Looking back at the Iron Chef

Agriculture, Events, Food, Fundraising

Can you say awesome?

Last Thursday evening, from 5pm onwards, hundreds of food lovers, chefs, and community members turned out to celebrate good food and good company at our third annual Iron Chef.

Hit the bottom of this post for the slideshow!

Things kicked off well at 5pm, with food and drinks flowing past appreciative palates, each bite or sip encouraging people to slow down a bit and chat with an old friend or a new acquaintance. In short time, the mood had become festive and light as the audience savoured some of the last of the heat that the summer had to offer.

The chef teams were getting their instructions and laying out their (sparse) equipment in preparation for the one-hour showdown. Soon, they’d be touring the gardens with resident garden experts Tim Murphy and Noémie Desbiens-Riendeau to scope out the tasty treats they might harvest later on to concoct their closely guarded recipes.

There! A perfect eggplant hanging from a vine. Here! Holy… look at the colour on that tomato! In that container over there, some beautiful bunches of mint/basil/tarragon.

The ingredients are ready, and so are the chefs.

We hear a little announcement from Tim over the speakers; the competition will start soon.

Boom! Off to the races, the teams are scurrying around the Burnside building at McGill, harvesting ingredients from the self-watering containers and the raised beds. Next, their knives (one chef’s and one paring knife per team) are deftly slicing, julienning, and peeling the freshly harvest vitals. It’s impressive to watch; these fundamentally simple tools are being wielded not as mere objects, but as extensions of the chef’s hands. They know what they’re doing and everyone can see the difference; there is a peculiar combination of Zen and adrenaline in the air as the artists channel thousands of hours of experience.

It’s not too long before the focus and the tension loosen a bit and the joking around starts between the teams. They start to exchange barbs and tips, tit for tat; these cooks are pros not just with kitchenware, but also with people. Some onlookers ask questions about what’s cooking, what the chefs’ secret ingredient is. The mood is starting to get that community feel. People are laughing aloud now. The chefs have fully realized that they’re all in the same under-equipped boat; that they can only give it their best shot. Somehow, this lightens the mood.

In the meantime, the immense mountain of freshly boiled and wonderfully sweet fresh-picked corn-on-the-cob is disappearing at an astounding rate. Already three enormous trays of apple crumble have made for many happy faces amongst the guests. The smooth lentil and veggie soup with mint and basil, presented in a massive cauldron (big enough to fit a full-grown adult) soon disappears among the appreciative guests.

People are enjoying the food, gawking at what the chefs are managing to pull off in record time and with little equipment. Twin Voices are wooing everyone with acoustic covers and songs from their debut EP. This is fun!

By now, many eyes are on Ken Buckland from Sala Rosa. He’s gotten extremely resourceful and is using a utensil, a spatula, a pan, and a bowl to build an impromptu steamer to infuse leek steam into the vegetables he has layered and expertly wrapped into a squat cylinder using swiss-chard leaves. The audience is blown away.

A couple of chef’s try their hands at the challenges to win some extra ingredients. Truth or dare? The gamble eventually pays off for team Fabergé who score butter. The community team also wins some bocconcini, an excellent item to give their plate that, je ne sais quoi factor, so critical for catching the attention of the jury.

By now, the teams are a bit pressed for time; the hour they have to prepare their meals is up soon. With one eye on the clock, they deftly place their meals onto plates. The presentation of some of the dishes is out of this world, with floral arrangements that rival what many florists can put together.

And then, as quickly as it began, the hour is over and the cooking has to stop. “Knives down!” hollers Tim over the microphone, smiling. Tensions ease some more, as the chef’s look up from their tables and tools and are greeted by hundreds of smiling faces. As the chefs move towards the stage to present their creations, so too does the crowd. Their speeches draw uproarious laughter, cheers, hoots, and clapping from everyone, including the competition. Nods, oohs, and aahs can be heard as the crowd’s first impressions that these chefs are lovely people are confirmed by the way they cheer each other on.

Once the chefs finish stating their cases, the jury digs in, tasting and eventually discussing the entries for what seems an interminable period. We want to know! Seeking privacy, they leave the table, giving the audience a chance to taste the contestant’s entries.

That lemon preserved in salt, re-hydrated and re-sweetened prior to use, makes Holder’s meal positively astounding. The richness of Atigh’s dish is surprising, courtesy of a nutritious herb called Moringa, which he harvests in his village in Mauritania. The bocconcini and the pastry in the community team’s dish is a surprising fit with their ratatouille. Then there is Sala Rosa’s wrap, blessed ever so subtly by saffron, and Rumi’s vegetable dish and salad, the later flavoured by a vinaigrette with pomegranate paste. The butter won by Fabergé plays to their advantage with a sauce hollandaise to complement their eggs.

While the jury deliberates, the music plays, and the chefs chat with each other and with the audience. Soon, the food is all gone and the wheelbarrow of beers is running very low.

The judges are back now, the crowd gathers around once again. It’s time to announce the winners…

Holder wins best fundraiser! Noémie tells us that the entire staff team made huge efforts to raise funds for the Roulant’s urban agriculture program.

Next up, Rumi! They win best team spirit. Evidently, their calm and collaborative approach to cooking has struck a chord not just with the audience, but also with the judges.

Finally, the tensions high, we hear the verdict, the one we’ve all been waiting for. The trophy goes to the community team! Gabriel Couture, Cai Rintoul, and Grace Bulmer are ecstatic, they’re glowing. They’ll need to figure out whose home the trophy will stay at until next year, but that’s a problem for tomorrow. Right now it’s time for hugging.

With the music back on, celebrations continue, and some late-event dancing goes on until McGill security kindly asks us to wrap it up. What’s the last track to play before the power gets pulled? Yup, Beyoncé’s All the Single Ladies.

What a night!

Big thanks definitely go out to chef Ali Ashtian and co-owners Husayn Friedmann and his brother Jonathan from Rumi; the amazing Atigh from La Khaïma; Devin, Jeff, Echo  and Tyler from Fabergé; chef Simon Laplante and cook Dominique Cloutier from Holder; lone wolf Ken Buckland from Sala Rosa; winners Gabriel Couture, Cai Rintoul, and Grace Bulmer from the community team; talented Joe, Laura, and Simon from Twin Voices; Seb and the crew from MOOG for the sound equipment; members of the jury Daniel Pinard, Susan Schwartz, Dominique Forget, et Mari-Eve Savaria; and last, but not least, to the weather for holding off the rain so that we could all have a blast!

Photos courtesy of volunteer photographer Larissa Milo-Dale (http://www.flickr.com/larashka).

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