Canada’s top chefs will don the classic white uniforms born from the kitchens of 19th Century France and turn up the heat in the Okanagan this weekend, showcasing their technical skills and artistry for the Gold Plates championship.
But to many who keep a close watch on the local culinary scene, it’s how those 11 competing chefs connect the haute cuisine those uniforms call to mind with this community’s natural bounty that’s most interesting.
The Canadian Culinary Championships have become a yearly tradition in Kelowna, and they carved out a niche at the perfect time.
Thanks to the likes of the Food Network the democratization of food culture has washed across the western world, alongside a widespread focus on the details of food production, creating a demand for a new breed of artisinal food producer.
The agricultural conditions in the Okanagan were always ripe for exploration, but the birth of a thriving wine industry is what gave way to an impressive culinary scene, and a new lease on old agricultural wealth, explained James Chatto, an internationally renowned food writer based out of Toronto and head judge of the weekend’s competition.
“Wineries come first then they look for a away to bring tourists to the actual winery,” Chatto said. “That starts with a barbecue in the vineyard, then a restaurant, then another restaurant down the street.”
And, as those restaurants grow a client base, chefs strike up relationships with local food providers—cheese, veg and meat— and innovation in the kitchen grows.
“It’s a pattern I have seen across Canada. Once chefs realize that their customers appreciate that they found something local and seasonal, it creates a wonderful self-perpetuating energy,” said Chatto.
“I’ve seen it in Toronto, Newfoundland and now here—the scale is different, but the impetus is the same.”
Jennifer Schell has written three cookbooks, two of which have won international gourmand awards, that focus on local cuisine. Her first edition of The Butcher, the Baker, the wine and cheese maker came out in 2012, and a new edition with of the same title, with the addition of “in the Okanagan” has recently been released.
The difference between the two books, Schell said, is the most recent edition delves into new relationships that local chefs have built with small scale artisanal food providers.
“Since the first book, the food, wine and farm scene has really evolved —especially the farm scene,” she said.
“There are lots of young farmers working with chefs and experimenting with crops…These new farmers are young guys who can’t afford land. They’re not the kids of farmers who inherited land, they want to farm, work the land and homestead—and do it on a small scale.”
There’s a Summerland farmer who area chefs work with. Of note last year, he experimented with growing peanuts from a small plot of land he leases.
In Kelowna there’s Curtis Stone, who’s small scale farming endeavour on borrowed land keeps local greens in some of best restaurants in the city.
“For chefs it’s almost like they have to start cooking and using local ingredients,” she said. “The customers are expecting it.”
And customers are starting to arrive in the Okanagan from far and wide.
“Whenever I say I am going to Kelowna in February, people understand the appeal of it—there’s the food, the wine and the spirits,” Chatto said.
“There’s really a growing awareness about Kelowna.”
Having some of the country’s best food writers in town for the championships is a boon to the economic powerhouse of Kelowna tourism, too.
“When we arrive, we have a nice number of days, and the Tourism Kelowna people arrange whole day tours, they take us to five or six farms, a little distillery and some wineries,” said Chatto.
“We are aware of the wineries, but not of the small artisnal farmers and producers who are sometimes right in town, and it’s quite enchanting for us.”
Chris Shauf, Tourism Kelowna’s director of marketing and communications, explained that his organization is aggressive in getting international attention focused on the natural wealth of Kelowna, and this weekend’s championship goes a long way in doing that, by bringing chefs, foodies and food writers to the area.
“Events like the Canadian Culinary Championships align with our mandate,” Shauf said.
“There was a time that people would travel in hopes of finding good food along the way, and now they are travelling because they know good food is there when they get there.”
To really cultivate the message that the Okanagan is a foodie paradise among a wider audience, Tourism Kelowna last year hosted dozens of media from across the province and the country, to showcase restaurants, breweries and cideries, in hopes that they would showcase their discoveries to their readers.
“Food is something that everyone is interested in,” said Chatto.
“It’s a great leveller in terms of culture. Not a lot of knowledge is needed to start and it grows as you go.”
The 2016 Canadian Culinary Championships are presented by Deloitte.
Tickets for events can be purchased online at www.goldmedalplates.com or by calling 647-328-0149.
Who’s competing and who’s helping
Representing Kelowna will be Okanagan College culinary and pastry arts students who will lend their help to the 11 competing chefs.
“Experiencing Kelowna as a culinary epicentre with Canada’s best chefs descending on the city to battle it out is unique,” said Chef Bernard Casavant, culinary manager at Okanagan College and president of the Okanagan Chefs Association.
“It’s a prime opportunity for the students to showcase the skills learned in class in a competition environment and allows them to network with some of Canada’s best chefs at a time when they are looking to launch their careers.”
For two days, starting Feb. 5, the college’s kitchens at the Kelowna campus will become a culinary battlefield with peeling, slicing, dicing, and searing taking place in preparation of the weekend’s events.
The chefs prep their dishes at the college for Friday’s mystery wine pairing event at the Delta Grand Hotel and spend all of Saturday morning competing in the Black Box event at the College.
The finale event is held Saturday evening at the Delta Grand Hotel.
With tickets sold out, those hungry to view the dynamic Black Box Challenge can catch the live feed online.
A link will be released prior to the start of the competition at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning on Twitter: @GoldMedalPlates.
For more information on Gold Medal Plates events, visit goldmedalplates.com.
The competing chefs
Representing British Columbia: Alex Chen, Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar
Calgary: Matthew Batey, The Nash Restaurant & Off Cut Bar
Edmonton: Jan Trittenbach, Solstice Seasonal Cuisine
Regina: Jonathan Thauberger, Crave Kitchen + Wine Bar
Saskatoon: Darren Craddock, Riverside Country Club
Winnipeg: Norm Pastorin, The Cornerstone Bar & Restaurant
Toronto: Stuart Cameron, Byblos
Ottawa: Marc Lepine, Atelier
Montreal: Guillaume Cantin, Les 400 Coups
St. John’s: Roger Andrews, Relish Gourmet Burgers
Halifax: Martin Ruiz Salvador, Fleur de Sel, Lunenburg