By Yasmin Nissim and Chris Cline
This past Monday the lights dimmed and the wine flowed once again as visiting competitor, Chef Ben Baird and his team from The Urban Pear served up some of their best in this fifth match of the 2011 Duelling Chefs series. As usual, Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar played host with Chef Peter Robblee at the head of their team for this round. It was a very close battle, so close in fact that the surreptitious “mystery judge”, who attends each round to be called upon in case of a tie, actually had to cast their ballot! And speaking of judges…this week we can give you a first-hand look at what goes on at the official judging table.
Each Duelling Chefs match has four judges (excluding the mystery ballot): three on a panel, plus the audience whose final selection is awarded to the kitchen that received the majority of their votes. To our lasting delight, we were asked to emerge from the audience for the evening and participate as panel judges for this week’s competition. This Monday, both of our opinions counted as one Apartment613 vote!
We did feel a bit anxious about being official judges considering the most innovative thing we’ve ever come up with in the kitchen is a triple-decker grilled cheese sandwich (yes, it is every bit as awesome as it sounds). But our fears were put to rest as we spoke with fellow judges for the evening Warren Sutherland, part owner of Westboro’s Piggy Market and Executive Chef at Must Wine Bar, and Mario Ramsay, accomplished chef and Professor of Culinary Arts with the School of Hospitality and Tourism at Algonquin College.
These two gentlemen were kind enough to let us noobs know that, despite our lack of professional know-how when it comes to the practical mechanics of creating a fantastic dish, our taste buds and love for food were just the right tools for this exercise. But, now that we’ve had the chance to experience this competition from the official judge’s seat, we can honestly say that it is a position that we do not envy! How to choose between such delectable morsels!
We were asked to award points to each dish according to categories such as presentation, use of secret ingredient and, of course, flavour. It was a tough job, but after much hair pulling, ringing of hands and some serious soul searching, we were able to finish the task. Following this strenuous exertion of mind and palate, we spoke to the other judges about the experience and their thoughts on evaluating food.
Sutherland, who was a competitor in last year’s Duelling Chefs, admitted that he has a hard time judging food. “Food is so personal,” said Sutherland. “I personally don’t like certain foods because I didn’t grow up on them. But just because I don’t like something doesn’t make it bad.” When Ramsay was asked about what he felt was the most difficult part of the judging process, he answered from the unique perspective of both chef and educator. According to Ramsay, “what’s difficult is trying to recognize what you’re about to eat. As a teacher I normally see each step in a dish’s creation. Not knowing what to expect before I tasted it was a challenge.” Speaking with both Sutherland and Ramsay made us realize that, even though we’re just foodies, you don’t necessarily have to be a pro to have a valid opinion.
As for what we had to judge, the secret ingredient was grits (ground corn), the fish selection was shrimp and the meat was off-the-bone beef shortribs. And now for the hard part…
Juniper: Greek wheel, duck ham and crescent cracker
Both of us were initially stumped by this creation. What appeared to be a circular round was surrounded by tender duck ham and topped with edible foam. The use of the secret ingredient came in the form of the delivery mechanism, a crisp, corn based cracker. We detected a hint of feta cheese in the wheel, perhaps explaining this dish’s Greek connection.
Urban Pear’s Amuse entry was presented colourfully and incorporated fresh flavours, perhaps as a nod to the coming spring season. The highlight of this dish was the contrasting texture provide by the combination of a soft, grit-based roulade and the crunchy julienne of radish. The curry was light and didn’t wash out the other subtle flavours presented. Urban Pear’s Amuse received our vote.
Juniper: Shrimp and bacon cheddar corn bread
This selection proves that simplicity is often the answer when it comes to good food. Given shrimp, Juniper’s team provided its guests with a tempura shrimp that some might call conventional. All it took was one bite of this succulent, tender and delicately battered shrimp to prove otherwise. The inclusion of a bacon cheddar corn bread was a novel way to incorporate the required grits. We were slightly flummoxed by the un-credited, yet delicious, mystery sauce. Guesses abound as to what it may have contained, but the leading contenders are roasted red pepper, green onion and lemon. Either way, it was a delicious addition to the dish, securing our vote.
Urban Pear: Shrimp and grit cake, shaved fennel salad, sumac and shrimp bisque
There was certainly an element of subtlety to this dish. Both of us were surprised but delighted at the inclusion of bisque as a sauce with grits, and the fennel added the slightest hint of a licorice flavour. Innovative moves like this highlight the creativity guests can count on seeing at Duelling Chefs. The shrimp cake had a great texture, though one judge was surprised that the chefs had elected to mince the shrimp into a cake as opposed to presenting them whole.
Juniper: Shortrib and grit almond goat cheese ravioli
Upon first laying eyes on this dish, Yaz lamented the lack of a sharp knife with which to cut the showcased shortrib. One touch of the meat with her fork however, proved to be the shortrib’s undoing: it fell apart tenderly at the mere hint of a poke. Amazing! Surprisingly, the ravioli presented flavours of citrus that cut through the usually powerful flavour of goat cheese. The dish’s only flaw was its construction. With the shortrib placed on top of the soft ravioli, the pasta was destined to be squashed as the rib above was demolished.
Urban Pear: Maple whiskey braised shortrib, cheddar chorizo and herb polenta, cranberry-chipotle highlight, crispy kale and shortrib reduction
Here was another dish that looked conventional at first blush. Protein and starch: what could be more common? Wrong again. Urban Pear’s shortrib was equal to Juniper’s in the tenderness department, but its sweet maple glazed exterior allowed this shortrib to distinguish itself from the competition. This selection packed a spicy punch courtesy of the cranberry-chipotle, and the crispy kale was a textural departure that has to be experienced to be understood – think gourmet vegetable chip. After finishing off the grit-polenta, which featured little flavour bombs of chorizo sausage, both of us had nearly exhausted our appetites entirely. But dessert loomed just over the horizon…
Juniper: Grit semifreddo, grit waffle and cinnamon honey butter
Juniper’s semifreddo (Italian for half-cold) was a new experience for us. It provided a granular texture, but it was not unlike gelato in the flavour department. Paired with a mini waffle, this brought to mind the gluttonous (read: wonderful) pairing of waffle and ice-cream from cherished breakfasts past. The dish was rounded out by the cinnamon honey butter for a sweet kick and also included a hint of mint. The coolness of the semifreddo and refreshing taste of mint was the perfect finale to this rich meal, winning our vote.
Urban Pear: Sage honey crème brûlée, pear butternut squash compote, sour cream ice cream and grit shortbread
Urban Pear’s dessert came with an herbal surprise: sage! It lent an interesting savoury quality to the crème brûlée, and was also featured heavily in a brushstroke of flavoured honey that added to the plate’s aesthetic quality. This dish’s main hitch was that the grit shortbread seemed almost like an afterthought, but we gave it bonus points for incorporating squash in a dessert course.
After the final course had been methodically obliterated by the happy guests, the question of the winner for this closely fought battle was on everyone’s mind. Even as official judges, we weren’t privy to that information until it was announced at the evening’s conclusion, though we did have a bit of an insiders’ edge. When the town-crier finally took up the call, he announced that Juniper was the winner in a skirmish that came down to the mystery judge’s vote to decide. As usual, we were impressed with both competitors’ hard work and innovation.