Luscious lessons

Karl Wells
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Talent galore displayed at student seafood competition

According to David Lewis, the assistant deputy minister of Fisheries and Aqua-culture, Newfound-land and Labrador is the biggest producer of cold-water shrimp in the world. I learned that significant fact recently at the annual Student Seafood Cooking Competition held at the College of the North Atlantic (CNA).

The department, the Canadian Culinary Federation, and the College of the North Atlantic sponsored the event. Six teams competed, each comprised of an entry-level cooking student and a "mentor" chef (who could watch and advise but not touch anything) from his or her school. Students came from all three CNA. culinary programs - Stephenville, Seal Cove and St. John's, as well as the Academy Canada program.

Winners Ryan Norris (left) and Chef Brian Abbott. Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram

According to David Lewis, the assistant deputy minister of Fisheries and Aqua-culture, Newfound-land and Labrador is the biggest producer of cold-water shrimp in the world. I learned that significant fact recently at the annual Student Seafood Cooking Competition held at the College of the North Atlantic (CNA).

The department, the Canadian Culinary Federation, and the College of the North Atlantic sponsored the event. Six teams competed, each comprised of an entry-level cooking student and a "mentor" chef (who could watch and advise but not touch anything) from his or her school. Students came from all three CNA. culinary programs - Stephenville, Seal Cove and St. John's, as well as the Academy Canada program.

Eighteen-year-old Ryan Norris of St. John's, a marine cooking student at CNA, and his mentor, Chef Brian Abbott, were the overall winners. They will now travel to the huge Boston Seafood Show in February to prepare Newfoundland seafood at the busy Atlantic Canada booth. It's a big gig, especially for a novice like Norris.

Lots of young talent, guided by excellent instructors, meant competition was tight. All three top teams finished in the same ballpark in terms of scores. The winners scored 237, Academy Canada 233 and the military cooking team from CNA in Stephenville scored 229. (Speaking of which, this is the first year the Canadian Armed Forces has recruits training in what's called "large quantity cooking" at CNA Stephenville. Military diesel mechanics and firefighters are also being trained at the West Coast campus.)

Looking good

The first thing I noticed at the competition was the manner in which the food was presented. The bar has been raised since last year's competition. While there was some slight weakness detected in certain areas (i.e. contrasting colours - often, for example, decorative sauces were used that were the same colour as the plate or not contrasting enough) generally the presentations worked well.

The plates' appearance ranged from simple and elegant to slightly complicated but tasteful. All were excellent examples of the versatility now possible in the preparation of our own regional ingredients. In this case, each team was required to use cold-water shrimp and cultured mussels in an appetizer and entrÉe. To me, it was obvious that each team had put a great deal of thought into their creations.

The winning team's appetizer was a nicely made shrimp pate. It was smooth, light in texture and very pleasantly flavoured. Savory, decorative jellies are "in" these days. Norris and Abbott's appetizer employed a spoonful of carefully cut cubes of a clear wine-and-dill jelly. It was robustly flavoured with a definite taste of white wine. Bright, pickled cucumber, arranged with individual shrimps, gave a lift to the plate as well.

The winners' entrÉe was a shrimp cake with lots of shrimp. It paired exceptionally well with a freshly made, sweet onion relish, slowly and lovingly made. Impressive too was a formed column of made-from-scratch spaghetti. The spaghetti had been coated lightly with a red sauce and featured just a handful of juicy mussels. It would have made a Sicilian's mouth water.

Original

Another dish worth mentioning for skill and originality came from the team of military cooks. They too produced a homemade pasta - tortellini. Large tortellinis were filled with shrimp and chevre, topped with citrus foam. I'm usually not crazy about foams but for this light-as-air pasta dish it worked a charm. As well, the plate was decorated with the most proficiently cut vegetable brunoise I've seen in competitions. The team had obviously taken the time to make the cuts properly. It showed a determination to master knife skills - a very important asset for a cook creating fine cuisine.

I must add a word about Abbott's remarkable competition record. Since I have been attending these competitions (from 2003), hardly a year goes by where Brian Abbott does not win some kind of award. Why, just this year he and his sous chef at Restaurant 21 came first in the two-person competition sponsored by CCF, then he was named Culinarian of the Year at the CCF Dinner and Awards, and now he's received this latest honour along with young Ryan Norris.

Consider this; for the past few years, in addition to running his resto, Restaurant 21, he has been a fulltime instructor in marine cooking at the College of the North Atlantic. Yet, not only does he use his relaxation time to compete, he also manages to fit in the odd extracurricular assignment. For example, just a few weeks ago, he and another busy chef, Roary McPherson of The Fairmont, travelled to Iceland to represent the province at events promoting our local products. If chefs are known for their energy and stamina, then Brian Abbott has to be one of the best examples of those attributes. Certainly, nobody can say he's wasting his talent. I'm glad students at the College of the North Atlantic are beneficiaries. Ryan Norris is living proof.

Karl Wells is a restaurant panellist with enRoute magazine. To reach him, log on to his website: www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: CNA, Canadian Culinary Federation, Academy Canada Canadian Armed Forces CNA Stephenville

Geographic location: Stephenville, St. John's, Seal Cove Newfoundland Atlantic Canada West Coast Iceland

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