Vv Magazine’s Vancouver editor Alexandra Gill takes us behind the scenes of the prestigious grand finals of the Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship Foundation from her seat on the judging panel.
Chef David Hawksworth is riding high these days. The owner of Vancouver’s acclaimed Hawksworth Restaurant (and soon a second restaurant, to be opened this spring) was recently named the new celebrity chef for Air Canada. As of Oct. 1, his signature dishes will be served on departing Air Canada flights in International Business Class and in Maple Leaf Lounges across the country.
Busy as he may be, Mr. Hawksworth believes in giving back to the community and mentoring young chefs through the Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship Foundation. Now in its third year, the scholarship is a national non-profit competition that provides a platform for talented young chefs to get a head start with big cash prizes (the grand prize winner earns $10,000) and prestigious opportunities to work in leading restaurants here and abroad. Last year’s winner, Michael Christiansen, staged at Per Se in New York; the inaugural winner, Paul Moran, went to Pujol in Mexico City.
After four regional heats in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, the 37 competitors for 2015 were whittled down to eight for the grand finals in Vancouver last weekend.
Sponsored by TD Aeroplan Visa Infinite Privilege Card, Gordon Food Service and Le Creuset, the intense, daylong competition was held at Vancouver Community College with a large studio audience, a live video feed from the kitchens, post-competition interviews with the finalists and on-stage feedback sessions with the judging panel.
I was honoured to sit on the sequestered judging panel for the first time, joining culinary luminaries Mark McEwan (Fabbrica, et al), Anthony Walsh (Canoe), Normand Laprise (Toqué) and Mr. Hawksworth, of course. Jacob Richler (Canada’s 100 Best) and Sarah Musgrave (enRoute) were the other journalists on the panel. Kristian Eligh (Hawksworth) and Scott Jaeger (The Pear Tree) judged from the kitchen.
There was much to be learned, not just for the contestants but also for me. For one, I couldn’t believe that after all the couch-potato hours I’ve spent cursing Mark McEwan for his decisions on Top Chef Canada, I actually really liked the guy and we agreed on almost everything. Maybe that’s because I also discovered that I’m really good at being “the mean judge.” (Poor kids.) But, I cannot keep up with the big boys (especially Anthony Walsh and Normand Laprise) when drinking cocktails late at night.
At the end of a very tight race, Ian MacDougall of Calgary’s Model Milk Bistro won the grand prizes, wowing us with his roasted squab and lobster agnolotti with nasturtium-braised endive and squab jus. Cynthia Iaboni of Montreal’s Restaurant Le Serpent was named Le Creuset’s Rising Star, winning $5,000. Alec Fraser of Montreal’s Toqué took a cash prize for third place.
But for all the bright notes we tasted, there were still an awful lot of clunkers. If you happen to be thinking of competing next year — or in any other culinary competition, for that matter – here are the Top Ten takeaways to consider.
1. Understand The Rules
Savoury and dessert dishes were weighted equally. Yet overall, the desserts were poor (a couple were atrocious). You may not aspire to be a pastry chef, but if know you have to make one, spend a little time learning the basic recipes for panna cotta and ice cream.
2. Get It Done On Time
The second-place winner lost by a slim margin, perhaps because she didn’t finish plating on time. The kitchen judges are watching.
3. Be Consistent
Mark McEwan and I ate a few pieces of squab that we thought were perfectly cooked. Yet the very same contestants served squab to other judges that was severely undercooked and barely edible.
4. Go For the Dramatic
Cynthia Iaboni’s curled squab claw and bright-orange sea buckthorn puree made dramatic exclamation points on her plates. Presentation matters.
5. But Keep It Simple
Alec Fraser may have placed third, but we all thought his squab and lobster plate looked like a dog’s breakfast with way too many elements.
6. Don’t Chase Trends
One of the contestants made a very interesting thyme jus for the squab. The judges’ responses included: “Ugh, medicinal,” “Oddly compelling,” “A teaspoon would have sufficed,” and “The savoury dessert trend was over 10 years ago!”
7. Don’t Try To Hurt The Judges
Rasped hazelnut husk is never a good idea. It’s dry, sharp and potentially dangerous.
8. Perfect the Basics
Beautifully aerated nasturtium gels and exquisitely tuilled zucchini won’t matter one wit if the lobster is rubbery, the jus is runny or the corn tastes like vinegar.
9. Compare Like to Like
Never cooked squab? Well, just stop for a second and think. It looks like duck with a big layer of fat under the skin. Does it cook like duck? Probably. That fat definitely needs to be rendered if you want to create a crispy skin.
10. Think Outside The Box
All eight contestants made squab the main element on the savoury dishes. Not one chose to let the lobster take centre place. Why not? It would have stood out from the crowd.
Would you participate in the Hawksworth Young Chef competition? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below, or tweet us @ViewtheVibe.