Century Hospitality Group has been doing some really exciting things as of late. You’ve probably read about their smashing success of bringing the alley burger to Edmonton, and heard about their weekly farmers’ market dinners. But perhaps most innovative is their internal Top Chef tournament.
In order to help their young chefs grow, they’ve provided them with a creative outlet to flex their kitchen muscles and tackle cooking challenges. And really, what better outlet is there than an in-house competition modeled after the wildly successful reality programs Top Chef and Iron Chef?
It all started on May 7, 2011 with sixteen eager cheftestants. March-madness style, the competitors were reduced to eight after head-to-head battles. On May 14, those eight were cut down to four. This past Saturday saw those four remaining chefs fight for the two spots in the final. At stake: $1000 in prizes, and the title of “Century Hospitality Group Top Chef.”
Mack and I had been fortunate enough to be asked to be a part of the judging roster, who would be called upon to help narrow the field. Though Mack was remiss about the lost opportunity to judge the scallop challenge due to a schedule conflict, it did mean that we were able to sit on the panel together.
Mack is ready to judge!
On Saturday morning, we headed to Lux to join our fellow panellists, Che Bechard of Baseline Wines and Spirits, Chef Andrew Fung of Blackhawk Golf Club, and resident judge, CHG Corporate Chef Paul Shufelt. Liv Vors of Vue Weekly was on hand as well to chronicle the competition.
The judges (I suppose we really shouldn’t be smiling…)
The set-up reminded me of the Top Chef judges table – long and narrow, with several lengths between the table and where the cheftestants would stand and receive their feedback. If there was a camera to do one of those trademarked shots that sweep behind the judges table, I’m sure Lux could have easily been mistaken for a studio.
“Please pack your knives and go”
The chefs would have 90 minutes to complete 4 plates each of an entree and a dessert. They would have access to the kitchen’s pantry, but would have to use two secret ingredients in their dishes – bison striploin and chocolate. In addition, a bonus ingredient of rhubarb, picked up at the farmers’ market that morning, would also have to be incorporated somehow.
Shirley Fortez plates her entrees
Andrew, Paul, Mack and myself could award each chef with up to 20 points each, judging the taste (10 points), presentation (5 points) and creativity/use of the secret ingredient (5 points). Che would also be awarding 20 points, but specifically on the wine pairing with the entree.
While the chefs were preparing their dishes, we occasionally popped into the kitchen to check out the action, but it was clear they were feeling the pressure, so we thought it best to let them work.
Ben Weir hard at work
John Dykeman has his eyes on the prize
Unlike the previous two rounds of competition, where chefs would receive their scores and feedback immediately after their presentation, because we would be choosing the finalists, Paul had decided that no comments would be shared until all of the dishes had been judged.
Baseball-cut striploin accompanied with garlic roasted potato mash and a roasted tomato with truffle oil
Shirley’s sweet and sour sauce was one of my favourite tastes that day – there was something so aggressive and bold about it, and in a competition where a memorable dish can win it all, it was a great start. The steak was on the rare side, however, and the potatoes were too rustic and unevenly mashed for my preference.
Rhubarb lemon flan with blackberry rhubarb compote and chocolate sauce
Shirley’s dessert was also the most beautiful plate of the day – great composition and colour. We were told later that Shirley had spent a lot of time practicing the flan recipe, something that definitely paid off. There was consensus, however, that the secret ingredient of chocolate had thrown her off – the chocolate sauce ended up overwhelming the subtleness of the flan, instead of complementing it.
Mini bison striploin with a rhubarb beurre blanc
Mack and I disagreed about the cut of Cedric’s steak – I thought it was on the thin size, which resulted in overcooking in parts – but Mack thought it had been perfectly done. The rhubarb in the sauce also gave it almost a sour quality that I didn’t enjoy. However, the vegetables had been cooked well.
Chocolate crepe suzette with orange sauce
Cedric very smartly incorporated the chocolate into the batter of his crepe, which turned out nicely both in texture and flavour. He was perhaps too heavy-handed with the sauce though, and the citrus took over. Paul and Andrew also pointed out that a true crepe suzette is stewed in the sauce, and cautioned the cheftestants on their use of terminology.
Bison rubbed with juniper berries, served with bernaise sauce and mashed potatoes with chives
Neither Mack or I could taste the rub on the steak, which was a bit of a disappointment. The steak also hadn’t been rested properly, which left an unappealing pool on our plates. Both of us agreed though – if the competition could have been won by the potatoes alone, John would have taken it with his creamy, smooth, and well seasoned mashed potatoes.
Rhubarb cheese cake with pastry cream and milk chocolate
John admitted that his original plan was to make a trio of balls, but because of time constraints, this was the dessert he ended up with it. It was pretty clear to everyone that John was capable of much more – none of us could understand why he separated the cheese cake from the accompaniments. As well, the dessert was much too heavy. It would have benefitted from a fruit compote or some other lightening agent.
Bison shepherd’s pie with a rhubarb compote and salad with rhubarb vinaigrette
It was as if Ben knew grinding the meat would win him some extra points: his shepherd’s pie was the first non-steak entree we had seen. There could have been some improvements – a more consistent mince of meat, a sauce of some kind to bind the filling, but as a whole, I enjoyed it. I also really liked the rhubarb twist on the savoury dish – it was unexpected, and tied the pie to the vinaigrette drizzled on the side salad (which I nearly finished…I was a bit starved for vegetables by that point). Che also liked Ben’s wine pairing of the Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon best of the group.
Strawberry, rhubarb and cream cheese crepe with chocolate ganache and rhubarb compote
Mack absolutely tore through this dessert, and complimented Ben on his restraint when it came to the sweetness of the dish. I didn’t mind the crepes, though a serving about half the size would have been better for me – the cream cheese filling was undoubtedly rich. Similar to the use of crepe suzette, Paul also called Ben out for calling the rhubarb puree a “compote.”
Scores tallied, Paul let the chefs know that only 8 points separated the top from the bottom. It was a tough call, given the finalists would be tackling the task of not only cooking for a panel of judges, but also a room of sixty guests.
Shirley Fortez and Ben Weir will be continuing on to the finals, but congrats to all four chefs for a hard-fought battle! To help them in the finals, each of them were able to choose one of the non-chef judges, as well as one of the competitors that they had beat along the way. Shirley picked Che and Cedric to be her sous chefs, while Ben drafted Valerie and John.
Mack and I had a blast participating on the judging panel; thanks again to Tony for the invitation! We are very much looking forward to the finals on Saturday, because we have no doubt Shirley and Ben will be putting their best dishes forward. Good luck to both of you!
Follow along on the CHG Top Chef blog here.