Monday, April 21, 2008

Report from ... Vineland’s 3rd Annual Ironic Chef – April 16, 2008

Approximately 60 folks joined 6 judges and 4 chefs for an interactive dinner based on the now classic television show The Iron Chef. The twist was that the audience votes for the dishes as well as the judging panel, which consisted of Vineland Winemaker Brian Schmidt, celebrity chefs Michael and Anna Olson, Toronto restaurateur John Maxwell (Allen’s on the Danforth), sommelier Jamie Drummond (Jamie Kennedy Kitchens) and Chef Mark Hand, who played the role of Kaga (host/overseer) as well as Shinichiro Ohta, that guy who breaks in with comments from the kitchen (“Fukui-san, the elk used for this challenge was actually raised by wolves.”)

5 courses were paraded out (1 at a time obviously), created from a menu concocted earlier that afternoon from a selection of “Mystery Ingredients” that was presented to the teams at noon this very day. The two teams who would square off against one another were the old guard, or “Senior Team”: Jan-Willem Stulp (executive chef at Vinelend Restaurant) and Chef Daryl Neamtu versus the young guns, or “Junior Team” of Heather Rhymes and Justin Downes (both sous-chefs). On the line, were not only bragging rights for the year, but a tie breaker, which would give one of these two teams a 2-1 lead. The previous year saw the Senior Team win to tie the overall score at 1-1 … so the pressure was on the Senior Team to repeat. In the two previous years the margin of victory was around 60 points – this year’s victor would end up squeaking out a 32.25-point victory – more on that in a minute.

Of course being held at a winery, the wine also took center stage and with each course a different wine was paired. This created fits for both Gaby McCotter, organizer, and Brian Schmidt as to which wines to pair with the dishes – what goes with both elk and cod? Tonight’s wines selections were the following: 2007 Semi-Dry Riesling (paired with scallops), 2006 Sauvignon Blanc – Wismer Vineyard (duck and cod), 2005 Elevation Cabernet-Merlot (elk and cod), 2005 Cabernet Franc Reserve (elk and duck) and finally, a 2007 Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (paired with dessert – Triple Cream Cheesecake and Parsnip Cupcake).

Each attendee was given one dish to vote on – either the Junior or Senior teams’ creation – though you were invited to share your dish with your partner at the table, so that you had the opportunity to taste both. But according to Gaby McCotter – at whose table I was seated – you were only to vote on the dish in front of you based on six criteria (presentation, creativity, balance, texture, flavour, mystery ingredient) and not in comparison to the other dish. I of course broke that rule, because I felt I needed to know who made the better creation before I could score it – otherwise the dishes were all very good on their own. This philosophy of judging worked well with the dueling scallops for the first course, but when put against the other courses with more randomized dishes like duck vs. cod or elk it become a little more difficult and challenging. Might I suggest, in my humblest opinion, that the chefs make a dish using the same main ingredient per course (i.e.: elk for one, duck for another) – that way the comparison is easier for the judges, and the wine pairing – I would have liked to see how the elk tenderloin did up against the elk corn dog … though as I was told on more than one occasion (with a stern warning) that comparison was not the name of the game. Speaking of the judges, they had to “endure” a full helping of both creations, thus having to compare the dishes against one another.

With all the dishes served and the scores being tabulated the chef teams were brought out to speak to all assembled about what they felt were their best dishes of the night; they did so as they anxiously awaited the results. My scorecard had the Senior’s up 3-1 with a tie in the middle course – but I am just one in a sea of 60+, plus the scores were on a ranking system and not based on who won the dish. The winner, by half the margin of previous years, turned out to be the Senior Team, and chef Jan-Willem was humble in victory, claiming he thought his “ass was thoroughly kicked as [he] looked over at [his] competition’s creations throughout the day.”

The night was a lot of fun, tasty – from both a food and wine perspective – and thoroughly enjoyable … with a few surprises along the way (beet sorbet anyone?). But the real surprise came after the victors had been announced. With his final thoughts on the evening chef Michael Olson threw down the gauntlet: he and his wife Anna would like to take on this year’s winners in next year’s competition … and Vineland’s Stadium Kitchen will soon heat up again – cue The Kaga.

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