Century Hospitality Group’s Top Chef: Finale

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?

CHG Top Chef Finale

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.

CHG Top Chef Finale

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.

CHG Top Chef Finale

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.

CHG Top Chef Finale

Salmon tartare

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.

CHG Top Chef Finale

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.

CHG Top Chef Finale

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.

CHG Top Chef Finale

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.

CHG Top Chef Finale

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.

CHG Top Chef Finale

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.

CHG Top Chef Finale

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.

CHG Top Chef Finale

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!

CHG Top Chef Finale

Congrats, Ben!

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!

Liv’s write-up of the finale is here, and you can see Mack’s Flickr set here.

Century Hospitality Group’s Top Chef: Final Four

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.

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

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.

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

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.

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

“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.

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

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.

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

Judging form

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.

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

Ben Weir hard at work

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

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.

Shirley Fortez

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

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.

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

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.

Cedric Boeglin

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

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.

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

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.

John Dykeman

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

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.

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

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.

Ben Weir

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

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.

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

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.

CHG Top Chef: Final Four

Drumroll please…

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.