I was honored to be asked to judge the Garland Canada International Chef Challenge, one of the highlights of the PEI International Shellfish Festival. Ten world-class chefs compete for a grand prize of $10,000, sponsored by Canada’s lead producer of professional kitchen equipment. I joined chefs Alain Bossé from Nova Scotia (aka the Kilted Chef) and Dominic Serio, the vice president of the Atlantic division of the Canadian Culinary Federation. The challenge for the chefs was to cook a plate incorporating at least three of the following PEI shellfish: lobster, jonah crab meat, mussels, and soft-shell clams. The challenge for the judges was to choose the best dishes from a field of highly talented competitors.
I don’t know what what goes on back stage on Top Chef and the other televised culinary competitions, but the three of us used a version of the international culinary competition form that spelled out the criteria for judging. We gave each contestant up to 15 points for presentation and general appeal; up to 30 points for taste, texture, and technique; and up to 5 points for menu description (including spelling).
The competition was fierce, and included last year’s winner, Marc Lepine of Atelier in Ottawa, who was also 2012 Canadian Culinary Champion. Some Americans crept in — Jamie Parsons of Legal Sea Foods in Burlington, Mass., and Michael Reidt, recently of Area 31 and now about to open open his own restaurant in Miami. Danny Smiles, who just took over at Le Bremner in Montreal, was first runner-up in last year’s Top Chef Canada. Others included Shawn Jackson of the Mill Street Brew Pub in Ottawa, Kyle Panton of Sims Corner Steakhouse & Oyster Bar in PEI, and Michael Blackie of Nextfood in Ottawa. Some of my personal favorites (after the judging was done, of course) were Ryan Campbell, who will be opening his own farm and restaurant near Niagara Falls in the spring, Ryan Morrison of the Glowbalgroup in Vancouver (including Granville Island’s Fish Shack), and the one woman in this group, the kickass talented Charlotte Langley of Catch in Toronto. (That’s her at the stove in the photo at the top of this post.)
Chefs competed in two heats of five chefs each, and they had one hour to prepare and plate their dishes while the judges paced back and forth, checking on their progress. In previous years, the chefs had cooked behind closed doors at the culinary school far from the festival. This year they commandeered one of the side tents and allowing the general public to watch was one of the biggest draws of the festival.
Both heats were so close that none of us knew who had won until an official from the Culinary School of Canada tallied our results and announced the two highest scores of the first day of competition. The dishes are here. The smaller one at left is by Ryan Morrison, and was a play on “green eggs and ham.” Each plate had an egg yolk half-cured in salt that made a creamy sauce when the diner stirred the dish. The larger one below was Marc Lepine’s beautiful masterpiece that included a lobster-crab timbale, where shaved lobster tail makes a wrap for crabmeat. The two of them represented extremes in contemporary cooking: Morrison’s gutsy and assertive dish, and Lepine’s model of finesse and technique. When their names were announced an hour later, we couldn’t wait to see what they would do for the finals the next day.