Follow Me Foodie to the Top Chef Canada Dinner at River Cafe!
A recap of the Top Chef Canada Ultimate Culinary Weekend dinner at River Cafe.
If you’re an avid fan of Top Chef Canada then this might get you a bit jealous. This exclusive dinner was thanks to Tourism Calgary for hosting a Top Chef Canada Ultimate Culinary Weekend for contest winners. I was invited to come along for the ride and it was perhaps the most anticipated dinner for the lucky winners of this Top Chef themed trip.
Top Chef Canada has discovered lots of Canadian talent in its three seasons, and Calgary is home to some of the fan favourites. I was able to meet many of the city’s finest chefs in my 6 days in Follow Me Foodie to Calgary, and there is still lots of undiscovered talent. Credit and respect to the chefs who made it on the show, but their local talent goes beyond their Top Chef contestants as well.
On this occasion, it was all about Top Chef Canada though, and it was an honour to have four of Calgary’s Top Chef contestants cook an exclusive 5 course dinner in a private setting.
The Top Chef Canada Ultimate Culinary Weekend dinner was hosted at River Cafe at Prince’s Island Park. It is one of the city’s most notable fine dining restaurants specializing in regional cuisine. I don’t know how many restaurants are as committed as they are when they say “regional cuisine”, but here it is done with integrity and justice. They are industry leaders when it comes to sourcing locally and pioneers in sustainability.
River Cafe was one of the first restaurants to join Ocean Wise and they often buy direct from fishermen. They also buy direct from over 60 producers and pay local farmers asking price. There are other restauranteurs and chefs who practice this, but it’s not an industry standard and I respect their culinary philosophy and ethics.
Their edible garden features herbs and edible flowers, but due to climate limitations and location, they can’t farm and harvest on-site all year.
They make a conscious and continuous effort to improve their daily operations in a way that is less harmful to the environment, and take initiative supporting the local community.
It is hard to imagine that this rustic yet elegant restaurant was one of Calgary’s most damaged restaurants during the flood this year. Sal Howell, owner of River Cafe, took a hard hit when the contaminated water destroyed dry storage, kitchen equipment and executive chef Andrew Winfield’s prosciutto (which he had aging for 18 months). Her wine cellar also got compromised and it was a financial loss they were thankfully able to recover from. Her positive outlook on life would make you question if “@#$%!!!! Why me!?!?” ever even crossed her mind at the time. I can only admire the high spirits at River Cafe.
Since this was a Top Chef Canada themed dinner, what I had was not representable of a regular night at River Cafe. The restaurant is a local favourite for special occasions, although the ambiance is approachable without the stuffiness of white tablecloths and “indoor voices” only.
Due to the nature of the event I will not comment extensively on the food since it was a one-time event. Each Top Chef was responsible for one dish and I found them very representable of who they were and their cooking styles.
It was a special evening at a special place and I would re-visit River Cafe in the future. Trusted “foodie friends” have given it positive reviews and their passion speaks through their food. It helps that the chef and owner have the same values and beliefs, and I only hope it translates well on their regular menu.
On the table:
Season 2 Top Chef Canada Contestant – Xavier Lacaze
Chef Xavier Lacaze, Briggs Kitchen and Bar
This soft-spoken and kind soul is from season 2 of Top Chef Canada. Xavier Lacaze was born and raised in France, but after meeting his Calgarian wife they settled in Calgary.
He was originally the chef at Calgary’s fine dining restaurant Muse Restaurant, but after his stint on Top Chef Canada he took the role of Executive Chef at Briggs Kitchen and Bar. It’s more or less a gastropub serving professionally executed casual fare, craft beer, selected wines and cocktails.
I tried Briggs on my first night and it wouldn’t typically be my scene, but it’s a busy place and good for groups with varied tastes. It offers approachable food in a casual atmosphere, but Lacaze brings his French techniques and style to American dishes and comfort food.
- Pickled fennel, jalapeño syrup
- I found this much more representable of who Xavier is compared to the dishes I tried at Briggs, although Briggs was not bad.
- This was just more refined and catered for the event.
- It was one of my favourite courses of the night and easily over looked since it’s a vegetable salad.
- He let the high quality fresh ingredients speak for themselves and he highlighted them with subtle accents.
- It featured thick cut beef steak tomatoes mixed with cherry tomatoes drizzled with an acidic pepper dressing and spicy sweet jalapeño syrup.
- It was sweet and then spicy with creamy goat’s cheese which was not too pungent.
- The thin rectangular tart underneath the tomatoes was dry, flaky and crisp. It was almost cracker-like.
- It was a traditional French pastry dough made from flour, butter, water and salt and it takes at least 3 hours to bake and dry out.
Season 1 Top Chef Canada Contestant – Connie DeSousa
Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet DeSousa, who was away for this dinner. As a replacement, Chef Mike Batke (“Alley Burger Mike”) was there to represent the restaurant.
DeSousa is probably the most well known Top Chef contestant in Calgary who also made it the furthest in the competition. She made it to top 3 before being eliminated in season 1.
DeSousa is the co-exec chef and co-owner of CHARCUT Roast House in Calgary. It was named one of Canada’s Best New Restaurants in 2010 by enRoute Magazine. It’s received lots of media attention and awards since then and it’s one of Calgary’s most talked about restaurants. I ran out of time and never made it to CHARCUT (I know, shocking), but I walked by it and took a quick look inside (how I got my picture above).
- Brassica Mustard, House Made Pickles
- These are CHARCUT signatures.
- It was unexpected as the second course and this dainty portion and plated style of serving is apparently far from their usual presentation.
- This is CHARCUT’s pride and joy.
- Mortadella is a large, cured, Italian sausage, or cold cut meat, originating from Bologna, Italy.
- It is made from lean pork which is ground until almost a paste and studded with pork fat.
- Pistachios or pine nuts, peppercorns and/or olives will also be thrown in the mix.
- It can be served sliced paper thin to be used for sandwiches, or cut into cubes to be served as an appetizer.
- The American version of mortadella is boloney, which many might call a bastardized version – although apples and oranges.
- This looked ready for a sandwich, but it was a starter course and it is available at CHARCUT.
- It was a pistachio, peppercorn and truffle mortadella and there was a good balance of meat and fat.
- Usually it comes with a pig head rind around the edges, but it was removed for this dinner.
- I have no problems with pig’s head, but apparently the rind can be a bit chewy and tough especially if the mortadella isn’t sliced thin enough, so it was simply removed.
- There was no sign of casing, being removed, and it was definitely not your grocery store deli-meat.
- The slices were thin, buttery, creamy and melt in your mouth tender, but not too rich or overpowering with any particular spices or flavour.
- It was excellent mortadella, but professionally made mortadella treated as an art is almost always good.
- Kielbasa is a Polish sausage normally made from pork and/or beef, but this was made from bison heart and likely pork and/or beef too.
- It was a firm well-made sausage and it wasn’t too salty.
- It had a meaty chew and slight bounce thanks to the added chunks of bison heart.
- Bison is a lean game meat, and it’s not as strong as beef in flavour.
- The heart is naturally a bit bouncy with a bite, and I personally like heart, so it gave the sausage character and dynamic texture I could appreciate.
- Traditionally in Poland it would be served with cabbage, beets and potatoes, but here it was served with grainy mustard, which isn’t necessarily uncommon.
This was a pickled West African gherkin which was very seedy and more mellow than a cucumber. It’s originally from West Africa and I’m not sure who’s harvesting them locally, but I can appreciate an introduction to an exotic ingredient as much as I can a locally sourced one.
Season 3 Top Chef Canada Contestant – Nicole Gomes
Chef Nicole Gomes-Kammerer, Nicole Gourmet Catering
Bubbly, social and full of energy, Nicole Gomes was on season 3 of Top Chef Canada and she made it to top 5. We briefly met at Feast Tofino and sat across from each other at The Pointe Restaurant at The Wickaninnish Inn, which is one of her favourite restaurants there.
She is the chef and propriter of Nicole Gourmet Catering. Her boutique catering company offers on and off-site catering, menu consultation and food styling. Her hometown is Vancouver, BC (represent!) where she trained at Dubrulle French Culinary (now called Art Institute of Vancouver), she was the first female chef to be hired by Chef David Hawksworth back when he was at West. She also worked under one of Calgary’s culinary godfathers, Michael Noble at Catch Restaurant, and her passion for traveling has given her international training and experience.
- Read Island Clams, Olson’s High Country Bison, Fregula
- This was comforting and homestyle and I’m not sure if it’s her normal cooking style, but it was approachable, rustic, and true to Italian roots.
- She brought the Fregula back from her trip in Southern Italy where the noodle is from.
- Fregula is a type of Sardinian pasta and it tastes almost like Israeli cous cous meets spätzle.
- It’s made from semolina dough and the pasta is misshapen, chewy and a bit nutty. It is ideal for stews and soups.
- This was a very traditional Southern Italian way of making Fregula and it is often served with tomato based sauces and clams.
- There was some smoky and spicy chorizo, good acidity and savoury notes in the broth.
- The clams were a bit chewy, but it was Italian comfort food and the sauce was a hybrid of stew and broth.
Chef Andrew Winfield
Chef Andrew Winfield, River Cafe (I was avoiding flash, excuse the blurriness)
Chef Winfield was the honourary “Top Chef” for the event. Although he was never on the show, he is a “top chef” in the eyes of many locals. As the executive chef at River Cafe, this prairie-native has always believed in farm-t0-table cooking. He was awarded the Guelph Good Food Innovation Award in 2012 for his use of Canadian ingredients and emphasis on sustainability (River Cafe).
- Taber Corn & Bacon Ragout, Ricotta Gnudi, Chanterelles, Turnip, Black Currant Reduction
- The lamb belly around my lamb loin was a bit too much, and it wasn’t quite tender yet, but the loin was excellent.
- It was Moroccan spiced with a bit of mint and it was savoury with good aromatics.
- I could taste hints of cinnamon, anise and cardamom and there was good depth of flavour and balance.
- It didn’t really need a jus because it was moist on its own, and the tart black currant was a nice change from a balsamic reduction.
- The ricotta gnudi was quite dense, chewy and doughy though, which was unexpected since it was made with ricotta.
- The ricotta was subtle, but there, and I think the dough was just overworked.
- His philosophy showed in his dishes and I would be interested to come back on a regular night.
- It’s an iconic restaurant and it has a beautiful patio and view.
Season 3 Top Chef Canada Contestant – Chris Shaften
Much better, but I had to ask. Chef Chris Shaften, Taste First
I don’t even know where to start with this one…
I’ve met Shaften on a few occasions now, and he’s “as seen on TV”. Uncensored. Unfiltered. Quirky. Funny. Flirtatious, and probably one of the least shy people I’ve ever met. I actually questioned if he could really cook because he is hard to take seriously. However when it comes to cooking, it’s all business… until he leaves the kitchen.
He is the chef/owner of Taste First, a private chef business offering catering services and cooking classes.
- Crème fraîche, Corn Pudding
- Wine pairing: 2011 Moscato di Pantelleria Donnafugata Sicily
- I didn’t expect this from him and it was an elegant and light dessert.
- I loved the peaches n’ cream corn theme and it was modern and creative.
- The peaches were a bit sour, but the corn pudding was sweet and it was best with a little bit of everything all eaten together.
- The corn pudding was a nice change from creme l’anglaise or custard, and it was my favourite component. It tasted like corn and it wasn’t starchy.
- The crème fraîche was expectedly tangy and also savoury and the cake was a polenta/cornmeal cake, but it was a bit dry and I’m not sure if it was intentional.
- The cake would have been nice aerated and microwaved, but due to the context of the event, there may have been limitations for preferred execution.
- I would have loved some texture to the dish and it was missing a crispy/crunchy component, but I could have easily eaten two (or three) plates.
- I listed “Vegetables in Desserts” in my Top 10 Food Trends for 2013, and this was a great example of one done well.