This year’s Healthy Chef Competition was last week and Karen from Tiny Bites, who was hosting the media table, was kind enough to invite me along. I was a tad nervous since although I blog about food and such, I’m by no means exclusively a food blogger so I felt rather inexperienced at a table full of food bloggers, including folks from Victoria’s Food Secrets, Follow Me Foodie, Granville Magazine, Foodists, and Vancouver Foodster.
But what the hell…good chance to meet some fun people and chow down on some healthy food. You’d know that our table is the media table as it was the only one where it wasn’t considered rude to clutter the entire surface with cameras, phones and other random pieces of technology. Heck, Karen spent most of the night live-blogging on her iPhone!
Now I know what you’re all thinking…why on earth would you go to a “healthy” competition? Isn’t it just full of steamed celery and lightly poached…wheat? If that’s what you thought then you’d be wrong…very, very wrong. Sure, there were a number of vegetables like eggplant, mushrooms, beets and carrots but we also get a lot of salmon, dungeness crab, beef tenderloin and lamb shanks. That’s right…the food is healthy, showcasing fresh, often local produce but doesn’t get all bland and tasteless like most expect healthy eating to be.
Dinner started at 7:30pm but drinks and hors d’oeuvres start at 6:30pm and of course, as the dinner was held on St. Patrick’s Day, there was plenty of strong green drinks available as well.
After a short intro, we enjoyed our first course, a starter of pan-seared sweetbread over eggplant caviar with king oyster mushroom, polenta cake and strawberry and cassis coulis. I greatly enjoy sweetbreads (which are the thymus glands, I believe this one is from lamb) and this is no exception. I also really liked the oyster mushroom which burst with flavor when you bite into it but I could not stomach the polenta cake which I found dry and unappealing. If someone told me they replaced it with a chunk of sponge that you’d find next to a kitchen sink, I wouldn’t be surprised.
After that, we were told that we would be sampling one of the ten competing dishes and which one was determined by which cards you got in the envelope sitting under your name card. We were supposed to pass the cards to our left or something so I got Victoria’s, I think…but most of us cheated and looked at our cards ahead of time and then it was a huge jumble to figure out who was supposed to get what. In the end, it didn’t really matter since most of us just sampled parts of each other’s dishes after we got a second (or in Mijune’s case…third…or fourth…) dish anyways.
The dish I was supposed to get was from the Four Willows Farm, which consisted of a roasted pork tenderloin stuffed with apricots, onions, and chanterelles, accompanied by a pistachio cursted pave and a morel demi-glace. I found the pave fascinating since I’ve never had potato in this specific manner and let’s face it, you can only have potatoes a certain number of ways. This was a cake of many, many layers of thinly sliced potato with a pistachio top. It is sort of like scalloped potatoes but those are usually messy and full of cheese and cream. This is more of a mille-feuille of potato and it tasted quite good…potatoes soft while the nuts gave it a nice crunch. (sorry, the strange lighting in the room gave me weird focusing problems here)
My tenderloin was also cooked very well, slightly pink in the center. Most people think pork needs to be cooked til it’s cardboard for safety reasons but we don’t live in the 1800s and leaving your pork just this side of medium-well is just fine. I didn’t really taste apricots in the stuffing but I love mushrooms so the chanterelles was perfect for me. There were a number of veggies on the dish as well such as a couple of beets, baby carrots and a small yellow zucchini but they didn’t feel like they were part of the dish…more of an afterthought to accompany the tenderloin. That’s all fine by me but in a competition stressing vegetables, I would’ve liked to have seen a more creative way of serving them.
My second dish was from the Hyatt Regency: a lamb loin cooked sous-vide, wrapped in leeks and served with pickled strawberries and vegetable hay, with a strawberry glaze and saffron couscous. I know…lamb with strawberries sounds ridiculous but have to say…it works. One of my three pieces of lamb was well-cooked to a rare center but the other two were rather overcooked (the above is not the dish I got). On it’s own, the lamb is good…a nice piece of lamb but nothing too special. The pickled strawberries…well, they’re rather sour and strange but put them together and the dish is a winner. It may not be something I would always order but the mixture of flavors was something unique and special. The couscous and “vegetable hay” was not as enjoyable.
I had a bit of some of the other dishes but not enough to make a serious informed opinion about any of them. I thought the sockeye salmon from the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts was perfectly cooked and flavorful, thought.
The winning dish for Best Entree of the evening was from Vancouver Community College (who also won last year, I believe), which was a Dungeness Crab cake, braised lamb shank with Crepinette and onion crusted beef tenderoin with wilted pea shoots, julienne radish and beets, butternut squash puree, asparagus and baby carrots. Amazingly, both Karen and I missed taking a picture of this particular dish as, well, everyone loves a winner and the VCC table was always crowded. Plus anyone that got this dish devoured it as soon as they got their hands on it, I’m sure.
Onto the desserts! The dessert I got on my card was from VCC and I got what most of us at our table agreed was the best dessert. It was a mango and milk chocolate tower and a warm mixed berry honey Chiboust with raspberry coulis and vanilla ice cream. I’m not much for sweet stuff but even I couldn’t resist that mango and milk chocolate tower. Plus the ice cream had an amazingly strong vanilla flavor to it with plenty of specks of black vanilla. It was delicious.
The second dessert I tried was a blueberry, lemon and basil mousse cake from the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, which won the Best Dessert award of the competition. Again, one might think the combination of blueberry, lemon and basil might be a bit weird but it works and the flavor is interesting. It’s not too sweet so it’s perfect for me.
I also ate a good chunk of this, which Mijune somehow wrestled away from the folks at Four Willows Farm. This is a dark chocolate mousse and orange passion cream on a sable disk with honey red tea sauce. At first I didn’t taste any sort of the orange or passion fruit but I guess I just didn’t dig in there enough. However, the chocolate mousse is mostly overwhelming and drowns out any other flavors. That being said…chocolate isn’t a bad thing to be drowning in anyways.
The dish from Carver’s Steakhouse was another winner: a pressed dark chocolate hazelnut praline made from Chilliwack organic hazelnuts with a minted mango/strawberry salsa, mandarin brandy glaze and strawberry coulis. The praline was a tad too sweet but had a great crunch to it and a nice, aromatic hazelnut taste. Jumble it all with the other elements on the plate and you get an explosion of flavor.
This dessert from Executive Plaza Hotel was mostly mediocre. This is a strawberry shooter with ginger peach frozen yogurt and a espresso crème brulee. The strawberry shooter tasted like watered down strawberry juice while the frozen yogurt was entirely too frozen to enjoy. The crème brulee was, however, rather good with a deep, rich coffee taste and smell.
The one that we tasted but really didn’t like was from the Edgewater Casino. A dish of black tea poached barlett pears and crème fraiche parfait with a white chocolate field berry mousse. It was mostly that crème fraiche which tasted totally sour…and not in a pleasant way either. It would’ve probably been okay with some chives and butter on a baked potato.
There were plenty of other dishes that I didn’t get the opportunity to try out. This is Carver’s Steakhouse‘s Vancouver Harbor Bouillabaise. A pan-fried filet of wild sustainable halibut, Ocean Wise giant prawn, greyer-cayenne crostini, fennel tomato saffron broth and a Yukon gold potato coin.
This is an interesting spin on “bacon and eggs” from the Edgewater Casino. A braised Fraser Valley pork leg with fried quail’s eggs served with cranberry pine nut bread pudding, watercress puree and sautéed spring vegetables.
Kettle of Fish‘s dish was a pan roasted sablefish with porcini and zucchini ragout and a black cod with braised leek canneloni and red pepper rouille.
This trio is from the Executive Plaza Hotel: small mouth seabass, sockeye salmon, and pacific lobster served with saffron fennel puree, baby carrots, lima beans, yukon gold, and a blood orange glaze.
The winner for the Healthy Plate award went to the Sheraton Wall Center for their trio of stuffed vegetables. Beet stuffed with barley and bulgur, zucchini stuffed with red quinoa, amaranth, and couscous and onion stuffed with muskox, Mediterranean spices, and pine nuts. The sauce is made from yogurt, tahini, and extra virgin olive oil, finished with black garlic, roasted red pepper coulis, and wild rice popcorn.
As the night emphasized healthy eating and good produce, we were each given a box of it to take home with us as well! Thanks to the BC Chefs’ Associations and the BC Produce Marketing Association for putting on a great night. I got to eat some great food, drink an actually rather delicious wine (that I forgot to identify…) as well as some awesome green rum punch for St. Patties Day and meet some more folks from the Vancouver foodies scene. Hope I can attend this again next year! (Pssst…it’s on March 16, 2011.)