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Ontario Culinary Challenge a first for Ontario Scene

By Kelsey Sunstrum on May 11, 2015

This year’s biennial Scene represented a first for the provincial festival: a cooking competition. The Ontario Culinary Challenge, this past Tuesday, May 5th, was a delicious first foray.

Upon arrival, we were warmly greeted and the basics of the competition explained to us. Fifteen cooking stations were set up across the National Arts Centre Main Lobby Foyer. Chefs from across the province, with the help of Algonquin College culinary students, presented small plates, composed exclusively of Ontario ingredients. Renowned Ontario wineries teamed with chefs to offer complimentary wine pairings for each dish.

Every attendant is given a cork upon arrival. These were our voting chips, to be dropped in anxiously awaiting bowls at every station, to the enthusiastic hurrahs of that table’s chef and culinary team.

Wanting the face-off to be as authentic as possible, event organizer, and the NAC’s executive chef, John Morris, told the Ottawa Citizen that even ingredients like olive oil or scallops were banned as they hail from outside of the province. Every bite in my belly that night was born and raised in beautiful Ontario.

Memorable plates from the evening included an offering from local favorite, Chef Marc Lepine of Atelier, of BBQ pork belly, a treat for the eyes as much as the tummy. One of the most innovative bites of the competition came from Chef Nick Benninger of Nick and Nat’s Uptown 21: maple candied porktails formed a dish extremely similar to pulled pork, ever the crowdpleaser.

My pick for the evening was the perfectly cooked Georgian Bay pickerel filet. With the much-appreciated crispy skin left intact, and paired with edamame and various sprouts, it was an ideal spring dinner, crafted by Chefs Richard and Julie Lalonde of Muskoka’s Crossroad Restaurant. An extremely close second was the braised beef ravioli, created by Chef Hayden Johnston of Richmond Station, packed a wallop of savory goodness that was brilliantly paired with a deep, earthy Reserve Pinot Noir 2009 from the Henry of Pelham Winery – Speck Family.

Photo by Kelsey Sunstrum.

Photo by Kelsey Sunstrum.

Local favorite Chef Louis Simard of the Fairmont Chateau Laurier took home the grand prize of $10,000 and, of course, bragging rights, for his delectable braised  lamb shank and mushroom ravioli (pictured right). Benninger’s candied tails picked up the second place prize of $5,000, while the braised beef ravioli, near and dear to my heart, earned Chef Hayden Johnston third place status and $2,500.

For more information about Ontario Scene, check out the NAC website. For a taste of winner Chef Louis Simard’s creations, head to the Chateau Laurier for a bite.