Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Iron Chef Centrex


We were invited to compete in an Iron Chef style competition at the Centrex food and hospitality trade show. Eight restaurants competing for the exhalted title of Iron Chef Centrex. On the first day we are paired off into for contests. Our first battle was against Provence Bistro. The winners on the first day go on to battle the each other on the monday until two teams are chosen to enter the final battle.

The "battle of the bistros" as it was billed started at 12:00 noon. Half an hour before the battle started, we were told that the mystery ingredient was tomatoes. We were give a lovely basket of romas, beefsteaks, bruno rossas, orange, yellow, campari and grape tomatoes. We were pretty excited about this ingredient, you can do a lot with tomatoes. The goal is to do as many dishes as you can in that time. You are judged on quality, presentation, originality and how organized your kitchen is.  The safe approach would be to shoot for five dishes, we decided to do seven with an optional eighth dish. 

The eighth dish, which we never got to, was going to be chicken noodle soup. We had a stock on from the chicken carcass we deboned and we had noodle scraps from  the ravioli, we were just going to throw in some fresh chopped yellow, orange and red tomatoes, some fresh herbs and voila. But we just ran out of time.

Time is deceiving. Time is elusive. Time is fleeting.

Half an hour into the battle, it felt like we were just starting. Fourty minutes in, Provence puts out their first dish. A tomato bisque.  We still had nothing near completion. We had to kick it into high gear.  In the last ten minutes we plated 7 dishes, with the last plate hitting the table as "time" was called.  High fives all around. Someone from Big Rock brings us all a can of beer, which goes down nice.

Our first dish was a trio of all the yummy parts of the chicken. The parts that the chef saves for himself when carving. We did the drumette with a dry curry spice on a mango and brunnorossa bbq sauce, we did the oyster with a balsamic camapari and the popes nose roasted crisp with a black bean and yellow tomato salsa.

We smoked salmon with a shaved pineapple, cherry tomato and red onion salad. Raw beef carpaccio wrapped around a beet and tomato slaw, came next. This was going to be served with a yellow tomato sorbet but the sorbet wasn't freezing. I decided to use the unfrozen sorbet as a sauce instead. But as I am scooping I realise their is plenty of frozen sorbet stuck to the side of the ice cream maker. I dump it out and scape the sides to get two scoops for the plate. then came ravioli stuffed with chicken livers with a roma tomato and sundried tomato sauce, this was followed by spinach gnudi with grape tomatoes and a  chicken and yellow tomato sausage. Then we did a chicken "saltimbocca" with goat cheese and smoked tomatoes. We were going to serve it with fries but they just weren't ready on time.  Of course, we had to do dessert. We made a rice pudding, and candied yellow tomatoes to the consistency of dried fruit. We mixed that into the rice pudding, served that in our little copper pots, and garnished it with more candied tomato. Boom, seven dishes! a flurry of plating, right down to the wire, but we did it.

We won this competition, just barely.  We would be competing in the semis tomorrow.

As the fairmont was setting up, I went to them and said, "I have one piece of advice, realize that an hour is not a lot of time". 

"oh we know," was their reply, "we timed it out in our practice runs"

They practiced?  Really? I think they might be taking this all a bit too seriously.  Practice runs, don't they have a restaurant to run?

So, we find out that Monday morning we would be up against the fairmont. The little bistro that could against the mighty fairmont. This is like cameroon competing against brazil at the world cup. This is David and Goliath. I better remember to bring my sling shot. 

We knew we would have to step up our game. We needed more burners, so we brought three of our own. We needed to have water boiling, deep fryer oil heating and wood chips smoking right off the top. Mostly we needed to hit the ground running. About ten minutes before we start, I start to wind up the crew. I start jumping, pep talking, clapping my hands randomly, quoting Gordon Ramsay in a bad accent, and just a little trash talking. As we start, I say "we need our bistro music." Clint, J-9 and I all start singing our versions of our favourite bistro hits. We were singing three different songs, but somehow it all worked. 

Our secret ingredient was scallops. This threw us off for a minute. We were convinced we were going to get pork, or maybe turkey.  Adapt, adopt and improve. The big question was, can we do a dessert with scallops?

First thing, I cut up onions, celery and garlic for a few different dishes. My cutting board is filling up, I know I am going to get dinged points for mess, but I had a lot of things on the go. 
Changing strategy a little from the first round, I decide to throw out dishes earlier. Twenty minutes in our first dish goes out: Black bean soup with smoked bay scallops. 

I decide we have a good start so I declare, "we are doing the risotto!" We are going to complete 8 dishes.  

Then in rapid succession: scallop and salmon seviche with a carrot and apple salad (all orange and yellow), Pan seared scallops with a mango salsa, spicy surf and turf skewers with beef filet, pineapple and scallop. The beef and pineapple was cut in the same size and shape as the scallop. This we served with a cucumber, lime and pernod shooter. 

On the way to the convention centre, we stopped at Dollarama. we needed squeeze bottles. At the store, I found these horrible shot glasses shaped like a curvaceous woman's torso wearing a bikini. I new we were going to do a shooter, so I grabbed these. I didn't know if we would have the cajones to use these tacky glasses. But of course, we did.  Team Bistro has cajones to spare.

After the first competition, I decided that we would do Cassoulet. When I saw the ingredient, my heart sunk, scallop cassoulet?  But why not?  I smoked some chicken breast, seasoned and roasted a drumstick, and made a scallop sausage. Put all this together with the tasty white beans I had made in our little copper pots, topped with buttered bread crumbs and roasted until crusty and yummy. While I was doing this, Clint made a quick pickle with lemon juice (we had no vineger to work with) and tarragon which we put into our mini-pickle jars. We served our cassoulet with "cornichons" on the side.

We then put out a scallop slider with bannock "buns", goat cheese and a quick mayonaise. This time, the frites were ready on time.  Our dessert was a ricotta and orange tart, which we covered with thin slices of scallop. We covered this with sugar, and "brulleed" the sugar. This dessert was served with an apricot compote.

"Time?!"  We had four minutes left. The risotto wasn't quite ready, the grilled scallops were still raw.  How much time now? "Three minutes." "Where's the parmesan? I need butter!" I plate the risotto. Beet risotto with grilled scallops garnished with a candied beets and a beet syrup.  "how much time left?" We had done eight dishes with two minutes to spare.

We all looked at each other, do we have time to do one more dish? "hell ya!" J-9 shouts out, "cucumber, cream cheese scallops!" Clint slices and arranges the cucmbers, J-9 grabs the cream cheese, I slice the raw scallop. we arrange this on the plates, garnish with a sliver of sundried tomato. A little coarse salt, done. 9 plates!

Well, today David doesn't slay Goliath. Goliath goes on to win the whole competetion, but it was a battle well fought. We had a ton of fun, banged out a lot of dishes, and carried oursleves with style. Thanks to Clint Ducharme and Janine Meijer for their hard work and creativity, you rock! And thanks to Danielle, my partner for her love and support.

Thanks Junior CCFC for inviting us to compete in this fun event!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Chefs vs Line Cooks

I was watching Hell's Kitchen tonight and one of the things one of the competitors (Ben) said really got stuck in my craw.  While trying to defend his poor service in the kitchen, Ben said "I am a chef, not a line cook." He defended his position by saying he leads big brigades and so he is not used to actually cooking in a kitchen during service. 

It is my belief that a chef is a cook first.  You get to be chef not only because you can lead a crew, but because you can jump into any position is your kitchen and handle yourself with grace and style.  If your grill cook shows up late, you need to jump in. If the salad guy is sick, get in there. I still pride myself on being a great dishwasher, and when the situation requires, I roll up my sleeves and start scrubbing.  A chef needs to be able to hold his or her own on the line.

One of the reasons I opened a small restaurant was so that I would still be able to cook. The bigger the restaurant, the less time the chef spends cooking.  The reason I am a chef is that I love to cook. And not just fancy stuff. And not just the creative process. But everyday, getting slammed on the line, board full of white chits, every burner full and blazing, customers lined up out the door cooking. Line cooks get off on that rush.  It is not just the high-faluting cheffing that we aspire to, but the day in day out fire and knives cooking that we love.

So Ben, you who are too good to line cook, good-bye.  The world needs more cooks and fewer chefs.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Visit your local coffee shop

So, McDonald's has launched a coffee promotion. Free coffee.  I have even been assured that their new coffee is actually good. But people, don't fall for it! This is McDonalds we are talking about. This is the same multinational monster that has convinced the world that the height of culture can be stuffed into a sesame seed bun and wrapped in paper. This is the company that is deforesting the planet to raise cattle only to be ground into lifeless flat grey patties. This is the same incubus that seduces tourists in such exotic locales as rome, cairo and bangkok away from trying the authentic tastes of the local mom and pop restaurants in favour of something safe and familiar. This is the same company that encourages us to sit in line in drive thrus with our engines idleing and spewing carbon into the air instead of finding fresh food at a local grocer or market.  This is the company that has convinced us that fast is better than good, and convenient is more important than wholesome. So don't be fooled, the coffee may be free, but it is still too high a price to pay.

But don't you stand their all smug while waiting to pick up you venti half-caf latte.  Sure Starbucks may talk of ethics and sustainabilty, but it too is a monolithic multinational. So is our beloved Timmy's. All these places seek to level our culture, to replace character with consistency, and to limit the choices we have.  These huge coffee empires compete unfairly with your friends and neighbours who try to run little neighbourhood coffee shops.  Don't get me wrong, I am no more righteous than you. I love my soy latte with an extra shot, I love the convenience of being able to get my coffee on every street corner.  But maybe we should try a little harder to support our local coffee purveyors.

Every neighbourhood has one or more little coffee spots. The owner might be behind the counter pouring your java.  In Wolesley we have the Neighbourhood Cafe and bookstore, in the exchange we have the Fyxx, Downtown we have Twist Cafe and Voila cafe, St. james has Roka Jacks, Brandon has Forbidden flavours. Go up stairs to DeLuca's for a great espresso. When at the mall, don't go to Tim's but walk over to McNally Robinson's.  Pop into Stella's. Satisfy your sweet tooth by checking out Baked Expectations or Dessert Sinsations. Visit your favourite local cafe, diner or bistro. Every neighbourhood has it's own unique choices. Every one of those spots has its own characters and story.

And don't forget to support our local roasters. We don't need to import our coffee from Seattle, or even Vancouver. We have Black Pearl, Sunstone, Wellington's, DeLuca's and Green Bean all roasting locally.  They all offer a variety of roasts and beans, with many fair trade and organic options.  Next time you are standing in line waiting for you grande chai moccacinno, and the smiling lip pierced teenager behind the counter ask you how you would like you coffee, politeley reply, "Locally roasted, please".

Next time you need your caffeine hit, don't pull into the nearest drive-thru superchain, go the extra block and check out a neighbourhood coffee spot.

What is your favourite local coffee shop? Post a comment and let us know.

Recipes for D.A. Niels cooking Demo

So, on Saturday I found myself at one of my favourite kitchen stores, D. A. Niels on Berry St.
I had been asked to do a cooking demo. When I arrived the store was full of people. (Not all there to see me, some were shopping). By the time I had myself set up, I had a small crowd of people gathered around me.

Normally when I do these demos, people come by, watch for a bit, try a little of the free food maybe ask a question or two and then leave. On this particular saturday my "class" sat for almost two full hours absorbing every detail.

In exchange for their dedication and loyalty, I promised to post the recipes on my blog, so here they are:

(I have already posted them on my twitter page at Twitter.com/chefalex)

Thai Coconut Curry Mussels

1lb mussels

1 tsp canola oil

1 stalk lemongrass, finely chopped

1/2 jalepeno or small chili, finely minced (use more or less depending how hot you like your food)

1 tsp minced ginger

1 tsp minced garlic

1 tsp green curry paste

1 lime wedge
1 cup chicken stock

1/4 cup coconut milk

couple sprigs each cilantro and basil (roughly chopped)

1 green onion cut into 1 inch pieces

1. combine lemongrass, ginger, garlic, chilies, curry and oil in skillet. Saute briefly.

2. add mussels and stock, bring to a boil. Add coconut milk. Cook until mussles are open.

3. squeeze in lime and throw wedge in pan.

4. toss in basil, cilantro and green onions right before serving.

Asparagus Strudel Appetizer

1 pkg filo pastry

2 bunches asparagus, ends trimmed

1 lb brie

1/2 cup toasted pecans, crushed

1/2 lb butter

1. melt butter. lay one sheet of filo on counter. brush with butter. lay a second layer, brush with butter, lay a third layer, brush with butter.
2. slice filo into thee wide strips. Lay a slice of brie at base of each strip. Top brie with 3 asparagus stalks and sprinkle with pecans. roll filo around asparagus. brush with butter.

3. Bake at 450F for 10 minutes, until filo is golden brown. Serve as is, or cut into bitesize appetizers.

Black Forest Crepes

crepe batter:

3/4 cup flour

2 eggs

2/3 cup milk

1 tbsp melted butter

1 tbsp cognac

1. whisk all ingredients together, stir vigorously. Pour through a fine mesh strainer.

2. let rest for at least an hour, as long as overnight.

3. check consistency, should be like heavy cream. Thin with water if neccessary.

4. cook crepes in crepe pan, or non stick skillet. fold into quarters.

Chocolate ganache

1/2 cup heavy cream

12 0z good quality chocolate, chopped

1. bring cream to a boil, pour over chocolate. let sit one minute. Stir until chocolate is melted. keep warm.

Sour cherry compote

1 jar sour european cherries, drianed (reserve 1/4 cup juice, drink the rest with soda or vodka)

1/4 cup cherry juice

1 oz kiirsch

1/2 cup white sugar

bring all ingredients to a boil, cook until liquid is syrupy.

To assemble:

warm crepes and lay on plate. top with cherry compote, chocolate ganache and whipped cream. Decorate with chocolate shavings and stemmed cherries if you have.

If you want to get fancy, heat cherries in pan. place crepes in pan. add 1 oz brandy and flame crepes. trasfer to a plate then top with chocolate and whipped cream.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Taste of a Nation

Once a year, the hospitality industry gets together to "give back" to our community. We gather at the Fairmont Hotel to celebrate Taste of a Nation.  SOS events happen around the world but I am priveleged to be part of our event in Winnipeg.  SOS events are great because all the money raised goes to the charity.  They are also great because we chefs get to see each other and hang out.

We arrive at the loading docks with our carts and coolers and bus bins laden with sauces and salts and tongs and frying pans.  Immediately there is a camaraderie. We trash talk while setting up our chafing pans; we laugh while lining up our ingredients; and we joke while waiting for the health inspector.

Then the doors open. 450 people swarm into the ballroom. "Thai mussels, yes green curry, lemon grass, ginger...would you like to try our snout salad?" I repeat, and repeat, 450 times. Some people know us, have been to our place, and for others we are new. "South Osborne, you know, just down from the park theatre..."  Some people stay and chat, others come back for seconds.

Then it starts to slow down. Danielle and I get to leave the booth, and explore and shmooze. Many of the chefs are wandering around trying each others tastes. We have some great wine, shiraz-malbec for me, chardonnay-riesling for Danielle.  We start the quest for foie-gras. Scott from gusto did a kickass duck 3 way Italian style (I've done a three-way Italian style, but it didn't involve a duck), 529 had my favourite prime rib yorkshire bites, The chocolate shop was innovative with their bannock cups filled with tasty bison; Lobster corndogs from the current, golden caviar and pink champagne shooters from Beujena's. For dessert we had tasty cookies from Pineridge Hollow and fantastic red beet filled chocolates from Constance Popp.  But for Foie Gras we had to visit our friends at Oui. Foie Gras Torchons with sauternes gelee. Is it rude to ask for seconds? We washed it all down with tasty vodka, ukrainian beer and some ice wine.
A good night all around.

Then we pack up. As the caravan of carts and coolers winds its way back to the loading dock, we resort to the basest of kitchen humour.  It is amazing how often "that's what she said" can form the punchline to a good off-colour joke.

We return to the restaurant to unload and have a night cap. Sure we worked hard, spent our own money, raised money for a good cause, but taste of a nation is one of the highlights of the year. The night when the hosiptality crowd gets together for a good time.

Spring Cocktails

Try these refreshing, light, spring cocktails

Watermelon Strawberry Martini

1 1/4 oz vodka
1/4 oz chambord

1 1/2 oz watermelon strawberry juice


fresh strawberries and watermelon cubes to garnish

combine juice, vodka and juice in shaker with ice, shake and strain into a chilled martini glass.

ganish with strawberry and watermelon

Honeydew Cucumber Mojito (makes 4 cocktails)

1/2 cup diced honeydew

1/2 cup diced cucumber (seeded)

4 or 5 mint leaves sprig of mint

1 tbsp honey

1/2 tsp grated fresh ginger

6 oz white rum

mint and cucmber to garnish

in blender, puree melon, cucumber, mint, ginger and honey.

mix in rum, pour over ice in highball glasses

garnish with mint, a cucumber slice and a straw.

Lemonade Martini

2 oz lemonade

1 1/2 oz vodka

1/2 oz triple sec

sqeeze of fresh lemon


a spalsh of soda

lemon zest to garnish

combine lemonade, vodka and triple sec and sqeeze of fresh lemon in shaker with ice. Shake vigorously, strain into martini glasses. top with a spash of soda, garnish with lemon zest.


Sunday, April 5, 2009

pungent vs stinky

In George Orwell's essay, Politics in the English Language in a section on "pretentious diction" he says "Bad writers ... are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones"

In the most recent Flavours issue I had an article (www.flavoursmagazine.ca) about crusts. Yummy ways to add crispy crusts to dishes. I submitted a recipe for "stinky mac and cheese"  I make a dish at the restaurant in which I use all the ends and scraps from the cheeses we use for our cheese board.  This makes a wonderfully rich and stinky version of the classic mac and cheese.  When Brandon Boone, a man who I respect and admire, edited the article, he changed my word "stinky" to "pungent."

"Pungent Mac and Cheese"  

Mr. Boone thought that sounded better.  I think it sounds gross. 

When people talk about cheese, we often refer to the sharper cheeses as "stinky". We rarely use the word pungent to describe food. The only time I might use the word pungent would be to say something like "the chicken that we forgot at the back of the fridge, was particularly pungent"

So, now it is up to you, gentle blog-followers, to settle this matter once and for all. 

Is "pungent" a better word than "stinky". Does "Pungent Mac and Cheese" sound tastier than "Stinky Mac and Cheese".  Join in on this online poll. Comment on this post with your preferences or arguments. Is there a better word than either of these two?

Let the games begin.


check out the whole essay at www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit  It is a great essay which seems even more relevant today than when it was written over 60 years ago.

Photo of Mac and Cheese from Flavours Magazine, taken by Brian Gould


recently, I was given heck for not posting on my Blog in a long time. Sorry.

Turns out last time I posted was december. I was working on my winter menu. We have started our spring menu, and I am looking ahead to summer.

I actually didn't know you cared.  I put these word out there in the "blogisphere" and never know if people read them or even notice. It is nice to hear that people check my blogs, although it gives me more of a sense of obligation to post regularly.

I also wonder what types of things I should post. I like writing, and have lots to say. But what kinds of things are you, the gentle reader, interested in hearing from me. Do you want recipes, do you want updates about the restaurant, do you want seasonal food things?

As a chef, people assume that I am so passionately devoted to food that food is all i think about. But ask my staff, I have an opinion about everything, and my opinions change daily. Nothing I like more than a good rant. I have an archive of stock rants that I pull out when needed, and I am always willing to create a new one to suit the occaision. (how do you spell that?) should I stick to food topics, or can I rant about politics, art, religion, rent-a-nerds, or what ever bee happens to be inhabiting my bonnet at any given moment. I wrestle with this question, but maybe I just need to relax and write about whatever is in my head.

Anyway, thanks for reading these posts, I have a few new posts that i am going to fire off in rapid succession, and then I will try to remember to post regularly. Please feel free to comment on these posts, I welcome the interaction. Or you can always email me at chef@sevenandaquarter.ca


p.s. i have just discovered twitter. Check it out at www.twitter.com/chefalex