Recap: 2016 Gold Medal Plates

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the 2016 Gold Medal Plates, hosted at the Shaw Conference Centre in support of the Canadian Olympic Foundation. It’s been an incredibly successful fundraising event, having raised more than $11 million dollars for Canadian athletes since 2004. The culinary competition operated by Gold Medal Plates has become a benchmark for chefs in cities across the country, the preparation alone pushing chefs to refine their techniques, enhance flavour profiles and find the perfect beverage pairing. Those crowned at the local or national level are widely recognized for their achievement, and winning dishes can often be sampled at those restaurants for a taste of what judges deemed the best that year. Personally, I’d only read the results of the competition, and had never experienced it firsthand before this year.

Each of the ten competitors were tasked with crafting a dish and pairing it with a Canadian wine, spirit or beer. Unlike “mystery box” challenges that currently fuel reality television, chefs here are able to polish their dishes for weeks, meaning execution becomes the most crucial factor instead of thinking under pressure. Even in this year’s sample, it was wonderful to see the array of proteins showcased, and the diversity of cooking styles presented. If anything, it speaks to how fortunate we are to have such a rich food scene in Edmonton.

Gold Medal Plates 2016

Chef Shane Chartrand and his team from Sage

Before the start of the competition, I chatted with Mary Bailey and was thankful for her advice (as a senior judge, she’s well versed in the tasting component). She said I needed to hustle, or I might not get to all ten stations. She was absolutely right; I picked up the last dish just before the closing bell.

Gold Medal Plates 2016

The Chartier team

I was also glad to run into Teresa who was also in attendance that evening. It was fun to experience the event with someone else who was new to Gold Medal Plates, too.

My favourites differed somewhat from the judges’ selections. Mary had said this would likely be the case – the audience choices never seemed to converge with the official winners. My top pick was by Sage’s Shane Chartrand. His coal smoked albacore tuna was such a revelation that I actually paused mid-bite to savour it; the texture and flavour imparted was incredible. The sablefish also had a pronounced charcoal essence that I appreciated.

Gold Medal Plates 2016

Charcoal and smoke from Shane Chartrand

I also enjoyed the dish prepared by Have Mercy’s Lindsay Porter. Her Alberta corn stone ground grits with shrimp, smoked Mangalitsa pulled pork, chanterelles and pecans was comfort food with refined flavours. Unlike some of the other plates, all components complemented one another well.

Gold Medal Plates 2016

Corn grits with shrimp and pulled pork from Lindsay Porter

While dishes were meant to be paired with a beverage, one of my other favourites was actually a drink. The Caribeau cocktail from Chartier, a combiation of Fallen Timber Saskatoon mead, Alberta Premium rye whisky, birch syrup, Saskatoons, and spices danced on my palate, the hint of fruit balancing nicely with the spirit base.

The winners, as selected by the judges, were:

  1. Eric Hanson of Prairie Noodle Shop, with his spot prawn, peach and plum preparations, paired with the Summerhill 2014 Ehrenfeiser
  2. Doreen Prei of Get Cooking, with pan seared Icelandic salmon, chanterelle & celeric puree, squash butter, and crushed cold smoked pumpkin seeds, paired with 50th Parallel Pinot Noir
  3. Shane Chartrand of Sage, with charcoal sablefish, cold smoked albacore tuna, sweet stock reduction, creamed corn, fondant potatoes, sesame seaweed snack and salt roasted beets, paired with Culmina 2015 Unicus Gruner Veltliner

The first place winner of Edmonton’s Gold Medal Plates will compete in the Canadian Culinary Championship finale in Kelowna on February 3-4, 2017. I wish Chef Hanson the best of luck as he represents Edmonton!

Gold Medal Plates 2016

2016 Gold Medal Plates winners

The “gold medal” portion of the event refers also to the Olympic athletes in attendance, ambassadors of how the funding raised can lead to success. Gold medalists from the recent Rio games, Rosie MacLennan and Erica Wiebe, were among the nearly three dozen athletes present. Being the Olympics junkie that I am, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to fangirl and snap a selfie with Erica. She was extremely sweet and gracious.

Gold Medal Plates 2016

With Erica Wiebe!

The athletes also like a good party, as evidenced by the finale that evening. Led by Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea, the athletes piled on stage for a raucous rendition of “The Weight”. My sister, a huge fan of kayaker Adam van Kouverden, would have appreciated his enthusiasm at the mic.

Thanks to the organizers of the Edmonton Gold Medal Plates for having me!

Black Box Dry Run: The Westin’s Chef Ryan O’Flynn Prepares for the Gold Medal Plates

Mack and I were privileged enough to be invited to Chef Ryan O’Flynn’s dry run for his upcoming appearance at the National Gold Medal Plates competition.

Chef O’Flynn has been at the helm of The Westin Hotel since early last year, and in November, he won gold at Edmonton’s Gold Medal Plates, earning him a berth to the national contest. Taking place in Kelowna from February 6-8, 2015, the competition is comprised of three stages, including a “black box” portion: “Chefs will receive only 10 minutes notice, and a black box containing 10 ingredients of diverse foods before having to produce and plate one spectacular dish using 6 of the 10 ingredients for the national judges. All in one very short hour!” Tonight’s black box dry run was meant to help Chef O’Flynn flex his culinary skills in preparation for next week.

Chef O’Flynn originally hails from Edmonton, but had spent the majority of his career overseas in high-end kitchens in Europe. That experience is helping him raise the standards at The Westin, and now, on a national stage, he is proud to be just one of two hotel chefs represented at this year’s Gold Medal Plates. Given the winner is essentially crowned Canada’s best chef, the competition is fierce, but Chef O’Flynn has his eye on the prize.

Westin Black Box Dinner

On Wednesday, Mack and I arrived just after Chef O’Flynn had started cooking. The clock ticking down, he only had sixty minutes to create a dish using at least six of the ten ingredients chosen by the Westin’s Director of Food and Beverage. In the box: oyster mushrooms, chanterelle mushrooms, lamb, Chilean sea bass, nutmeg, cilantro, goat cheese, figs, dates and lady fingers.

Westin Black Box Dinner

Guests were encouraged to interact, ask questions, and otherwise, get in the way of Chef O’Flynn, as to simulate the environment he would encounter in Kelowna. I’m not sure we did the best job at this, as I know I was content to watch him work, but it was obvious Chef O’Flynn could handily multitask, and even in conversation, was duly focused on the task at hand.

Westin Black Box Dinner

When asked the process he underwent to compose the dish, he responded by asking, “How does a musician write a song?” – he has just come to know how to combine and balance flavours. One could also say that this might be in his blood; his dad Maurice O’Flynn was a chef and managed Culinary Team Alberta to a world title in the 1990s.

Chef O’Flynn finished his dish with fourteen minutes to spare. And instead of incorporating six of the mystery ingredients, he ambitiously worked in all ten.

Westin Black Box Dinner

We all marveled at how well the components worked with one another: the base of whipped goat cheese melted into the medium rare lamb; the nutmeg sauce enhanced the earthy mushrooms; the perfectly crispy sea bass skin topped with sweet cilantro-lady finger crumble. Our only criticism was related to the toughness of the oyster mushroom – the hour wasn’t enough to reconstitute the dried mushroom, and in hindsight, Chef O’Flynn shared that would likely have left them out of the final dish.

Chef O’Flynn deserved the applause he received; we can only hope it will be a good omen as he travels to Kelowna next week. Best of luck to him as he strives to make Edmonton proud!

Thanks again to the team at The Westin for having us – it was a treat to be a part of the preparation process!