“Surrender your cellphones and all communication devices! Standby for pat downs. Open your knife kits for inspection – no food or spices allowed.”
An excerpt from an episode from prison dramedy, ‘Orange Is the New Black? ” Not quite. It’s the culinary referee’s missive to chefs prior to the Black Box competition – part of the rigorous two-day, Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championship finals in Kelowna, B.C., in which 13 of Canada’s most intrepid chefs compete for the coveted honor of best in the country.
The 2015 Canadian Culinary Champion was Executive Chef Ryan O’Flynn, from The Westin Hotel, Edmonton. He won the 3-part competition consisting of Wine Pairing, Black Box, and Finale Dish, the latter a terrine of pine-smoked Alberta river sturgeon and cured Quebec foie gras; wild North West Territory morels, with textures of Okanagan apples and toasted brioche, paired with Sandhill Small Lots 2013 Viognier. Chef O’Flynn was presented with a 2015 BMW 428xi Gran Coupe by Gold Medal Plates spokeswoman and 2002 Olympic Skating Pairs Champion, Jamie Sale.
The national competition in 13 Canadian cities has already kicked-off, leading up to the finals February 5th & 6th.
Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championship was the brainchild of Torontonians, husband and wife dynamos, Stephen Leckie and Karen Blair. In 2003 they realized, with the explosion of reality TV cooking shows, that substantial funds could be raised to support Canadian high-performance athletes by combining cuisine and sports. Each year, premier chefs in 11 cities across Canada compete locally to crown a gold, silver and bronze medal culinary team that subsequently is sent to the Canadian Culinary Champion finals, held in Kelowna every February.
“Over the past 10 years we’ve generated a combined net total of $9.5 million for the Canadian Olympic Foundation’s programs especially ‘Own the Podium’ that allows athletes to live and train while preparing for competition,” explains Blair. “In fact, we recently announced The Future Olympians Fund that will contribute money to sports centres across Canada for emerging athletes,” she adds. “It’s also had an incredible impact on the quality of food and wine across Canada and inspiring chefs in smaller cities like Edmonton and Regina that in the past were not well known for their culinary expertise.”
The icing on the cake are fabulous auction trips that guests who attend the Canadian Culinary Champion Grand Finale, can bid on including this year’s, new trip, exploring Lisbon with music legend, Alan Doyle, wine expert, David Lawrason and four-time Olympic ice hockey team champion, Caroline Ouellette; touring Tuscany by bicycle led by Olympian, Curt Harnett (Chef de Mission for the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto) and sipping wine with Blue Rodeo lead singer and Gold Medal Plates national entertainment advisor, Jim Cuddy, in Tuscany, to name only a few.
“Going on the Scotland trip in 2015 was the most magical trip of a lifetime especially because it’s not somewhere I’ve been before. Interestingly both Scott and I have some Scottish background,” says vivacious Gold Medal Plates spokeswoman, Tessa Virtue, one half (with Scott Moir,) of the Olympic Gold and Double Silver Ice Dancing pair.
“The trip to Scotland was 5-Star everything, laughs Virtue and they even provided the kilts for Scott and I to wear at the spectacular Imperial Dinner, in Sinclair Palace that included the traditional piping in of the haggis.” Robbie Burns would have been thrilled!
Virtue has signed up to join the ‘Sailing and Diving In the British Virgin Islands’ Gold Medal Plates Auction trip for 2016. Tagging along is Ed Roberston front, and singer-songwriter, Juno nominated, Danny Michel.
“I can speak from my own experience when I say that skating is a very expensive sport and our parents sacrificed a lot. Scott and I experienced first-hand how Own The Podium helped us leading up to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and Sochi in 2014.”
Taking the past year off to perform with Stars On Ice and ponder their futures (the pair are considering coming back to compete again,) and Virtue has designed a jewelry collection with Canadian company Hillberg & Berk in Regina, launched this month.
“I get to see the world by the seat of my pants,” laughs three-time Olympic Match Sprint Cycling Champion, Curt Harnett reminiscing not about competition, but his adventures at the Gold Medal Plates Auction Trip, Under the Tuscan Sun, in which he has participated for three years. “Although cycling isn’t mandatory, there are many ‘Type A’ personalities on this trip who actually trained for a year either running, spinning or riding, building up their stamina. We even had a woman who had struggled through bouts of cancer treatment and went on this cycling trip just to challenge herself. But I love that they can relinquish some of that control and enjoy those postcard moments too,” confides Harnett.
“Marni, (Vancouver’s own Marni McBean, three-time Olympic Gold Medalist, Rowing) organizes everybody according to cycling abilities: cappucchino, macchiato, expresso and DOUBLE expresso for the real diehards and we’d go off exploring wineries and the winding country roads of Chianti,” says Harnett.
Gearing up for Tuscany last year, McBean was joined by Olympic Gold Medal Cross-Country Ski Champion, Chandra Crawford and Hockey legend, Russ Courtnall.
After an exhilarating day of cycling, participants head back to the enchanting Borgo San Felice Relais & Chateaux converted from an ancient Chianti village surrounded by towering oaks and olive groves. General Manager, Achille Di Carlo, feels a special kinship to Gold Medal Plates – not only is it the fourth year the hotel has participated, but he travelled to the regional Canadian Culinary Championships in Vancouver last year to experience the event in action. “The chefs were unbelieveable,” he enthuses and is convinced the Michelin Star system will arrive in Canada soon. He adds, “Canada is our 2nd biggest market for our Brunello Campogiovanni , rated in the top 100 by Wine Spectator.“
Appointing Blue Rodeo front man, and Juno Award winner, Jim Cuddy as entertainment advisor to Gold Medal Plates, has not only insured the participation of top musicians like Sam Roberts, Sarah Harmer, Ed Robertson of Bare Naked Ladies, Barney Bentall and Great Big Sea’s, Alan Doyle, but the man is a serious oenophile, (that means he can sample Chianti Classico in Tuscany and still ride a bicycle!)
Di Carlo is also a big fan of Jim Cuddy’s impromptu wine talks and tastings at Borgo San Felice. “I talk more about wine appreciation,” admits Cuddy,“ and the importance of pairing it with fine food.”
Quite a challenge, considering the hotel’s vast wine cellar of 14 different labels and vineyard production of 1.2 million bottles per year including their Brunello di Montalcino, and Il Grigio Chianti Classico Riserva. Paired with traditional Tuscan cuisine such as rebolita, a hearty vegetable soup with bread; the famous Chianina steaks (the beef locally raised and cured); copious amounts of pasta and Borgo San Felice’s mousse al Vin Santo, a towering vanilla cream and fruit confection perfumed with the Tuscan dessert wine, it’s no wonder that cycling is a big part of the trip!
“Of all the auction destinations, I think Tuscany inspires the most music,” says Cuddy. “Last year, my sons Devin & Sam played the cocktail hour then joined us at the piano bar with Barney (Bentall), Ann Lindsay and I every night. At the end of the week all of us performed in the main piazza of the village under the stars. Surrounded by lights in front of the chapel that dates back to the Middle Ages – it was spectacular.”
* * *
At the entrance, guests are greeted by two 130-lb cheetahs from a nearby rescue and rehabilitation wildlife reserve. Later, the pungent, gamey smell of spring wart hog, springbok gazelle and kudu antelope steaks cooking over rooikrans, a hardwood that burns slowly and keeps meat tender, wafts through the air. Giant prawns, abalone and split Cape Rock lobsters each a half kilo in size, sizzle on the braai. Welcome to the Asara Wine Estate & Hotel, Stellenbosch, South Africa where National Geographic meets understated luxury.
General Manager, Pete Gottgens, the former personal chef to Nelson Mandela, wants Gold Medal Plates guests to “literally get their feet in the dust and the soil of the vineyards of the estate that dates back to 1691.” To do so he’s arranged a long wooden table among the grapevines, laden with white linen, candelabras and
settings for 80. At dusk, an authentic, five-course feast, traditionally cooked in Dutch cast iron caldrons wrapped in straw and paired with Asara’s world-class wines, will be served. A local African children’s choir serenades under the stars joined by Canadian performers, Jim Cuddy, Sam Roberts, Ed Robertson and Gold Medal Olympic Cycling Champion, Simon Whitfield.
“We know that a lot of wine connoisseurs and collectors are on this Gold Medal Plates trip,” says Gottgens, “Asara boasts an incredible vaulted Vinoteque of 32,000 bottles and vintage wine collection including Vin de Constance 1986 a re-created dessert wine made famous by Napoleon of which we have 21 consecutive vintages. As a special surprise, Asara owner, Markus Rahmannwill will open a 1968 Verdun Cabernet Double Magnum that retails for $15,000!”
* * *
Getting up before 6:00 a.m. to fresh food shop is not unusual for Chef Todd Perrin, the owner of The Chef’s Inn, St. John’s Newfoundland. But when your kitchen is actually a galley the size of a closet on a Croatian gullet schooner sailing the Adriatic, going ashore to markets in medieval villages & catching your own fish for lunch, gives new meaning to shopping locally!
“It’s impossible to over-hype this incredible adventure with Gold Medal Plates,” says former Top Chef Canada competitor, Perrin. Hockey Night in the Adriatic now in it’s third year, is a deliciously raucous experience, sailing from Split, Croatia through the Dalmatian islands hosted by Ron MacLean, hockey greats Russ Courtnall, Paul Coffey and Great Big Sea’s, Alan Doyle – spinning yarns, singing and telling jokes, playing acoustic guitar and even tap dancing. Tap dancing?
“But what a challenge to cook on this trip,” admits Chef Perrin. “I prepare things like a traditional Newfoundland fish stew with double-smoked bacon, lots of fresh seafood or even wonderful locally raised lamb, available when we go into port. I keep seasoning simple with lemon, salt and pepper, beautiful local olive oils. But then I have to shuttle all the meals on a zodiac to the six gullets anchored at a rendez-vous point. We drink tremendous local wines, brandy and even moonshine!
Do you know that some of the oldest grapes cultivated are from that part of Europe?”
“It’s so much fun and informal, says Perrin, (who also happens to be Alan Doyle’s brother-in-law) but you really have to be there to hear all the juicy anecdotes!”
* * *
Having already conquered Tuscany, Curt Harnett decided that following the sacred routes of the Tour de France up the imposing Mont Ventoux with Gold Medal Plates’s trip to Magical Provence in May, would tick off another box on his personal bucket list. He and his wife are also making the trip a surprise birthday present for son, Skylar, who at 22, is already learning to appreciate fine wines.
And who best to share his passion for the superb Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Côtes du Ventoux of the famous Côtes du Rhône region of France, than Canadian wine guru, David Lawrason. He will explore some of Provence’s most famous vineyards and charming dégustations along the way, joined by the Harnetts and Olympic Hockey Gold Medalist and Battle of the Blades Champion, Tessa Bonhomme,
Encompassing a beguiling Medieval village dating back to the 14th Century, Relais and Chateau Crillon le Brave is owned by Canadians, Peter Chittick and Craig Miller. They discovered the original property as students leading bicycle tours for Butterfield & Robinson in 1988.
“How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?” once quipped former French President Charles de Gaulle.
He must have included Madame Vignier’s locally made goat cheese from her fromagerie in Carpantras and a staple at Crillon le Brave. “It’s a very relaxed atmosphere here but good food and wine are all part of that,” says General Manager, Sébastien Pilat .
“After a long day of cycling or antiquing, guests can enjoy a glass of pastis and play a game of pétanque, (the French version of boules.) Later we gather around the pool, surrounded by the terraced gardens. The chef roasts a rack of lamb in our outdoor fireplace with tomatoes and rosemary; pistou soup; aioli and fougasse (Provencal flatbread) stuffed with tapenade, and the musicians (Ed Robertson, Melissa MacLelland and Luke Doucet) performing – it’s a great atmosphere.”
* * *
“To me, ‘The Sweet Life’ means doing the things you want to do – not what you have to do,” concedes Gold Medal Olympic Downhill Ski Champion and ‘Crazy Canuck’, Steve Podborski.
That includes his 2nd year of hosting Gold Medal Plates’s Auction Trip to Chile– a country of stunning contrasts in landscape and a wine lover’s paradise. Whistler-based Podborski, who was Chef de Mission for the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, joins Olympic Gold Kayak Champion, Adam van Koeverden, musicians Barney Bentall and Sarah Harmer on the Gold Medal Plates adventure.
Podborski is no stranger to Chile, having trained in Portillo in the Andes in 1973 with the Canadian Alpine Ski Team and then going on to win several consecutive World Cup titles.
“It’s full on meatatarian heaven there for a guy like me used to a protein diet. We did some wonderful hiking and cycling tours on coaster bikes with Jim (Cuddy) through the Colchagua Valley sampling their world famous Syrahs and Malbecs last year, then wine tastings at Vina Casa Silva where we enjoyed a delicious lunch and also watched teams playing polo. We went to so many wineries I had to wring out my liver at the end of trip,” he says affably.
* * *
Gold Medal Plates brings people together on so many levels and as Olympic Champion Curt Harnett so succinctly expresses: “Most of us on any of the Gold Medal Plates trips have established long-term friendships that never would have been possible anywhere else. Isn’t that what ‘The Sweet Life’ is all about? ”
TOP PHOTO: Olympic athlete and Gold Medal Plates spokeswoman, Tessa Virtue has designed a jewelry collection with Canadian company Hillberg & Berk in Regina, launched this month. Photo: Paul Buceta