2012 Canadian Culinary Championships

As the crowd boogied on into the night, led by Barney Bentall and Ed Robertson creating a fabulous best-house-party-ever vibe, I was thinking about food, about nine chefs, the triumphs and the missed-the-mark dishes, and the odd but right combination of athletic prowess, music, entertainment, fund-raising, wine and top-notch cooking that is the Canadian Culinary Championships.

The setting couldn’t be better. In the benign air of a Kelowna February, the charming lakeside Eldorado Hotel was venue for the mystery wine pairing; Okanagan Community College for the black box, and the spectacular finale at the Delta Grand Okanagan Hotel.

Be proud Kelowna — you did a great job.

Food at this level is complex, layered with flavour, bursting with craft. It’s not about show-offy, but a profound understanding of flavour and texture principles. Also important is the ability to surprise and delight, especially if you are dish number nine.

The gold medal winner, Ottawa’s Marc Lepine of Atelier led from the start. His plates were smart, modern, inventive and exploding with flavour — food that is a joy to eat.

Montreal’s JP St Denis’ GMP dish was in a similar vein — a refreshing take on vitello tonnato with impeccably fresh tuna and tiny bits of veal tongue, such flavours, proving once again the adage: simple isn’t easy.

Saturday is brutal: 18 mini meals during Black Box, then nine more that evening. My strategy? Get the flavour and the understanding of the dish in one, maybe two bites. Otherwise it’s game over — too much food. I watched the other, more experienced judges. How do they do it? Without a one bite/two bite strategy apparently. If they liked it, they ate it — down to the last microgreen.

Edmonton’s Gold Medal Plates chef Jan Trittenbach brought his mother and brother from Switzerland to the competition. Every time I saw Jan his smile was a mile wide. “We were beside Marc and his sous during black box,” he said. “They are a machine, like clockwork, so fast and so quiet!”

He was like a kid meeting his favourite hockey player. We all cried a little when it became apparent that Jan would lose 10 per cent of his marks for forgetting a black box ingredient.

The goose breast and wild rice of the black box did prove to be a challenge for most of the chefs in the 50 minutes allotted cooking time. And how about us poor judges having to sample 18 dishes so early in the morning? Said Ottawa judge Anne DesBrisay in a cheeky email after the competition: “And surely we should be thinking more of our needs at these 9am competitions. May I suggest next year’s BB: Eggs. Yogurt. Frozen Wild blueberries. Bacon. Espresso beans.”

Forget Iron Chef: the Canadian Culinary Championships have excitement, drama, and conviviality. They are worth your attention. I can’t wait until next year.

Mary Bailey’s first trip to CCC as senior judge for Edmonton was enlightening.