Gold Medal Plates, the annual culinary competition and fundraiser for Canada's Olympic and Paralympic athletes, gets under way tonight. Over the next month, nearly 70 chefs across seven cities will compete to represent their hometown in the national championships, where one will be crowned Canada's top chef. As we lead up to this year's national competition in Vancouver on Nov. 27 and 28, we'll highlight three key competitors in each city.
The favourite Judy Wu of Wild Tangerine combines Italian and Asian influences in a way that makes seemingly outrageous combinations seem completely natural. She walked away with the gold medal at the 2007 competition with a series of duck preparations including jasmine tea smoked breast, a foie gras stuffed salad roll and a duck confit potsticker. The wild card Blair Lebsack of Madison's Grill in the Union Bank Inn is a veteran contender. His restaurant cooking leans toward upscale meat and potatoes - bone-in veal chop with creamed mushrooms, bison rib-eye with grilled apricot and rack of lamb with minted pea purée. At the 2008 competition, his crepe stuffed with braised pheasant breast served with a side of apples studded with wild boar bacon was enough to secure him a bronze medal.
The underdog Chef Susan Kellock runs Skinny Legs and Cowgirls, a curious and very personal little bistro, with her daughter, Amy. Her cooking may be too personal and untamed for the competition - one of the restaurant's signature dishes is a three cheese salsa bake, another is a $90 mixed grill - but it has real soul.
The favourite Pino Posteraro of Cioppino's won the Vancouver competition in 2007 with a porcini mushroom and chestnut soup enriched with foie gras and gilded with truffle scented brioche croutons, but a medical emergency caused him to drop out of the national finale. B.C's silver medal winner, Melissa Craig of Bearfoot Bistro, stepped in and eventually took the national gold. Mr. Posteraro is back this year and he's going to pull out all the stops.
The ringer As the founding chef of Lumière restaurant, Iron Chef America winner Rob Feenie brought new sophistication to Vancouver's haute French cuisine scene. These days, as the food concept architect for the upscale-casual chain of Cactus Club restaurants, he focuses more on perfecting mini-burgers and chocolate peanut butter crunch bars than Napoleon of Dungeness crab with pineapple celery broth, but he will be a formidable opponent.
The rival Mr. Feenie's former chef de cuisine, Dale MacKay, is now executive chef of Lumière. The two will face off this year in what is sure to be a no-holds-barred battle. Mr. MacKay's food revels in delicate, almost dainty technique (his beet and vodka cured hamachi with white sturgeon caviar, baby beets and horseradish cream was one of the finest things I ate this year) and intricate plating (he serves three tiny preparations of squash as an amuse-bouche in a specially designed three-part serving vessel), but he may find the time and ingredient constrictions limiting.
Special to The Globe and Mail