When I was invited to the inaugural Chefs in the City event last week, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew that the evening would involve great food for good causes – to promote culinary arts as a viable career to local high school students, and to raise the profile of Canadian chefs on the world stage. Organized by Shaw Conference Centre Executive Chef and Canadian Culinary Federation Edmonton President Simon Smotkowicz, the proceeds from Chefs in the City would be split between the High School Culinary Challenge scholarship endowment fund and Culinary Team Canada, in pursuit of gold at the 2012 World Culinary Olympics. Other than that, however, between the sit-down dinner at the chef “action stations”, I was unclear how the event would unfold.
Chefs in the City
I met up with Bin Lau, Communications Director for Edmonton Economic Development Corporation on Friday evening, and we headed to the salon level of Shaw. There, we encountered a flurry of activity – sparkling wine and canapés were being circulated by efficient staff, guests were browsing the two dozen or so silent auction items available for bid (everything from bed and breakfast packages to cooking classes and portrait sessions), and two action stations attracted clusters of patrons seeking warm appetizers.
Chefs in action
The sautéed alpaca loin, served with whipped potatoes and yam foam was a punchy way to start the evening – this was my second encounter with alpaca, and though I’d be hard pressed to say the meat has a distinct flavour, the tenderness imbued by the chefs surprises me every time.
Alpaca with whipped potatoes and yam foam
We also had the chance to try a light asparagus spring roll, served on a bed of quinoa. I would have never thought to prepare asparagus this way, but the stalk stood up nicely in its crunchy parcel.
Asparagus spring roll with quinoa
At the host’s behest, we eventually made our way to the dinner area of the salon. Tables had been set up in the centre, with six chef stations lining the periphery of the room. Two screens bookended the space, with a camera already projecting the speaker’s visage onto them, useful for those seated far from the stage or at challenging angles.
Inside the salon
MC Danny Hooper was a hoot. Impeccably quick-witted, I appreciated his wry sense of humour as he did his best to maintain the attention of the crowd. He later explained how the evening would work – prior to the serving of each course, he would interview the chef who prepared the dish, Chef Blair Lebsack who would explain which local producers supplied the product for the dish, and the sommelier who would provide some information about the wine pairing. As the night wore on, it became clear that for whatever reason, this format wasn’t working. Unlike the PMA dinner I recently attended, where the chef and winemakers had the rapt attention of the crowd (granted, in a smaller setting with less distractions), the MC was forced to be quite stern when guests continued to carry on with conversations while the interviews were taking place.
Chef Paul Campbell of Cafe de Ville explains his dish while MC Danny Hooper and Chef Lebsack look on
Of course, I couldn’t get enough information – all of the dishes not only highlighted, but rejoiced in local produce and proteins, with over twenty farms featured. Chef Lebsack of Madison’s Grill is well-known for his work with area farmers, and his involvement in sourcing the ingredients for the meal showed, with many of his favourite suppliers ending up on the menu. He told us later that the main reason they were able to afford local product was because of a Government of Alberta program called Growing Forward, which seeks to better support the province’s agricultural industry.
Some of the producers also took the initiative to visit each of the individual tables to answer questions at a more personal level. One of the producers told me that guests seemed genuinely interested in learning about local food, and about the upcoming farmers’ markets. Because of that curiosity, I think it was a shame the program didn’t include further detail about where products from the night’s suppliers could be found (some pamphlets were available on the chef stations and silent auction tables, but it wasn’t a comprehensive package).
Interviewing Patty Milligan of Lola Canola
In terms of the cookery, it was pretty neat that kitchen stations had been set up right alongside the tables, and with the screens focused in on the prep work, it felt like we were being offered a special peek behind the curtain, complete with play-by-play.
On the screen/on the stage
The first course was a light but satisfying trio of a seared scallop with Irvings Farm Fresh bacon and vanilla foam, pea ravioli and a lobster-herb press. I am not usually a fan of scallops, but this one had been cooked well, meaty without being chewy, and set nicely with the smoked bacon. The pea ravioli was actually my favourite morsel on the plate, fresh and clean.
Seared scallop, pea ravioli, lobster-herb press
The course that followed was a dream – pan-roasted duck breast from Greens, Eggs and Ham and venison tourtiere. The duck, as expected, was moist and tender, with a lovely even layer of fat, but the tourtiere was undoubtedly the star. Paired with a confit rhubarb salad, the sweetness helped to melt through the richness of the meat and the buttery pastry.
Pan-roasted duck breast and venison tourtiere
Sometimes simplicity wins, and this was the case of our palate-cleansing, sensory refreshing third course. The Berry Ridge Orchard Saskatoon berry sorbet, served with fortune cookie tuilles and a wild cherry chip, could have been happily taken the place of any complex dessert. And judging by the total silence at my table as we each cleaned our our filled shot glasses, my dining companions felt the same way.
Saskatoon berry sorbet
The fourth course required some coordination – diners would get one of six different beef entrees, prepared by the chef at the station closest to their table. And because each chef had the opportunity to speak about their dish prior to it being served, it meant that table sections would be served one at a time. This made it my favourite part of the evening, as I excused myself to watch the chefs in action.
LUX Executive Chef Tony Le and Century Hospitality Corporate Chef Paul Schufelt watch over the poached eggs
It was a wonder to me why more people weren’t hovering by the action stations. I know I really relished the opportunity to watch the chefs at work, in their element, racing to finish their dishes, each plate a perfect replica of the other.
Chef Schufelt hard at work plating his “steak and eggs”
I was lucky enough to get to try two dishes, the additional entree a gift from Chef Tony Le, who probably noticed I was salivating while watching his colleague plate the dishes. Besides being fun (a play on breakfast “steak and eggs”), the poached egg, which willingly released its yolk with the touch of my fork, provided that extra bite of richness (the steak probably could have used an additional moment to rest, but given the time pressures, it was understandable).
Pine Terra Farms striploin with a soft poached egg, Kickin’ Ash braised short rib, Riverbend Gardens potato hash, Irvings Farm smoked bacon and ancho pepper hollandaise
My only regret was not being able to have more than a couple of bites before the too-competent staff whisked that plate away and replaced it with the dish I had in common with my tablemates – a Rosemary Jordan Wagyu beef tenderloin “Wellington” and buffalo short rib, prepared by Chef Campbell of Cafe de Ville. This was my first experience with Wagyu, and boy, did the marbling ever live up to the expectations, ensuring each bite was moist and flavourful. And while I enjoyed the short rib, it was an unnecessary addition.
Wagyu beef tenderloin “Wellington” and buffalo short ribs, with fine morel jus, sautéed root vegetables and creamed potatoes
Dessert felt like an event, probably due to my proximity to the chef stations (they really couldn’t get rid of me if they tried). I visited several of the plating areas, and just when I thought they had finished layering on the multiple elements, out came sauces, brushes and the final touch, a diminutive chocolate flower.
Chef Sonny Sung of Bistecca watches the desserts being plated
The final product was spectacular, a feast for the eyes with bursts of colour and texture. The Bles Wold yogurt and blueberry tart was dense but not too sweet, but the real gem on the plate was the parfait glacé. Wrapped in a delicate chocolate ribbon, the whipped filling inside, made with Lola Canola’s dandelion honey, was light as air. I really should have taken a photo of the parfait halved – it was a beautiful creation even on the inside.
Wild Alberta blueberry yogurt tart with Lola Canola dandelion honey parfait glacé and raspberry foam
As if that wasn’t enough sweets, along with coffee, we were served macarons in a chocolate box. That’s right folks, a chocolate box (I passed some tables later that had broken apart the vessel, probably to taste it just to be sure). While the meringue shells weren’t as yielding as those from Duchess, I really had no idea the pastry chefs at Shaw even dabbled in macarons.
One for you, two for me
The evening closed with remarks from Chef Smotkowicz, who thanked the members of Culinary Team Canada who pitched in that day (they would be staying on over the weekend to practice further), as well as all of the local chefs who donated their time and talent. Chef Smotkowicz said a second Chefs in the City event would take place at the Westin over the course of a week starting on October 29, and would include a reception, gala dinner and cooking classes.
Bravo, Chefs! (only about 1/3 of them are in this photo)
With fabulous food and wine, opportunities to watch the chefs in action, and chances to interact with local producers, Chefs in the City is undoubtedly a great event. And for a first-time execution, I think it was a successful endeavour, having raised tens of thousands of dollars for both the student scholarship fund and Culinary Team Canada. Still, I can’t help but think it might be overly ambitious. Chefs in the City seeks to raise the profile of culinary arts as a field, local chefs, Alberta producers and national talent – and while complementary, each area deserves elaboration in its own right. With limited resources, however, I can understand why this combined approach would have to be taken.
I’m looking forward to the next Chefs in the City event, and hope others take advantage of the occasion to help celebrate local talent and producers. It will only get better from here!
Thanks again to EEDC for the invitation – it was a night to remember.