The heat is on as several of Canada's best chefs gather in Vancouver this weekend for the Canadian Culinary Championships, the national final of the Gold Medal Plates and the country's ultimate culinary showdown.
The annual fundraiser for Canada's Olympic and Paralympic athletes pits regional winners from Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, St. John's and Toronto against each other in a series of no-holds-barred cooking battles for the title of the country's best chef.
With the Olympics themselves only a few short months away, the prestige associated with the event this year is at an all-time high.
And a win can have a substantial impact on a chef's career: Makoto Ono, the 2007 champion, was plucked from relative obscurity. A chef at Gluttons in Winnipeg at the time, he now operates a successful private dining club in Hong Kong.
The final begins on Friday with a Mystery Wine Pairing that challenges the chefs to create a dish to match with a mystery wine. Saturday's main event starts with the Black Box competition, in which chefs must prepare two dishes using a surprise ingredient. The evening ends with the grand finale, in which the chefs are free to pull out all the stops.
Here's how the competition shapes up.
Vancouver: Rob Feenie
The local boy is clearly the odds-on favourite this year. Not only does he have the home-stove advantage, but Chef Feenie absolutely revels in these sorts of competitions. (See Iron Chef America season 1: Battle Crab). He won the regional competition in Vancouver in October with 24-hour sous-vide-cooked Virginia Jacobs duck meat, a sausage of Polderside Farms chicken, and foie gras garnished with pureed figs and a slice of frozen truffle. The battle-hardened chef will be a tough competitor to beat. Odds: Even Money
Toronto: David Lee, Nota Bene
The unpredictable, iconoclastic and immensely talented Chef Lee may be Chef Feenie's biggest threat. His winning dish in Toronto may have been the most surprising dish served at a Canadian competition this year: crisp chicken skin and chicken cartilage. It sounds bizarre, but it's pure critic bait. A crisp cracker of chicken skin was topped with a plum and hoisin sauce and a sour apple compote. The chicken breast cartilage sitting on top was rendered tender by 24 hours in a pressure cooker. This is the kind of deceptively simple cooking that judges respond to with high marks. Odds: 2:1
Montreal: Matthieu Cloutier and Jean-Philippe Saint-Denis, Kitchen Galerie
The co-chefs won a joint prize at the Montreal competition, but only one of them - Chef Cloutier at last report - will attend the finale. The duo prepared a rack of Stanstead rabbit cooked confit-style and served it with a foie gras parfait, pink beets, potato chips and a trompe l'oeil "brussels sprout" that was actually a ball of spinach leaves stuffed with ground rabbit and foie gras. Confit as a technique and foie gras as an ingredient tend to do well at competitions, but because the two chefs are so used to cooking as a team, the appearance of only one of them may hobble chances of a national win. Odds: 3:1
Ottawa: Matthew Carmichael, Restaurant E18hteen and Social
Chef Carmichael zigged when others zagged, with a seafood-based trio when his capital-city competitors were more focused on meat, particularly pork. His winning dish included a seared rectangle of sea bass, octopus on a slice of chorizo sausage and a rock shrimp shumai dumpling topped with salmon roe, all sitting on a puree of Romanesco cauliflower and golden turnips and a curry sauce. He could be the dark horse this weekend. Odds 4:1
Calgary: Jan Hrabec, Crazyweed Kitchen (Canmore)
To win the Calgary competition, the only woman in the final this year braised a Noble Farm duck leg in an orange and ancho curry and served it with Indian-spiced sweet potatoes, braised chard, crispy shallots and a glazed poppadom (a spicy Indian cracker). Her globetrotting style of cooking - her menu at Crazyweed runs the gamut from pizza to kimchi - may prove too distracting for the judges, but then again her soulful, comforting cooking could also be an advantage against some of the more technical dishes. Odds: 5:1
St. John's: Ivan Kyutukchiev, Bianca's
Trained in Bulgaria, Chef Kyutukchiev brings a straightforward, classical approach. His winning dish in St. John's consisted simply of a savoury coffee sponge cake, beet parfait and some Labrador caribou served with a port and blueberry reduction - a dish similar to one he serves on his restaurant menu. This could be too traditional for Vancouver's sophisticated palates, so he will have to push the boundaries - without falling over the edge. Odds: 6:1
Edmonton: Nathin Bye, Lazia Restaurant
Chef Bye won the regional competition with a dish of extreme complexity. His trio of bison (tenderloin, "maki roll" and shortrib) included no less than three types of curry (rendang, Thai red and Indian garam masala), numerous garnishes (pineapple-flavoured panko crumbs, cucumber "coulis" and huckleberry salsa, to name a few) and a written manifesto of his culinary principles. In a national competition, so much happening on the plate leaves too much room for error. Unless he can pare things way back, this kind of fussy, overwrought cooking may not have much of a chance in Vancouver. Odds: 7:1
Special to The Globe and Mail