Thursday, June 9th, 2011 at 11:42 pm

Century Hospitality Group’s Top Chef: Finale

Last Saturday saw the culmination of the gruelling, month-long competition that was the Century Hospitality Group’s Top Chef Tournament.

The dining room at Lux, filled with guests, the judging panel, former judges, and event sponsors, was abuzz. Not only were they hungry for the six course meal to come, but also to see who would come out on top. Would it be the creative and resilient Ben Weir, who had pulled off the most unique entrée the week prior? Or would it be the bold and consistent Shirley Fortez, whose plating skills were unrivalled in the semi-final round?

CHG Top Chef Finale

Ben plates while Valerie assists

Each cheftestant had to incorporate a secret ingredient into their dishes: steelhead salmon in the appetizer course; Kobe beef short rib and spot prawns in the main; and eggs in the dessert. The cheftestants had also stopped by the City Market that morning to accent their dishes with local products.

Though it wasn’t quite set up like Kitchen Stadium, guests were encouraged to visit the plating area, where Ben, Shirley and their sous chefs were busy with final meal preparations.

CHG Top Chef Finale

Plating is intense

Both young chefs looked a touch nervous, but more than anything, with blank canvas plates gleaming in front of them, they both looked like they wanted to be let out of the gates.

To help whet the appetite of the crowd (and to help get the spirit of the competition rolling), two of Century Hosplitality’s seasoned chefs, Tony Le of Lux and Andrew Cowan of Hundred, served up a plate of their amuse bouches, side by side. It was also to serve as a taste of what Indulgence patrons could expect from the CHG booth in a few weeks. The audience was to vote for their favourite with a show of applause.

CHG Top Chef Finale

A pair of amuse bouches

I thought I’d instantly grapple towards Chef Cowan’s scrapple, topped with a perfectly fried quail’s egg. And though it was a bite of velvety richness, given my absolute dislike of watermelon, the fact that Chef Tony was able to make a cube of the fruit tolerable for me (with the addition of a piece of boar bacon and balsamic vinaigrette) won my vote. The crowd, however, was partial to Chef Cowan’s amuse.

First course: steelhead salmon

Ben’s salmon tartare was up first. Visually beautiful, with colour contrast provided by an Edgar Farms asparagus puree, it was a great way to commence the competition. I loved the texture of the tartare, kicked up with the addition of red onions, and how fresh the dish as a whole presented, bright with lemon.

CHG Top Chef Finale

Salmon tartare

Shirley’s cured salmon that followed showed us just how different their cooking styles were. She chose a flavour base of aromatic soy sauce and wasabi, complemented with a daikon salad. On first bite, I preferred Shirley’s salmon – it was brash and memorable. But towards the end of the plate, I had to agree with most around our table – the dish was too salty and overpowered the fish.

CHG Top Chef Finale

Cured salmon with soy and wasabi

Second course: short rib and spot prawns

There was no doubt that Ben’s short rib had been expertly prepared. Braised in veal stock and coffee, a collective sign of contentment could be felt around the room when diners tasted the fork-tender meat. His accompanying spot prawn ravioli was less successful, more dumpling than pasta, and a rather unfortunate deconstruction and cloaking of an ingredient that should have been better showcased.

CHG Top Chef Finale

Short rib with spot prawn ravioli

As an overall dish, Shirley’s main fared better. The prawn was front and centre (literally), with a whimsical presentation that ensured diners knew every part of the shrimp had been used. The prawns lent their essence to the coconut red curry sauce, a rich concoction that again highlighted Shirley’s love of bold flavours, and helped tie the two proteins together. Her short rib, however, was tough to get through. Some of the cuts around our table were extremely fatty, and as a result, was rather chewy and unpleasant to eat.

CHG Top Chef Finale

Short rib with coconut red curry sauce

Third course: eggs

To be fair, Ben did have a slight advantage in this course. One of his sous chefs, Valerie, was in charge of dessert, and with her “team” of Thermomixes, had decided to make a zabaglione, which would emphatically highlight the eggs. Served with Canadian winter berries and a raspberry cream, it ended his meal in a similar way to how it started – light and refreshing.

CHG Top Chef Finale

Zabaglione with winter berries and raspberry cream

Shirley’s dessert of carrot cake wasn’t the best use of eggs, but was transformational for many people, including myself. I’m not typically a fan of carrot cake, but Shirley’s version, moist and studded with pineapples and almonds, was one of the best versions I’ve ever had.

CHG Top Chef Finale

A sea of carrot cakes

The judging panel, which included Chef Blair Lebsack, the Journal’s Liane Faulder, Up! 99 and Telus TV’s Kari Skelton, and CHG’s Corporate Chef Paul Schufelt, had a tough decision to make. But given they would only be awarding up to 100 points each, diners, who each received a CHG poker chip, would also have a say. With 67 diner chips up for grabs, the crowd would definitely be able to influence the results.

CHG Top Chef Finale

Judging is serious business

In the end, the diners did sway the decision, given there was only 1 point separating Ben and Shirley as far as the judges were concerned.

CHG Top Chef Finale

Hearing the final verdict

So, after four weeks of intense competition, with fifteen other chefs in his wake, Ben Weir was crowned the CHG Top Chef!

CHG Top Chef Finale

Congrats, Ben!

Both Ben and Shirley deserve accolades for the meals they put together under such high pressure – both of them undoubtedly have bright futures ahead of them. Congratulations are also due to Paul, Tony and the rest of the CHG crew for putting together such an exciting event. It sounds like something that will happen on an annual basis – I’m sure it will soon become the hottest ticket in town.

Thanks again to CHG for the invitation!

Liv’s write-up of the finale is here, and you can see Mack’s Flickr set here.

  • http://www.acanadianfoodie.com A Canadian Foodie

    Great to read about the evening. It was definitely challenging for me – much more than I thought. Not the dessert part (OK, too heavy on the booze – but that is how I like it) but, the other parts. I didn’t eat or taste a thing except both short ribs in the kitchen (just a bite of the ends of each, and it was clear that Shirley needed to braise hers longer as it was too tough and the fat hadn’t melted through the meat, yet) But, I have to say that watching her attention to detail and her passion was inspirational for me, too. Ben has more experience, was very confident and clearly, his skill with the braising of the meat was apparent. I would have liked to taste each dish. That was the only downfall with the work I did… and I did not feel like eating or tasting a thing that night at all, anyway!
    :)
    Valerie

  • http://www.onlyhereforthefood.ca Sharon

    Valerie – I know you said you wouldn’t write about the experience because you didn’t have pictures, but I think you should – your perspective of the day would certainly be much different (and probably richer…because you were truly able to be “behind the scenes”).

    Hopefully next year, you won’t be picked to be the sous chef :).

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