Saturday, January 29, 2011

1st Ever Canadian Culinary Chefs Event

There's been a lot of mixed reviews going around about the most recent culinary event here in Ottawa – Celebrity Chefs at the NAC. And although many of us have chosen to look at the brighter side of things, the negative comments still seem to be lurking in the background. Does that mean that those who enjoyed themselves have poor taste? Absolutely not. Just because you like the colour red doesn't mean that I like the colour red. Luckily there are enough different personalities in the world that we don't all have to like the same things. But we do tend to stick around those people who have similar likes. They bring us joy. And you'll see at the end of this post, there are quite a few people here in Ottawa that share these likes and bring me joy.

Which is why, in this case, i'm proud to be associated with the positive side. Life's too short to dwell on the negative. When I started my blog, it was because I had such an amazing food experience that I just had to shout it out for everyone to hear. And I've continued with that passion since. Have I had any negative food experiences since then? Of course. Are they worth my time? Definitely not. Re-living a good food experience and being able to come back to it again and again is what keeps me going. Why would I waste my spare time, my “me” time, complaining? There are also some experiences that have a mix of both good and not so good. That's where I'll make a quick mention of the misses, and then focus on the hits. The things that truly made me happy. This post is the perfect example of that. I don't dismiss the things that could be improved, but I'm sure going to remember the things that made me smile.

Walking into the NAC last Monday afternoon, I had no idea what to expect of the rest of my day. I had missed the morning portion of the demonstrations due to some work requirements. But in the end was fine with only attending half – I have a hard time sitting down for too long so half a day was the perfect amount of time. In fact, I would almost recommend they break the day in two or even 4 segments next year so people could pick and choose the portions they want to attend. A full day can be long. Especially if you're sitting there drooling over a new plate every hour. Pure torture.

Ray Bear of MIX in Halifax along with Clifford Lyness of Perspectives were the first post-lunch duo. My eyes grew wide as I watched chef Bear prepare one of my favourite things in the world – lobster. In fact, he brought in 230lbs of it! I even got to try a generous morsel once the plate was complete. Mmmmm buttery lobster tail. Heaven. I must admit, trying one of the hundreds of dishes being plated in the evening can't compare to getting it fresh off the stage.

Next up were the chefs I was paired with for the event. Brad Long from Café Belong in Toronto, and the only female chef of the day, the beautiful Charlotte Langley of the Whalesbone. They were a great pair – both so passionate about what we eat. Food is fuel, it is medicine and it brings families together. And then of course, where we get our food – sustainable, organic. They made us think about where and how animals are raised. Did they have a life before you took it away? “It seems only fair if I'm going to take that for me, I should give it something.” Brad said.

The food in their dish was as impressive as their passions, smoked shiitake, done on a stove top using alder wood, fried oysters that came from 3 days of breading, black herring caviar, quinoa, scarlet runner beans and plump Lake Erie walleye. See the end of this post for full recipe details.

David Rocco of Dolce Vita in Toronto and Cesare Santaguida of Vittoria Trattoria followed. And I grew a huge respect for chef Santaguida during this performance. While chef Rocco kept the audience entertained with his charm, chef Santaguida worked away tirelessly at the dish.

I was most impressed with the scallops being seared on a block of sea salt. Yum!!

At the very end when chef Rocco began approaching my friend Lynne and I, my heart stopped (no, not at him, at his plate!) A personal delivery of beet risotto, crispy pig cheek, seared scallop and Granny smith slaw. I don't think we even took a moment to breathe before digging into this magnificent plate.

Finally chefs Michael Lyon of Hotel Eldorado in Kelowna and Michael Blackie of the NAC. I have to commend chef Blackie for his efforts in pulling this all together. They closed the event with a bang, including sabering a bottle of champagne. I imagine that after weeks of preparation, to get to the end of a successful day must be liberating.

And although the entire segment wasn't solely about cooking, the portion that was was enough for us to realize that these chefs are too, only human. In fact, I spoke to a gentleman in the audience after the show who commented on chef Blackie's miss with the crisp potato wrapped sweetgrass cold smoked Charlevoix veal: “We try these at home and it doesn't always work out. It's nice to see that these guys aren't perfect and that they too have things that don't always work out exactly as planned.”

For a first-time event with a less-than-professional host, my overall feeling is that this was a big success. I was hugely entertained, laughed a lot, got to know some of my favourite chefs on a more personal level and then ended the night eating delicious food and chatting with friends. The timeslot given to each chef was respected and the amount of work involved in the prep before the show was insane (picture yourself ordering 60lbs of scallops for an event only to find out there are none available!). Not to mention that this was a fundraiser! Yes, some of the lineups were very long, but that's to be expected when you're pulling in hundreds of food-fans. But there was no ridiculous time limit, so you could chat and sip your wine while you waited. No pressure.

On the food blogging side of things, I think chef Blackie made the right decision in going with local food bloggers to get the word out. When a foodie has the opportunity to attend a culinary event, there is a risk of them dissolving into a puddle of enthusiasm. What did you think would happen with a group of food fanatics surrounded by delicious food!? If there's one thing we have in common – we adore food, and we're not going to hide it.

For more food-enthusiastic posts on the event, check out these fantastic sites:

And for the mouthwatering recipe from the Langley-Belong duo:

Shiitake poached pickerel, beurre noisette, dressed grains and greens with crispy crème fraîche oyster

Brown Butter Vinaigrette
1 lb. Salted Butter
1 medium Shallot finely diced
1 tsp. Mustard (Dijon or any but ballpark yellow, please)
1 tbsp Honey (raw is best or unpasteurized next best)
4 - 5 oz. Cider Vinegar (start with less and work up to balance)
Salt to taste

Melt the butter in a medium sauce pot until the butter foams, falls and the solids begin to brown. This process can vary from butter to butter and non-salted or cultured butters will perform differently and give slightly different results but can still be used none-the-less. Don’t walk away from this process as it may take a few minutes for the butter to melt, foam and fall but once it starts browning it will be all over in a matter of seconds – if you go too far it will burn and turn the butter black – that can be used for other dishes but for this recipe get it off the fire and out of the pot before it burns.

When it begins to brown you can not only see this happening in the pot but you can also smell the distinct hazelnut aroma that makes it so appealing to go through all this fuss.

As it fully browns, remove from heat and immediately pass through a fine strainer into a medium sized bowl containing the shallots. The hot butter poured over the raw shallots will cause them to lightly cook (the liquid will boil immediately as the butter is several hundred degrees) so they will foam up – beware not to do this too quickly or it will foam over the top of the bowl.

When this has cooled a little (5 minutes or so), add the remaining ingredients and season to taste. It is certainly possible that you may need to adjust the acid (vinegar) and the salt to find the best balance.

This vinaigrette can be stored in the fridge but the butter will solidify again so it must be warmed slightly or left at room temperature before use and it also must be firmly shaken or stirred before each use.

Smoked Shiitake Broth
5 Lbs Firm Shitake Mushrooms
1 Head Celery
Fresh bay Leaves
1 Large Spanish Onions
2 Cloves Garlic
Lemon Peel of 2 Lemons
Any Bacon Scraps that you have kicking around
2 cups White Wine
aromatics of your choice ( thyme/rosemary etc)
4 Cups Woodchips

Soak woodchips for at least 20 minutes in cold water. Using a metal container that you don’t mind ruining from smoke, place chips in it. Using medium heat, get the smoke going in the container. Add a rack overtop and place mushrooms in nice neat rows. You don’t want to overcrowd. Do a few batches. Cover and let smoke till you have reached the desired smokey level ( I prefer mild smoke).

Start by cooking Bacon scraps in pot, add Onions/Garlic/Celery/Lemon/ bay leaves and chosen aromatics. Deglaze with white wine, add Mushrooms and Water and simmer very tenderly until
you have achieved a nice flavour. I tend to taste as I go along. Strain through a fine strainer and use right away or let it sit overnight in fridge to deepen its flavour.

Can be used for soup base, poaching fish or vegetable etc.


Anonymous said...

Great posting - I love your picture of the salt block! What an interesting technique. I love how much I learned from this event.

Anonymous said...

Rachelle - I LOVE LOVE LOVE this post. You took the words right out of my mouth ... and I agree - although David Rocco is handsome and charming ... it was the bright red beet risotto dish that had my heart fluttering. love your positive outlook - that's why your blog is so wonderful. BRAVO!

Holly Bruns said...


Anonymous said...

I just wish it wasn't all lovey dovy. If you all call yourself foodies then why get excited over a bunch of washed up celebrity chefs and not the real deal. Just saying, not so much ass kissing could have occured.