It all came down to citrus, $2,000 in prize money and gastro excellence on February 8, when three student chefs went head-to-head in the “Rising Chef Citrus Cook-off” competition at Mildred’s Temple Kitchen in Liberty Village. The showdown was part of the Winterlicious 2011 Culinary Event Series and presided by five Toronto-based foodie heavyweights: Christine Cushing (host of “Fearless in the Kitchen”), Anthony Walsh (Canoe’s executive chef), Ivana Raca (executive chef at McEwan), Anne Yarymowich (Frank @ the AGO’s executive chef) and Daniel Muia (chef and owner of Mogette Bistro).
Each student created three citrus-themed dishes – an appetizer, main dish and dessert – and went into combat armed with santoku knives, Florida grapefruits and duck fat. Only one could be named master of citrus, and after three hours, the competition culminated in the crowning of Lauren van Dixhoorn as the doyenne of citrus. Her dishes – grapefruit endive and arugula salad, salmon-orange, and donuts – were simple but showed the most mastery over flavour, presentation, originality and taste. The chef judges were in turn, honest and encouraging with their critiques of dishes. Walsh told OurFaves: “Lauren deserved to win. Her main dish, her salmon, regardless if she overcooked the salmon … it was all citrus, but it wasn’t nasty sweet or too acidic. It just worked. She had it all happening. The donuts were inventive. It was kind of cutesy. Were they great donuts? No, they weren’t fantastic, but the germ, the base of it was there.”
After sampling the students’ main dishes, Muia applauded the student chefs’ verve. “I’m really, really impressed with everything they’re doing,” he told us. “I know myself, if I was their age and up there right now, I’d be really nervous and I don’t think I’d be able to put out a product as good as what they’re doing right now, so I’m really impressed. They’re coming up with some really creative stuff (contestant Alex Sielmann prepared a turbot escabeche with orange-carrot emulsion). It’s really interesting to taste what they’ve thought of.”
Meanwhile, Yarymowich credited the student chefs for their commitment and passion for food. “They’ve taken some consideration with the ingredient and really tried to bring it to the competition,” she said. “As seasoned chefs, we have to bear in mind that they’re still students. They’re still learning, so sometimes execution isn’t at the level where we think it should be or maybe the concept is a little under-thought or they don’t necessarily consider the ingredient. But on the whole, it’s really, really positive.”
Ruminating on the experience following the cook-off, Walsh summed up his thoughts on the food he sampled: “On the whole, the calibre was very good for young cooks. I think they’re all over the map. Some things were very good, some things were brutal, but it’s youth.”
OurFaves interviewed each contestant to find out what makes their mouth water and where they find inspiration. Here’s what they had to say…
Lauren van Dixhoorn, Niagara College Culinary School
What did you make today?
I’m making a salad that plays on all the different sense in your mouth. It’s salty, sweet, bitter, it’s fresh. There’s mint in there, it’s peppery from the arugula, and it has grapefruit. My main course is salmon with a focus on orange. It’s got fennel and orange zest crust. Underneath is orzo with golden raisins plumped in orange juice. And then there’s an orange beurre blanc. And leeks braised in orange juice and orange segments. It’s really orangey. The dessert, originally I was doing French macaroons but I don’t have enough time, so I had to change it at the last minute and decided to do mini donuts. There’s grapefruit caramel and there’s whipped cream with mascarpone orange reduction and orange zest that will go with the donuts. Inside the donuts, there’s orange zest and cardamom. And there’s also some brown butter pistachios.
How did you come up with your menu?
At school, we did a practice competition to see who was going to represent Niagara Culinary School here and I just kind of knew that it was supposed to be simple, something anyone can make. And that’s what I tried to do.
What’s the most inventive dish you’ve ever tried in Toronto?
Duck heart tartar at the Black Hoof. It was so delicious. It had a huge mound of fois shaved on top of it. You touch it with your fork and it disintegrates. It was so good.
You used a lot of citrus today, but what is your favourite ingredient to use in the kitchen?
I love arugula. And just any kind of ethnic spices. I love them. They’re really pungent. I like curry powders and spiced blends like garam marsala and tikka marsala.
What’s your most used kitchen tool?
My knife! I have a Shun knife, I have a 4-inch knife and I have an 8-inch. And my friend got me a new knife for the competition. It’s like a toothpick knife. It comes in handy.
Most often used kitchen utensil?
My knife! I have a Shun knife, I have the four inch and I have an eight inch and I just got this the other day , my friend got it for me. It’s awesome. I always used his so he got me one for the competition.
If you were stuck on a desert island, what three kitchen tools would you want to have with you?
I’d probably want a bowl and a wooden spoon. Maybe I’d have to dig some holes. And a knife just in case I have to protect myself.
What’s your death row meal?
Probably the red curry from Cafe Siam in St. Thomas. It’s the best curry I’ve ever had. I don’t live at home right now, so I’m trying to find one just as good but it’s not going to happen. It’s the best. It’s chicken curry. The sauce is really thin and runny and it just soaks into the rice and they put a lot of zucchini in there and I love zucchini. It’s my favourite part. I go there and I get an order of it and right before I leave, I get another order to take home so I can eat it later.
Where do you find inspiration for what you cook?
On the Food Network and from my mom. And just the places I’ve worked, the things I’ve seen. Everyone does that. You can’t say you don’t and you’re the full creator of everything you do because you’re really not.
What dish are you best known for preparing at home?
I guess, just curries. Any kind of curry. I love to make curry.
Because they kind of hammer it in your head at school that you’re supposed to flavour in layers and season in layers and the curry is such a good dish for doing that. You just keep adding and adding and adding. And at the end, you need to add whatever you added in the beginning so you get the strong punch. It’s so good. It’s never the same.
Did you go anywhere for Winterlicious?
I didn’t go anywhere, actually. I was working at Queen’s Landing in Niagara and we had a Winterlicious menu, so I did that. I was cooking rather than eating Winterlicious.
What will you do with the $2,000?
My mom’s taking me on a trip and I’ll probably save it and spend it in Europe.
Alex Sielmann, Stratford Culinary Institute
What is the most inventive dish you’ve ever had?
This summer, I tried a raw milk ice cream that was really interesting. Raw milk is a real hot topic right now in Ontario and British Columbia. So it was pretty cool to see what all the hype was about.
Where did you try this?
At a restaurant I worked at.
I don’t think I should tell you because raw milk is illegal. So somewhere in the Okanagan Valley (in B.C.) We didn’t serve it. We just made it.
How did it taste?
It was really different. What I wasn’t expecting was with the raw milk, you could really taste the grass and you can really taste the outdoors. It had a really earthy hay flavour that I wasn’t super into. But it was a really good experience.
So it probably won’t have mass appeal?
Ummmm. No. I don’t think so.
What’s your favourite ingredient to use?
I guess whatever’s the best quality. I love vegetables, I’m trying to stay away from meat. I’m a huge fan of carrots. Fresh carrots right out of the ground is some of the best stuff you can eat.
What is your fave ingredient to use?
I guess what’ever the best quality. I love vegetables, I’m trying to get away from meat. I’m a huge fan of carrots. Fresh carrots right out of the gorund is some of the best stuff you can eat, so I guess carrots.
On a desert island, what three kitchen tools would you want to have?
A knife. A whisk so I can froth up some coconut milk and make myself a little cocktail. And a cutting board.
What’s your death row meal?
Fresh gnocchi with lots of melted cheese. I’d want it to come from French Laundry. (Thomas Keller) would do a pretty good job at gnocchi. It’s in Napa Valley.
What dish are you best known for making at home?
I make really good chicken cacciatore. My wife goes crazy for it.
What makes it so great?
I just take time. It takes me all day. I don’t just throw it into a pot. There’s lots of proper cooking techniques.
It take you all day?
Yeah. You have to cook every single item individually. You have to juice your tomatoes and then you have to fry your tomato pulp and then de-glaze with your tomato juice.
Do you follow recipes when you cook?
Depends what I’m doing. Baking, you definitely have to follow a recipe. But if you’re cooking, it usually depends on the ingredients I have. Throughout the day, if I see something I like whether it’s at a farm or at a grocery store, I’ll just grab some and use it when I get home.
What’s your secret ingredient today?
Duck fat. Everyone loves it but they don’t know it.
Mike Baskerfield, Humber College
Where do you work?
Wildcraft Grill and Bar. I’m a saucier.
What does that entail?
I prepare chicken dishes at dinner, salmon, lamb, prepare sauce.
What makes a good sauce?
Butter and cream veal stock or veal jus.
What is your favourite ingredient to cook with?
Probably butter and salt. That gives everything flavour.
What is your most oft-used kitchen utensil?
Definitely my knife.
If you were stuck on a dessert island and only had three kitchen tools,w aht three would you want to have?
A knife, a whet stone, and a cutting board. Because you can do everything with a knife. You’d be ok if all you had was a knife.
Death row meal?
Salmon that I just caught at our cottage on Georgian Bay with some fresh field tomatoes. I like smmer stuff. Pretty simple. Cedar plank salmon is just about my favourite thing and grilled lamb racks ar pretty tasty.
Would you have a side to go with it?
I’d probably just have more salmon with it.
Where do you find inspiration for what you make at home and at work?
I try and follow current trends and really, whatever tastes good. You can’t really go wrong with what everyone already likes.
What dish are you best know for preparing at home?
My girlfriend likes homemade gnocchi with a roasted shallot and shitake mushroom cream sauce. It’s like a once every two weeks dnner. It’s pretty tasty, I guess.
Did you go anywhere for Winterlicious?
Not yet, but only because I live in Cambridge and it’s a bit of a hike and I work 50 hours a week.
What are your favourite restaurants in Toronto?
I like the Queen Mother. The foodies are going to kill me for this one, but I love going into Sneaky Dee’s before a concert just to grab some pub fare. It’s kind of like Mexican/North American. North 44. I’ve been there once and spent an entire week’s paycheque on it and it was worth it. I had osso bucco with a parsnip puree and roasted fingerling potatoes, I think.
Photographs and interviews by Maria Cootauco