréal 
  • Chef Chris Mills, Executive Chef for Joeys Restaurants in Vancouver 
  • James Chatto, Senior Editor, Food and Drink Magazine 
  • Claire Tansey, Food Editor, Chatelaine Magazine 
  • David Ort, Food with legs 

After the event I was lucky enough to receive recipes inspired by the chef competitor's dishes for the home cook.  Emile Balk's stood out instantly as a perfect Valentine's Day option.  Lobster is known to be an aphrodisiac and if you make the stock ahead of time is really a very simple dish to put together, something that needs to be considered with Valentine's Day on a Monday.  

Lobster Bisque Dressed Ravioli with Pancetta Sauce
inspired by Emile Balk's Gaspor Piglet Belly & Madeline Island's Lobster Tortelli as adapted from the recipe provided by San Pellegrino
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Lobster Broth:
1 lobster, about 1 1/4 lbs 
1 large shallot, coarsely chopped 
2 ripe tomatoes, chopped 
1 small carrot, chopped 
2 Tbsps cognac or brandy
4 cups (2 L) water 
1/2 Tbsp tomato paste 
sea salt & fresh cracked black pepper

Pancetta Sauce: 
75 g diced Italian pancetta 
1/2 each small onion, carrot, celery and leek, diced 
2  cloves garlic, minced 
1/2 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves 
1/2 cup chicken broth 
1/2 pkg squash or pumpkin stuffed ravioli or agnolotti, cooked - or homemade Pumpkin Mascarpone Ravioli

1. In a large pot of boiling water cook lobster, covered for 8 to 10 minutes. Drain and let cool. Remove meat from tail and claws; set aside. 
2. Place lobster shells in roasting pan with shallots, tomatoes and carrot and roast in 400 F (200 C) oven for about 30 minutes or until golden. 
3. Add cognac and stir; roast for 10 minutes. Place roasting pan on stove over medium high heat and add water and tomato paste. Simmer for 30 minutes. 
Strain vegetables and shells and place broth in pot.  Bring broth to a simmer and reduce by a third.
4. Meanwhile, in large skillet or saucepan, sauté pancetta over medium heat to render the fat.  Then add the carrot, onion, celery, leek and garlic for about 20 minutes or until softened and golden. Add thyme and stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 7 minutes or until reduced by half. 
5. Slice lobster meat and warm through in broth. Place ravioli on bottom of shallow bowl and top with lobster meat. Ladle broth over top and spoon pancetta mixture over top. Serve with some steamed green beans.

All of the components make for a very flavorful dish that was actually quite reminiscent of Chef Balk's dish from the other night.  I may try to make a another version that more close resembles his dish with fresh lobster pasta and a nice slab of pork belly, but this was a pretty good approximation and won over the Boy.  


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