Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Savour Stratford - Best Chef Challenge

Recognize this guy? Chef Francisco Alejandri? He had a busy week last week. In addition to running his eatery, Agave Y Aguacate, in Toronto in the Kensington Market, he spent time in Ottawa on Monday and then in Stratford on Saturday.

Shawna Wagman, food editor for Ottawa Magazine, ran one of her City Bites Live sessions Monday evening at the Urban Element on Parkdale Avenue here in Ottawa. Chef Alejandri was the main attraction for a demonstration dinner called A Fresh Perspective on Mexican Cuisine. I had never heard of him before and had hoped to go. I figured if Shawna wanted to spend the evening with Francisco, he had to be good. Alas, I would be out of town.

Fast forward to Saturday. Being in the other end of the province, I decided to squeeze in a bit of Savour Stratford as part of my 'fun time'. One of the first events of the day Saturday was the Best Chef Challenge. I knew who would be judging but heard nothing about the competing chefs. The program for the day gave no details either. I found a seat in the first row and patiently waited.

Imagine my surprise to find out that Chef Francisco Alejandri would be one of the contenders. Here he was, 600 kms away from his Monday gig. Chef Alejandri does have a Stratford connection. He trained at the Stratford Chef School.

I was equally pleased to see that he was going up against Chef Janet Ashworth of The County Food Co., a stone's throw away on Erie Street. This eatery was on my wishlist of places to try in Stratford. Janet is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

The judges were early to their table:

Well known cookbook author (James Beard award-winning, at that) Jennifer McLagan. Jennifer was also recently in Ottawa promoting her latest book, Odd Bits. (See Ottawa food editor, Ron Eade's blog post).

Celebrity chef, Chuck Hughes. This past March he took down Bobby Flay in kitchen stadium on Iron Chef America. He is also known for his Food Network cooking series, Chuck's Day Off. For those not caught up on the TV side of Chuck, they may just know him as chef and co-owner of Restaurant Garde-Manger, located in Old Montreal.

Editor-in-Chief of award-winning Best Health magazine, Bonnie Munday. The magazine was launched in the spring of 2008.

Owner and head chef of Nick and Nat's Uptown 21, Nick Benninger. I have dined at Waterloo's Uptown 21 three times now in the past year. Which is a compliment to Nick and Nat, considering that I hail from Ottawa. Uptown 21 is very focused on using local ingredients and they are constantly looking for creative ways of being current on the food scene. Last spring they hosted Iron Chef Uptown.

Andrew Coppolino MC'd the event. Andrew is well-known in the counties, Perth and Huron, for promoting food. You can listen to him on The Food Show on 570 All News Radio. He also writes about food on his website, Waterloo Region Eats.

Andrew shared with us the format of the competition. Chefs were to produce 3 dishes in one hour. Once they heard about the secret ingredient they would have 15 minutes to make their plans and then the competition would begin.

There was a twist. Instead of one, there would be 4 secret ingredients. All chosen from Tanjo Family Farm near Millbank, the secret ingredients were: duck, Hungarian partridge, bacon and quail eggs.

Helping to run the show and do the colour commentary were Steve Stacey and Paul Finkelstein.

Steve writes the food blog The Local-Come-Lately. I have been reading it for a while now, and that voice of caring and sharing which resonates from his blog and his tweets (@localcomelately), carried through to the stage as he had fun tussling with the chefs.

I only know Paul from twitter (@paulfink). He may look very serious but he was a lot of fun. He is a teacher at Stratford Northwestern Secondary School. He has changed how food is taught to the teenagers and how they go about applying what they have learned. The students run the food establishment called the Screaming Avocado. Paul is also a host of the show Fink on the Food Network.

In addition to following the chefs' every moves, Steve and Paul interviewed the judges. They dug deep for the good stuff. Who knew that Nick and Nat's Uptown 21 makes 150 sandwiches for Brown Bag Fridays. Or that Chuck Hughes gifted Bobby Flay a Canadiens jersey when they met in Iron Chef America's Kitchen Stadium. (And it was well received.)

There was much to do in 60 minutes and the teams moved quickly, feeling the intensity of the competition. The induction cooktop did not perform as expected. Too hot. Not at all. We all wondered if Chef Ashworth's fries would be done on time as the oil in her pot boiled violently to its meniscus.

Finally, the plating began.

It was down to the wire, but both teams finished on time. Now it was up to the judges.

Both teams used all 4 ingredients across their 3 dishes. A heavy peppering of accolades as they tasted. But it was probably Chef Alejandri's (bottom left) lightly scrambled quail eggs cooked with bacon fat, guajillo sauce and Monforte's Pecorino Fresco Cheese that released the judges from their reserved posture. "I could have this for breakfast every day."

His other dishes: Duck breast served to medium rare with a purée of heirloom tomatoes and coriander chimichurri and puréed pumpkin seeds (top right) , Kentucky Fried Partridge with a light spiced batter served with celery root slaw and a cornbread made with bacon, bacon fat, jalapeño, a little scallion, and a bit of maple (bottom right).

Chef Ashworth took lots of ribbing for her duck poutine with fennel and celery root fries, suggesting she was playing to Chef Hughes' tastes. Some observers think Chef Hughes ultimately defeated Bobby Flay with his calorie hefty lobster poutine.

Chef Ashworth's dishes: Beer and barley risotto with Stratford Pilsner, partridge breast sliced with a bit of beer in it, roasted tomato couli and beer basted quail egg on top (top right), Poutine with fries made out of celery root and fennel with duck breast on top and Monforte's Pecorino Fresco cheese, drizzled with a sauce of red wine and tomato(bottom left), A savoury dessert and cheese course all in one: Traditional Scottish shortbread underneath with caramelized apple, squash and bacon. Also, with honey and white wine. On top some of Monforte's sheep's milk ricotta with a little lemon zest and a tiny bit of sugar. Kind of sweet and salty surprise (bottom right).

We saw some fancy plate work for just one hour in a kitchen unfamiliar to both. The final result was very close. Chef Alejandri came through with 217 points, just edging out Chef Ashworth by 7 points.

Not acquainted with the names, Alejandri and Ashworth? I think we may be hearing more of them.

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