For the past nine years, the S.Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition has given talented culinary school students from across North America the chance to show off their talents. The annual competition is composed of 10 regional contests and a finals competition.
Jenny and I were lucky enough to be invited as media to check out the Canadian regional competition in Toronto last week. Eight students from the George Brown College Chef School, The International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Vancouver, École hôtelière de la Capitale in Québec City and Montreal’s Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec were asked to create their ‘signature’ dish for a panel of judges including restaurant chefs, food writers and blogger David Ort of Food with Legs.
Almost Famous Chef contestants working in the kitchen
Each competing chef was free to incorporate any ingredients and cooking techniques into their dish, and it was amazing to see what was created, and to hear the students talk to the judges about what inspired them. In most cases, the chefs chose ingredients common to their home province and talked about their passion for Canada’s bounty. Jenny and I were happy to be able to eat many of the foods we love – bison, duck, pork belly, lobster, scallops – served in interesting new ways. And we even had the opportunity to taste something new – salsify, a vegetable I’d heard of but had never tasted, and which showed up in a couple of the chefs’ dishes.
Piglet belly with lobster ravioli from Emile Balk at Montreal’s Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec… one of our favorite dishes of the night
The chefs’ focus was also clearly evident in the kitchen. We were able to spend some time watching the students cook. In contrast to the chaos shown in the kitchens of shows like Top Chef and Chopped, the scene in the Calphalon Culinary Center’s professional kitchen was one of quiet intensity.
In addition to preparing composed dishes for each of the judges, plated as they might be served in a restaurant, each competing chef was also tasked with preparing tasting portions of their creations for each of the 100+ invited guests and media to sample. Guests were then asked to choose their favourite dish, with the winner receiving the People’s Choice Award. Christine Amanatidis of the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Vancouver took this honour for her amazing dish of crisp seared duck breast served with a savoury chestnut bread pudding. I’m a huge fan of bread pudding and I’d never tried a savoury version, so Christine’s dish was really inspiring.
Chef Amanatidis’ duck with chestnut bread pudding
But the night’s big winner was Jean-François Daigle of Toronto’s George Brown College Chef School. He wowed the judges with bison tenderloin cooked sous-vide and then pan-seared, which he served with an apple-parsnip-mustard puree, asparagus and a sauce of honey, red wine and beef stock.
Announcing the winner…
He’ll move on to the finals in California’s Napa Valley from March 11 to 14, for the chance to win the grand prize of $10,000 and the opportunity to work as a paid apprentice for one year with a recognized chef. The finals will be streamed live via the Almost Famous Chef website and Facebook page, so you can follow the action.
Chef Daigle’s honey-seared bison with apple-parsnip puree
In the meantime, why not recreate the winning dishes for yourself? Below are Christine Amanatidis and Jean-François Daigle’s recipes, which they’ve adapted for home cooks. Bon appetit!
Honey Seared Bison Tenderloin with Apple Parsnip Puree
Jean-Francois Daigle, The George Brown Chef’s School (Toronto)
2 cups (500 mL) beef broth
2/3 cup (150 mL) dry red wine
1 cup (250 mL) each diced carrots and onion
3/4 cup (175 mL) diced celery
2 bay leaves
1 tsp (5 mL) whole black peppercorns
1 buffalo or beef tenderloin, about 2 lbs/1 kg, cut into 8 equal portions
Sea salt and pepper
1 tbsp (15 mL) extra virgin olive oil or garlic oil
2 tbsp (25 mL) liquid honey
2 tsp (10 mL) chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp/2 mL dried thyme leaves
Apple Parsnip Puree:
1 lb (500 g) parsnips, peeled and chopped
1 lb (500 g) apples, peeled, cored and chopped
2 tbsp (25 mL) 35% whipping cream, hot
2 tsp (10 mL) Dijon mustard
Salt and white pepper
Apple Parsnip Puree: In pot of boiling water cook parsnips, covered for 15 minutes or until tender. Add apples, cover and simmer for 10 minutes or until very tender. Drain well and puree in a food processor until smooth. Whisk in cream and mustard and season to taste with salt and pepper; keep warm.
Meanwhile, in saucepan bring stock, wine, carrots, celery, onion, bay leaves and peppercorns to a boil and simmer until reduced to 2-1/2 cups (625 mL). Remove bay leaves and discard.
Sprinkle tenderloin with salt and pepper. Heat oil in large skillet, in batches sear both sides of the tenderloin and place on lightly greased baking sheet. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with thyme. Roast in 425 F (220C) oven for 5 to 7 minutes or until meat thermometer inserted in centre reaches 145 F (63 C) for medium-rare.
Spoon apple parsnip puree in centre of plate and top with tenderloin and spoon vegetable sauce around plate.
Makes 8 servings.
Duck Breast with Chestnut Bread Pudding
Christine Amanatidis, The International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Vancouver
4 boneless duck breasts
Salt and pepper
Chestnut-Chai Bread Pudding:
1 cup (250 mL) chicken broth
1 cinnamon stick
5 each whole cloves and green cardamom pods
3 slices fresh ginger
1 tbsp (15 mL) olive oil
1/4 cup (50 mL) minced shallots
1/2 cup (125 mL) whole milk
8 roasted chestnuts, quartered
1/2 tsp (2 mL) freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp (1 mL) salt
8 cups (2 L) 1/2-inch (1 cm) cubed multigrain sourdough bread
2 tbsp (25 mL) butter, broken into tiny pieces
Chestnut-Chai Bread Pudding: In saucepan bring chicken broth, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and ginger to boil. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and steep for 5 minutes. Strain and discard spices.
Meanwhile, in a skillet heat oil over medium heat and cook shallots for about 4 minutes or until lightly browned; set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together milk and eggs. Add steeped chicken broth, shallot, chestnuts, pepper and salt. Stir in bread to coat well. Spread evenly into 13 x 9- inch (3 L) pan lined with parchment paper. Scatter butter on top and bake in 400F (200C) oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until top is golden brown. Let cool slightly before slicing into 8 pieces, approximately 4 x 3- inches (10 cm x 7.5 cm).
Score duck skin in a cross diamond pattern and season with salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and place duck breast skin side down. Reduce heat to medium and let cook for about 5 minutes or until crisp and brown. Turn duck and place in oven for about 8 minutes or until thermometer reaches 155 F (68 C). Let stand before slicing. Place bread pudding on each plate and top with sliced duck.
Makes 8 servings.