By Yasmin Nissim and Chris Cline
Well folks, that’s a wrap! A really tasty wrap if you’ve been following along on our edible adventures while covering the 2011 Duelling Chefs series. This has been a whirlwind of mind-blowing culinary creativity, where many of the delectable presentations we’ve had the privilege of experiencing could easily have substituted as a nouveau art installation at the National Gallery – delicious to the eyes and the palate.
Since February, we have been able to indulge in some of the city’s best talent when it comes to cooking up amazingly unique and imaginative dishes. The final show-down in this event series was no exception. Chef Patricia Larkin of the Black Cat Bistro located on Preston Street, was the last opponent to face the team at Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar.
Surprisingly, after nine duels, spanning four months, Chef Larkin was the first woman to take the helm as a head chef (we’ll refrain from making the obvious sausage party jokes). Though, if you were to talk to her yourself, Chef Larkin would quickly tell you that being a woman chef in an industry still largely dominated by men, is never an issue unless someone makes a point of bringing it up. Apparently that wasn’t so much the case during her years as a student, when it did weigh on her a bit more, but Chef Larkin assured us that all it takes to shake off any anxiety in that department is working for one good chef who “whips you into shape” and helps you “suck it up and get passed it!” Even being the opponent for the closing match of Duelling Chefs didn’t faze her! The most challenging task that faced this enterprising individual was ensuring a tender tentacle for the fish course, but more on that later…
This being the last of the Duelling Chefs matches, it wouldn’t have been complete without a visit from the honorary chair, Mayor Jim Watson. We had the opportunity to sit down with Mayor Watson who joined the event for the dessert course – Black Cat Bistro’s presentation being his sweet tooth preference for the evening. We asked Mayor Watson what he thought an event like Duelling Chefs brought to the city and offered to the community.
Having now successfully completed its second year, Mayor Watson believes that Duelling Chefs is “a very unique fundraiser”, the likes of which have never appeared in Ottawa before. Mayor Watson suspects that places like New York or Toronto have similar events but, “it’s nice to see something like this in Ottawa. It’s a chance to showcase some great chefs in our city. Ottawa’s come such a long way in the last 10 or 20 years in terms of the calibre of restaurants. It used to be a meat and potatoes kind of government town, but it’s really come into its own. Today, every neighbourhood can boast its first class restaurants.” We couldn’t agree more after experiencing the incredible talent of the competing chefs, the last duelling pair of which faced the wackiest ingredients list we’ve seen this whole competition!
For this final round, the meat selected was bison, and for the fish, here come the tentacles: octopus! The secret ingredient that had to be used in at least two of the four courses for full points was coffee. Before we get to the tasty bits though, special wishes need to be sent out to Chef Norm Aitken of Juniper, who celebrated a birthday amongst all the hectic flurry of Monday night’s final duel. Apparently he’s 30 years old though he refused to tell us how many times he’s turned 30, so we’ll leave it at that.
Juniper: Bison prairie tartare with a whole wheat coffee cup cracker, quail’s egg, sweet corn puree and organic canola oil
Juniper started things off with a dish that Yaz likened to having a little farm on your plate. We got meat in the bison, a lovely cloud-like soft boiled quail’s egg, some carbs and a nice corn puree. The bison, minced as it was with fresh onions, was fantastically tender. Yaz was super-impressed with the presentation, which went a long way to earn her vote.
Black Cat: Bison sausage cooked in beer and coffee with a coffee-mustard and pickled shallot on a cheddar biscuit
As the centrepiece of their amuse, Black Cat presented an incredible bison sausage that was lovingly salted and topped with fresh chives. The dish also featured coffee-mustard, two rather unlikely flavours, that complemented each other quite well given the acidity of the coffee and the sharpness of the mustard. A flaky cheddar biscuit formed the base of the dish. Chris couldn’t get enough, and so his vote went to Black Cat for this round.
Juniper: Coffee, orange, tarragon and chilli grilled octopus with a Mediterranean orange salad, cucumber pearls and a citrus parmesan vinaigrette
With octopus on the menu, Juniper made a good choice in electing to include a Mediterranean theme. Their orange salad brought sweet and summery flavours to the dish. As for the octopus itself, Yaz and Chris had two very different experiences. Chris’ was quite tender, while Yaz found that hers was a bit chewier. Perhaps the difference could be attributed to a different section or cut? Chris’ more tender Octopus experience and enjoyment of the orange salad earned Juniper his vote.
Black Cat: Smoked and grilled octopus with potatoes, grapes, parsley, fennel, sour cream, roast garlic coffee puree and a lemon coffee vinaigrette
Black Cat brought together some rather unconventional flavours for this dish. In addition to the octopus, which was quite tender and packed a slight kick of spice, they garnished their plate with halved grapes, chopped fennel, pureed potatoes, dabs of sour cream, and a garlic coffee puree. Yaz found that the flavours could be enjoyed individually or brought together, creating a lovely mosaic of flavours on her plate. The roast garlic coffee puree was particularly inventive, and had a strong, heady flavour that melded well with the sour cream and sweet notes from the grapes. Yaz, captivated by this dish, gave it her vote.
Juniper: Coffee marinated barbecued bison with a roast garlic potato puree, coffee maple glazed carrot and a coffee scented jus
Playing an un-credited role at the summit of this layered dish was an onion ring, which Yaz described as the “best I’ve ever had.” It really was quite nice, being battered and salted just right. Underneath it sat what appeared to be a standard meat and potatoes kind of meal that was certainly not the case once you had a bite. The bison was exceptionally tender, with a perfectly salted exterior. The meat had a nice caramelly undertone that might just be
attributable to the coffee in the mix. The potato puree was the perfect flavour in which to immerse each bite. Good showing from Juniper here.
Black Cat: Bison blue cheese stuffed burger with bacon, tomato, onion, arugula, coffee mayo, mustard and barbecue flavoured hickory sticks
For someone who doesn’t like blue cheese, Yaz found this dish to be quite enjoyable. In each burger the cheese was tucked away in secret, salty compartments. It was exciting to come across such a compartment, nestled away as they
were in the tender bison. The sweet, homemade bun was thoroughly enjoyable and the flavoured hickory sticks were quite addictive. Both Yaz and Chris gave the nod to Black Cat.
Juniper: Coffee Time: iced coffee, coffee caramel, coffee truffle, Brazilian coffee cookie
Dessert turned out to be one of the most difficult decisions of the evening. Juniper eschewed their now famous dessert trifecta in favour of a four-parter. You can never go wrong with a truffle, especially if it’s homemade. This one was like biting into coffee-flavoured dark-chocolate butter. All that needs to be said about the iced coffee is that it was the most flavourful incarnation of this type of drink Yaz and Chris have tasted. There was also a caramel square that put even the most tender of caramels to shame. The Brazilian coffee cookie added some heft to the otherwise small portions. Yaz, always a fan of Juniper’s multi-part presentations, gave the dish her vote.
Black Cat: Hazelnut financier, coffee cream anglaise, hazelnut coffee soil and a banana ice cream
For those not in the know (we were not), a financier is a nut encrusted cake of French origin. This particular example was placed in a pond of the sweet cream anglaise, and on the bottom sat the coffee soil. Ground hazelnuts sat atop the cake, which itself was lovely. The immersion of the cake in the cream worked well to offset any dryness that might have occurred without the delicate emulsion. It was a tough decision, but Chris gave Black Cat his vote here.
By the end of the evening, we were both a little melancholy…this was the last of the duels! Though we do remain impressed with ourselves in that we`ve managed to minimize the damage to our waistlines (for the most part), we’re definitely going to miss the regular indulgences! When the tally of votes finally came in, Juniper took the last win of this series, but we can truly say that the overall winners of this fantastic event are the charities benefiting from the ticket sales and the guests that were able to enjoy some of the best Ottawa`s kitchens have to offer. A big thank you goes out to all the participating restaurants, the teams that represented them and the wonderful staff at Juniper for bringing such a phenomenal event to the capital. So that`s it for Duelling Chefs 2011, and we can’t wait to see what 2012 has in store!