The Canadian Culinary Championships, set for Friday and Saturday in Kelowna, B.C., pits winning chefs from regions across Canada in an event to raise money for the country's Olympic athletes.
The contest was the brainchild of Toronto-based Karen Blair and partner Stephen Leckie in 2003 when it was announced the 2010 Games would be held in Vancouver. They have raised $9.5 million for the athletes.
"Within the industry it's huge because this is the only chef's national competition that is outside of the actual confines of the chef's organizations, like Bocuse d'Or (in Lyon, France) and that kind of thing," notes culinary adviser James Chatto, a longtime restaurant critic for Toronto Life magazine.
He gathers a roster of regional judges familiar with their local scenes, who in turn suggest eight to 10 chefs to compete in the Gold Medal Plates each fall. The competitors, who must be executive chefs of a professional kitchen, have six months to prepare and are judged on a signature dish. Just as in the Olympics, the chefs win gold, silver and bronze medals. Each gold medal winner goes to Kelowna for the Canadian Culinary Championships finals.
Chef Lorenzo Loseto of Toronto's George Restaurant was the ultimate winner in 2014 and this year joins the judging panel.
The finale is three-pronged. On Thursday night, each contender is given a bottle of wine with no label and nothing on the cork to identify it. They shop at a designated market on Friday for ingredients to create a small dish to complement the wine. They must cook enough for 500 to 700 people with a budget of about $1.50 a head.
"You'd be amazed at how they manage to eke out their money," says Chatto. "Sometimes they're even handing cash back to us to give to the athletes because they haven't spent it all, so that's become a matter of pride for some of these chefs. And yet they're presenting spectacular food."
On Saturday, sequestered chefs each receive a black box with 10 mystery ingredients from across Canada. They have to choose six and create a dish in one hour.
And then at that evening's gala, they're judged on their signature dish prepared for 500 to 700 people.
The event also has a musical element, with singer-songwriter Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo tasked with planning the entertainment. Entertainers will include singer Barney Bentall and Spirit of the West frontmen Geoffrey Kelly and John Mann.
Among the Olympians slated to attend are skiers Jennifer Heil and Kelsey Serwa, rower Adam Kreek, triathlete Simon Whitfield and shot putter Dylan Armstrong.
"It raises the awareness of the restaurants involved so we get a lot of business from participating," says Loseto.
"Then just the sheer fun of it, being a part of something like that. And then knowing that you're doing your part to raise money for the Olympics in Canada is also great."
This year's competitors are:
— Luc Jean of Jane's in Winnipeg
— Renee Lavallee of the Canteen in Dartmouth, N.S.
— Ryan O'Flynn of the Westin Edmonton
— Kristian Eligh of Hawksworth in Vancouver
— Antonio Park of Park Restaurant in Montreal
— Dave Bohati of Market in Calgary
— Chris Hill of the Delta Bessborough in Saskatoon
— John Horne of Canoe in Toronto
— Mark McCrowe of Aqua in St. John's, N.L.
— Patrick Garland of Absinthe Cafe in Ottawa
— Milton Rebello of Wascana Golf and Country Club in Regina
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