Dining out -
Atlantic Chefs Meet Senior Culinary Contest
College of the North Atlantic
Prince Philip Drive
"No thanks. I don't eat jewelry." So said the character Henry Crabbe when offered some very ornate, overly worked appetizers (that did indeed look more like jewelry than food) on an episode of the British drama "Pie in the Sky."
Crabbe was a Scotland Yard detective inspector and part-time chef who owned a small bistro featuring food applauded for its superb flavour more than its presentation (which certainly wasn't shabby, either).
I was reminded of Crabbe's comment as I viewed the display of plates showing appetizers, entrees and desserts created by competitors at the Senior Culinary Competition of the Atlantic Chefs Association. The event was held recently as part of a three-day meet at the College of the North Atlantic.
I find more and more I'm having mixed feelings about the food presented at professional competitions. I understand competition requires displays of masterful technique, extraordinary recipes, presentation and cutting-edge stuff. But things are getting too off track for me.
Before I'm accused of being a culinary Luddite, understand that I am not against chefs developing new ways of preparing food and new ways of presenting it. That's inevitable and exciting.
However, some of our chefs these days are losing sight of what food is all about, shocking as that may sound. Food should sustain us, comfort us and provide pleasure and variety. In other words, it should look good and taste good.
I saw food at the competition that looked appetizing and tasted quite delicious, but I also saw plates that, while visually challenging (as some jewelry might be), did not necessarily look appetizing. Worse, I tasted food that was only mildly interesting.
At a competition for top chefs, that was surprising and disappointing. So, what's going on? One reason for this diversion is a counterproductive preoccupation with what's called molecular cooking.
In addition to butter, milk and eggs, other words are slowly creeping into the lexicon of competitive and restaurant chefs, especially acolytes of molecular cooking promoters like Ferran Adria of Spain, Heston Blumenthal of the U.K. and Grant Achatz of the U.S.A. The words or terms are: transglutaminase, calcium chloride, sodium citrate and alginate and methylcellulose, among others.
They're substances that chefs are using these days to change the texture of food and create effects meant to make food more interesting.
However, it can be overdone and, in the case of certain applications, it's high time to quit. Take "foam," for example. Please, oh please, take it and ditch it forever. It is usually dull at best, and at its worst is utterly tasteless. Then there's the way it looks, its appearance.
Turn not pang
The Nova Scotia entrÉe was topped, centre plate, by a parsley almond foam that, for me at least, made the stomach turn rather than pang (with hunger and anticipation.) It was a case of a line being crossed, where instead of improving the dish, the foam spoiled the look of it.
The plate had been fussed with too much, something artists often do with their canvases and which results in a less compelling work of art. Nova Scotia persisted in following up with more foam, called "partridgeberry air," in their dessert and it didn't look any more appetizing than the almond foam.
(When I see people oohing and ahhing over foam, I'm reminded of the story, "The Emperor's New Clothes." Everybody knows the emperor is stark naked, but they're afraid to admit it for fear of being ridiculed.)
Newfoundland and Labrador's dessert did not contain foam, but was an example of a type of plating that pretends to be artistic, but really is not. You see it frequently at competitions these days. Our provincial entry looked more like a three-dimensional geometry project - triangle, square, curvy rectangle - than food. There was nothing on the plate that looked particularly appetizing.
Newfoundland and Labrador's dessert also featured something called mint shortbread "soil" - an unfortunate word choice. The word soil no doubt referred to the appearance of the shortbread. It looked like something crumbed in a food processor and was spooned onto the plate in a neat little pile. If it were black instead of white, I'm guessing, it would have looked exactly like potting soil.
After what seemed to be an extraordinarily long deliberation, the judges eventually chose New Brunswick as the overall winner of the senior competition.
The terrine of yellowtail flounder in the New Brunswick appetizer was superb. It was a melt-in-your-mouth delicacy with beautiful fresh seafood flavour. The cucumber pearls (more molecular cookery) were pretty, but forgettable, and the foam - over a very nice farmed mussel - was tasteless.
I thoroughly enjoyed the New Brunswick winning entrÉe. It was a wonderful display of skilful cooking that resulted in great flavour and a great marriage of different flavours. It featured sous vide ballotine chicken, tomato en gelee, globe of chicken leg confit with raisin centre, olive oil sabayon, potato and bacon pave, bacon en gelee, carrot and vanilla puree and thyme jus.
New Brunswick's dessert - lemon Bavarian with partridgeberry centre, chocolate molten cake with cranberry almond compote and raspberry sorbet - was a good journeyman effort, but nothing to shout about. The chocolate cake was very ordinary.
Nova Scotia was judged to have the best dessert, mainly, I would suggest, because of its sensational spicy dark chocolate and raspberry mousse, and, with the exception of the foam, a reasonably attractive presentation.
Apart from New Brunswick's win at the senior event (after 14 dry years,) Nova Scotia dominated most of the competitions, having won the Atlantic Chef Challenge, (Luis Clavel, Holiday Inn Harbourview, Halifax) and the Junior Culinary Competition as well (Nova Scotia Community College).
P.E.I.'s Hans Andregg, who manages Youth Team Canada, was named Atlantic Chef of the Year.
Congratulations to all and better luck to Newfoundland and Labrador in Moncton in 2010.
The cheerful and irrepressible Carolyn Dobbin purchased two St. John's bed and breakfast establishments, Monroe House on Forest Road and Everton House on King's Bridge Road. While a major renovation of Everton House has not yet begun, the interior job at Monroe House has been completed. Dobbin gave me the grand tour recently. It is a stunningly beautiful boutique hotel filled with chandeliers, winding staircases, a grand piano and tons of original Newfoundland art. Word is the renovation cost a cool two million. The kitchen alone must have cost a small fortune. The kitchen appliances and safety installations would be the envy of any top restaurant in the city. Hopefully the kitchen will be used frequently. Dobbin told me she'd like to see Monroe House hosting special-event dinners as well as afternoon teas. You can get a look at Monroe House on "One Chef One Critic" on Rogers TV, Channel 9 at 7 p.m. on April 19.
Karl Wells is a restaurant panellist with enRoute and judge with the Cuisine Canada/University of Guelph Culinary Book Awards. He is also co-host of the Rogers TV show "One Chef One Critic." To reach him, log on to his website: www.karlwells.com.