Last Saturday saw the culmination of the gruelling, month-long competition that was the Century Hospitality Group’s Top Chef Tournament.
The dining room at Lux, filled with guests, the judging panel, former judges, and event sponsors, was abuzz. Not only were they hungry for the six course meal to come, but also to see who would come out on top. Would it be the creative and resilient Ben Weir, who had pulled off the most unique entrée the week prior? Or would it be the bold and consistent Shirley Fortez, whose plating skills were unrivalled in the semi-final round?
Ben plates while Valerie assists
Each cheftestant had to incorporate a secret ingredient into their dishes: steelhead salmon in the appetizer course; Kobe beef short rib and spot prawns in the main; and eggs in the dessert. The cheftestants had also stopped by the City Market that morning to accent their dishes with local products.
Though it wasn’t quite set up like Kitchen Stadium, guests were encouraged to visit the plating area, where Ben, Shirley and their sous chefs were busy with final meal preparations.
Plating is intense
Both young chefs looked a touch nervous, but more than anything, with blank canvas plates gleaming in front of them, they both looked like they wanted to be let out of the gates.
To help whet the appetite of the crowd (and to help get the spirit of the competition rolling), two of Century Hosplitality’s seasoned chefs, Tony Le of Lux and Andrew Cowan of Hundred, served up a plate of their amuse bouches, side by side. It was also to serve as a taste of what Indulgence patrons could expect from the CHG booth in a few weeks. The audience was to vote for their favourite with a show of applause.
A pair of amuse bouches
I thought I’d instantly grapple towards Chef Cowan’s scrapple, topped with a perfectly fried quail’s egg. And though it was a bite of velvety richness, given my absolute dislike of watermelon, the fact that Chef Tony was able to make a cube of the fruit tolerable for me (with the addition of a piece of boar bacon and balsamic vinaigrette) won my vote. The crowd, however, was partial to Chef Cowan’s amuse.
First course: steelhead salmon
Ben’s salmon tartare was up first. Visually beautiful, with colour contrast provided by an Edgar Farms asparagus puree, it was a great way to commence the competition. I loved the texture of the tartare, kicked up with the addition of red onions, and how fresh the dish as a whole presented, bright with lemon.
Shirley’s cured salmon that followed showed us just how different their cooking styles were. She chose a flavour base of aromatic soy sauce and wasabi, complemented with a daikon salad. On first bite, I preferred Shirley’s salmon – it was brash and memorable. But towards the end of the plate, I had to agree with most around our table – the dish was too salty and overpowered the fish.
Cured salmon with soy and wasabi
Second course: short rib and spot prawns
There was no doubt that Ben’s short rib had been expertly prepared. Braised in veal stock and coffee, a collective sign of contentment could be felt around the room when diners tasted the fork-tender meat. His accompanying spot prawn ravioli was less successful, more dumpling than pasta, and a rather unfortunate deconstruction and cloaking of an ingredient that should have been better showcased.
Short rib with spot prawn ravioli
As an overall dish, Shirley’s main fared better. The prawn was front and centre (literally), with a whimsical presentation that ensured diners knew every part of the shrimp had been used. The prawns lent their essence to the coconut red curry sauce, a rich concoction that again highlighted Shirley’s love of bold flavours, and helped tie the two proteins together. Her short rib, however, was tough to get through. Some of the cuts around our table were extremely fatty, and as a result, was rather chewy and unpleasant to eat.
Short rib with coconut red curry sauce
Third course: eggs
To be fair, Ben did have a slight advantage in this course. One of his sous chefs, Valerie, was in charge of dessert, and with her “team” of Thermomixes, had decided to make a zabaglione, which would emphatically highlight the eggs. Served with Canadian winter berries and a raspberry cream, it ended his meal in a similar way to how it started – light and refreshing.
Zabaglione with winter berries and raspberry cream
Shirley’s dessert of carrot cake wasn’t the best use of eggs, but was transformational for many people, including myself. I’m not typically a fan of carrot cake, but Shirley’s version, moist and studded with pineapples and almonds, was one of the best versions I’ve ever had.
A sea of carrot cakes
The judging panel, which included Chef Blair Lebsack, the Journal’s Liane Faulder, Up! 99 and Telus TV’s Kari Skelton, and CHG’s Corporate Chef Paul Schufelt, had a tough decision to make. But given they would only be awarding up to 100 points each, diners, who each received a CHG poker chip, would also have a say. With 67 diner chips up for grabs, the crowd would definitely be able to influence the results.
Judging is serious business
In the end, the diners did sway the decision, given there was only 1 point separating Ben and Shirley as far as the judges were concerned.
Hearing the final verdict
So, after four weeks of intense competition, with fifteen other chefs in his wake, Ben Weir was crowned the CHG Top Chef!
Both Ben and Shirley deserve accolades for the meals they put together under such high pressure – both of them undoubtedly have bright futures ahead of them. Congratulations are also due to Paul, Tony and the rest of the CHG crew for putting together such an exciting event. It sounds like something that will happen on an annual basis – I’m sure it will soon become the hottest ticket in town.
Thanks again to CHG for the invitation!