Eight of Winnipeg's top chefs brought their A-game to Friday night's sold-out Gold Medal Plates competition at the Convention Centre, but it was chef Kelly Cattani of Elements the Restaurant, by Diversity who emerged as the golden girl.
She will go on to represent Winnipeg at the national Gold Medal Plates competition in Kelowna, B.C., next February.
Tim Palmer from The Velvet Glove snagged the silver medal while Simon Resch from Terrace in the Park took home the bronze.
Other competitors were Eric Lee (Pizzeria Gusto), Tristan Foucault (Peasant Cookery), Terry Gereta (Mise, Haute Prairie Cuisine), Michael Schafer (Sydney's at the Forks) and Jason Sopel (Chaise Restaurant & Lounge).
Gold Medal Plates is an annual culinary competition that raises funds for the Canadian Olympic Foundation, which supports high-performance athletic programs such as Own the Podium. Winnipeg's event was one of 10 staged across Canada this fall.
Each chef was responsible for a regionally influenced appetizer and a wine or beverage pairing. Each dish was then judged on visual presentation, texture, taste, wine compatibility, originality and wow factor by a panel of judges that included last year's Winnipeg winner, ñsten Rice of Wasabi Sabi, and renowned food writer James Chatto, among others.
For local chefs, Gold Medal Plates offers a unique opportunity to break from routine and engage in some friendly competition. The Winnipeggers and Olympians in attendance, meanwhile, get to savour the fruits of their labour.
This was Cattani's second year going for the gold. She was remarkably calm and focused during setup, amid a room buzzing with excited, nervous energy. "Last year was very stressful," she recalled. "I'm much more relaxed this year because I know what to expect."
Indeed, she learned from experience, electing to keep her winning dish -- a Manitoba elk, avocado, soba and soy appetizer -- simple. "Last year we had 20 components on the plate," she said with a laugh. "I stand by that dish. That was some of the best cooking I've ever done. Well, apart from this year."
While less elaborate than last year's, the year's dish still involved some risk-taking. Cattani's appetizer was the only cold dish on the menu.
"(Cold dishes are) a little more challenging. The flavours have to be able to stand together; you have no room to adjust them. They have to be able to pop. And I really wanted to use elk. Manitoba-raised elk is so gorgeous, and it's not a meat I get to work with on a regular basis."
The dish was a big hit among many of the evening's guests, including Olympic rower Janine Hanson, a Winnipegger who won a silver medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. "It's delicious," she raved. "It has lots of flavour."
Hanson has been attending Gold Medal Plates events for the past couple years. "I love it," she said. "It's nice to do to something so different. It's not just another dinner."
Indeed, Gold Medal Plates offers more than your average fundraising dinner. Winnipeggers Cal and Nadia Harrison are self-described foodies, so Gold Medal Plates is right up their alley.
"We're always impressed with the quality and variety of food, with a Winnipeg twist," Cal said.
"It's a great way to support the athletes and spend some time with them," Nadia added.
For chefs, it's also a chance to revisit ideas that don't make it on to regular menus. Mise's Gereta offered up a deconstructed grilled cheese and bacon, with Gimli apple jelly and Quebec popping foie, which combined a French delicacy with a childhood one: Pop Rocks.
"It was one of those ongoing ideas we have in the kitchen that we shelve and bring out for special occasions," Gereta said.
Sopel was the new kid on the block. His St. Boniface spot, Chaise Lounge, is less than a year old. Sopel, who grew up in Yorkton, Sask., and was living in Edmonton before relocating to Winnipeg, put his Prairie provenance on his plate with bison short-rib perogies -- his grandmother's recipe, naturally.
Sopel was thrilled to be included in this year's competition.
"There are lots of chefs here who have been (in Winnipeg) a long time," he said. "It's exciting to be at the same calibre."