By macleans.ca - Sunday, April 28, 2013 - 0 Comments
The Almost Famous award offers a glimpse of what the chefs of tomorrow can do
The cachet of the annual S. Pellegrino “world’s best restaurant” list has apparently rubbed off on its baby sibling competition for up-and-coming North American cooks: the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Awards. Seated at the judging table for the finals last month at the Napa, Calif., campus of the Culinary Institute of America, awaiting the first contestant’s plate, I noticed something odd in my scoring guidelines. None of a possible 50 points was set aside for evaluating the way food was presented on the plate, while 10 were earmarked for assessing how candidates performed at the microphone, explaining their dishes and answering questions.
“I didn’t realize all that chit-chat was key to being a good chef,” I remarked to fellow judge Tony Mantuano, executive chef of Chicago’s Spiaggia, the Michelin-starred Italian restaurant. “It is now,” he replied. Most chefs I know of Mantuano’s generation entered the profession without sparing a second’s thought as to their communications skills—unless it was to congratulate themselves for choosing a trade in which they did not matter a whit. By contrast, most young cooks I meet now seem to regard cooking school as an inconveniently long audition for the Food Network.
But you could not make such a generalization of the Almost Famous finalists. The 10 contestants—nine Americans and one Canadian—were each winners of regional competitions. They were all about to complete culinary school. And the paths that had taken them there were as diverse and unexpected as the places they hoped to go next. Ryan Trinkofsky, a Floridian of Russian Jewish extraction, had been studying music and giving private lessons on the side, when the South Asian mother of a pupil offered him cooking lessons in lieu of payment. So it came to pass that Ryan discovered a passion for samosas that he had never experienced for knishes.
Kristen Thibeault, meanwhile, was a decade into a career in marketing when she was diagnosed with cancer. She emerged from the gruelling treatment with her health restored—and as a vegan, committed to her original dream of being a chef. Another contestant just wanted a way out of bartending. Few expressed a desire to own a restaurant. The most conventional was our own Jean-Christophe Comtois, who attends École hôtelière de la Capital in Quebec City, cooks at a good local bistro (Clocher Pencher), and is male—one of just three in the competition.
“I’ve never been in a kitchen with so many women,” remarked Mark McEwan, one of two Canadian chef judges (along with Susur Lee), as earlier that day we watched the contestants scramble about the kitchen. Their challenge had been to put together a spontaneous dish from a black box of mystery ingredients: flawlessly fresh fillets of Atlantic cod, some pasta clams, a cluster of top-quality blue mussels. Everything else that could possibly be desired—from fish stock to galangal—was readily available from the pantry. Thibeault’s dish of poached cod with gnocchi and sauce verte was up first. She had clearly tasted it just before serving it. And that was impressive not just because she had to temporarily shelve her vegan principles to do so, but rather because tasting what you serve is apparently no longer taught at culinary school, or shown in enough dramatic slo-mo on the Food Network—because the plates that followed featured fish that was cold, or raw, or overcooked to mush, or underseasoned. None of that happens when you taste before you serve.
Unless of course you do not know what fish is supposed to taste like—and in the U.S., where the most widely consumed seafood is frozen shrimp, followed by tinned tuna, this is a possibility. That seafood was outside our contestants’ comfort zone was confirmed on day two: when challenged to prepare their “signature dish,” only one contestant cooked something that swam. The eating improved immeasurably. But it was Thibeault, the vegan, who won the day and the competition with an exceptional dish of porcini-crusted mock-sweetbreads with wild mushrooms and crisp-fried vegetables. Nicely explained, too. She may not be headed for the real S. Pellegrino list—but she is one to keep an eye on all the same.
By Jessica Allen - Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 3:57 PM - 0 Comments
“The only thing I can liken this meeting to would be the DeNiro/Pacino scene in Heat,” writes Soto, who is actually Taylor Clarke–a screenwriter who started impersonating as a chef of a fictional restaurant called Gravitas on Twitter in January, 2012. (Routine tweets include making fun of Chef Susur Lee’s ponytail, McEwan’s curls, pop-ups, tacos, chefs tables, ramen and generally ridiculing the fictional-or-not-lifestyle of the Toronto restaurant industry.)
But Clarke/Soto thinks “it’s important for two Canadian culinary giants to come together finally in a symbolic showing of unity.”
The place doesn’t need to be fancy, insists Clarke, just “somewhere where I can where my Teva sandals and seashell necklace and not feel frowned upon.” And although Clarke has no interest in paying for the lunch, he has offered to pay for parking: “One of those $10 dollar lots though, not one of those fancy car park places,” he writes. “It’s just a car.”
Clarke, who first revealed his identity to The Toronto Star’s Amy Pataki in June of 2012, told me in an email that he’s eager to pick McEwan’s brain on the Toronto food scene and how it has evolved–not for jokes, but for actual research: Clarke is currently developing a television show with Just For Laughs called…wait for it…Chef Grant Soto.
“I’ve wanted to sit down with him for a while and interview him,” he said. “This guy has been around. I bet he has some good insight that would be very helpful.”
No word yet on whether or not McEwan will accept Clarke’s offer to go for lunch–and pay for it. But prospects are looking good: just moments ago, real chef Mark McEwan began following fake chef Grant Soto on Twitter.
By Jessica Allen - Monday, December 3, 2012 at 11:06 AM - 0 Comments
A crowd of 400 revelers gathered on Saturday night to watch five Canadian chefs–Lynn Crawford, Chuck Hughes, Mark McEwan, David Rocco and Michael Smith–lead culinary teams in a three-course cook-off at the third annual Chef’s Challenge, which has raised over $2-million for breast and ovarian cancer research at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Restaurateur and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives star Guy Fieri hosted the event, which also featured a live auction. The fight for the cure is personal to him: he told the audience early on in the evening that he lost his sister, a single mother and massage therapist, to cancer last year.
Fieri’s trademarked enthusiasm was spot on throughout the evening, not to mention contagious: he spurred his fellow chefs to up the prize ante with food and wine giveaways during the auction. Plus, he added to the “ultimate foodie package”, which awarded the winning $25,000 bidder meals at Crawford’s Ruby Watch Co., McEwan’s ONE and two prepared at home by both David Rocco and Chuck Hughes, dinner for eight at one of his restaurants. Fieri, who recently appeared on The Today Show after the New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells published an extremely entertaining but eviscerating review of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square, also visited a number of Toronto eateries for an upcoming episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives while he was in town.
The five celebrity chefs, who weren’t allowed to touch a thing, lead their team of cooks–all top fundraisers for the event–in preparing three dishes from secret ingredients of sushi-grade Ahi tuna, beef tenderloin and phylo pastry, while guests ate a five-course meal prepared from Fieri’s own recipes.
Lynn Crawford, who won the first Chef’s Challenge in 2010 (McEwan won last year), and her team took home top honours. More importantly, a total of $775,000 was raised by the evening’s end.
Here’s how the event unfolded via Twitter:
By Jessica Allen - Thursday, March 8, 2012 at 6:48 PM - 0 Comments
Food Network Canada held a meet and greet with the press this morning to introduce six of the 16 contestants competing in the second season of Top Chef Canada. They even organized a quick fire challenge that had the Toronto-based chefs choosing ingredients from an edible mound of plenty.
By Jacob Richler - Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 8:30 AM - 12 Comments
If you’re thinking of skipping that final ‘stir in the butter,’ think again
Butter has been on my mind of late even more than usual. Which is to say that, in addition to various long-raging but still unresolved, internal debates—like, “Exactly how much is too much to melt in my morning croissant?” and “Are there specific applications wherein the qualities of artisanal Irish butter from County Kerry actually make it superior to a French Échiré?”—I have been recently burdened with a fresh one. Specifically, I want to know how it is that so few otherwise accomplished home cooks have any idea how to properly cook with the stuff.
What got me thinking about this was my most recent cookbook collaboration with chef Mark McEwan—head judge on Top Chef Canada, owner of the top Toronto restaurants North 44, Bymark, One, and Fabbrica, as well as the fine food emporium, McEwan.
For this book—as for our last one, Great Food at Home—I spent many weeks watching his restaurants’ chefs prepare various dishes, carefully transcribing the process as it unfolded. Then I went home, recreated the dishes and pared them down to their essentials in order to write the recipes in a manner we considered best suited to the home cook.
By By Jacob Richler - Thursday, May 20, 2010 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
Formal dining is out; authenticity is in. The success of Rob Gentile’s Buca is a case in point.
Rob Gentile wanted brains—a whole lot of them. To be exact, he wanted 800 little white ones plucked from the most innocent and unsuspecting lambs available, possessive of young, tender lobes as yet untoughened by disappointment or complicated thought. “They’re harvesting them for me now,” he told me calmly one recent afternoon in the kitchen of his downtown Toronto restaurant Buca—they being the myriad suppliers he was leaning on hard for the cause.
The thinking is that if you were to string all the little brains together and hook them up to even the smallest of watch batteries they would easily outpunch Sarah Palin thought for thought. But chef Gentile actually had something else in mind: sage, namely, and some minced rosemary, oregano, parsley and freshly ground pepper. First he will cut each brain in half and soak it in cold water to flush out the blood. Then each half-lobe will be embalmed in a blanket of prosciutto and fried crisp with a scattering of capers and foisted on the unwary public gathered at the Royal Ontario Museum on June 13 for a fundraiser called Toronto Taste.