“Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them– that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.” – Anne of Green Gables, ch. 34, “A Queen’s Girl”
Hot beef being sliced, sauce being drizzled, potatoes being mashed and hands and arms flailing in a flurry of activity. It’s not every day you get to be smack-dab in the middle of a live cooking challenge, much less one hosted by Chef Michael Smith! This is Part II of The Taste of PEI Cook-Off Challenge event where I dined on and soaked in everything Prince Edward Island at Mildred’s Temple Kitchen in Liberty Village several weeks ago! This was so much fun because not only did all of us get to take part in some fun oyster eating and shucking demos, eat Prince Edward Island food, and meet and mingle with fellow food bloggers, travel foodies, and industry folk, we also got the opportunity to get up close and personal with the crazy half hour cooking battle that took place during the event: 4 chefs, 4 appetizers on 4 plates, 4 “secret” ingredients and one hell of an exciting cook-off!
Now I know it sounds a little strange that I’m saying that we got take part in the cooking challenge. After all, the event was called the Taste of PEI Cook-Off Challenge for a reason; we certainly weren’t just there to nosh on platters of cheese and veggies and PEI meats and seafood! There were many things to take away from the event but clearly, the cook-off was the jewel of the treasure chest. However, there’s a big difference between being a spectator and being right in the middle of the action soaking everything in as its happening. And that is why this event, in my opinion, was so much fun, so well-executed, and so meaningful for everyone involved. It wasn’t just us standing around looking on while the 4 competing chefs cooked. We were all allowed to walk right up to the cooking station where all 4 chefs were preparing their dishes (so long as we didn’t interfere and get in their way of course!), ask questions, take an obscene amount of photos, record videos, and basically salivate and gawk as we did it.
It was such a warm, welcoming, open atmosphere and we were all made to feel like the event was for us just as much as it was for the chefs, for the media and for the organizers. It was such a treat and much more interactive than I thought it would be! We were standing there recording their every move in image and video and none of the 4 chefs missed a beat, like they were made to compete and to showcase their culinary talents in front of an adoring crowd. And I do mean every move! We were literally speed-walking and jogging back and forth between chefs snapping photos and it’s almost ridiculous everything we recorded: “Ooo, he put sauce on the plate!” *CLICK* “Ooo, she’s slicing the beef!” *CLICK* “Check out those waffle chips!” *CLICK* “Did someone drop something?!” *CLI-okay, maybe not* You get the idea. It was all part of the experience and I’m really grateful that we weren’t given the red tape or the boot to stay clear.
The 4 wonderful chefs and aspiring culinary giants that took part in the PEI cook-off challenge were Keith Hubbard from Fanshawe College (far left), Trevor Littlejohn from Niagara College (2nd from the right), Chrystalla Papachristou from Humber College (far right), and the cooking challenge winner that night, Lorelei Simbulan (2nd from the left) from Liasion College! The task? To create ONE appetizer dish FOUR times for four plates using PEI ingredients (mussels, beef, potatoes, etc.) AND to incorporate at least ONE of the FOUR “secret” PEI foraged ingredients! The four foraged ingredients (cattails, mussels, fiddleheards and spruce shoots) are foods that really make Prince Edward Island shine and they were all personally foraged by Michael Smith for this very event.
The event was about cooking and eating and the love of food, yes, but also about doing things out of your comfort zone, opening yourself up to new experiences, and to really become one with your food in whatever way that you can. And Michael Smith does this by foraging for wild ingredients and harvesting them, getting the hands and feet dirty (literally putting on those wellies and sticking your hands into a swampy area and grabbing those cattails out!) and learning about what your hometown has to offer. Because little do we know, food could be staring us in the face in our own neighourhoods; we just have to find ways to explore, research and get to know the food possibilities that surround us.
The chefs had 30 minutes to prepare their appetizers on 4 plates using whatever was available to them in the kitchen “pantry” (SO totally Chopped-like on Food Network with the secret ingredients, stocked pantry, and sweaty countdown to the finish line!) and in the end, they would be judged by Michael Smith and 3 selected judges and a winner would be crowned with a prize of $500 and bragging rights! We watched the cook-off from start to finish from the moment the chefs raced to the pantry shelves and table to the last seconds of plating. And in the end, not one chef make an appetizer that was similar to anybody else’s.
Keith went, in my mind, the chic pub-style, comfort food route with a grilled strip loin with apple cider vinegar and smashed garlic served with fiddlehead, spruce shoots and potato soup, apple and blue cheese mussels and crispy waffle chips* (I am such a sucker for waffle chips, they are just so darn cute!); Trevor‘s dish oozed steakhouse gourmet with a sesame grilled strip loin (seeing those slices of of strip loin made me drool, oh my gosh) with spruce shoots and Sriracha served with a fiddlehead and potato puree, carrot and green apple citrus slaw with bacon, sticky soy and beer braised mussels and topped with dulse potato hickory sticks*.
Chrystalla went contemporary with lots of fruity, flavourfuls twists with a grilled strip loin steak marinated with spruce shoots and grape seed oil served with fiddleheads sweetened with honey, orange juice and orange zest and potatoes sautéed with mussels, coconut milk, a hint of cream and dulse, garnished with cattails marinated in white wine vinegar and grape seed oil* (truly like a mosaic of edible art!); and finally, Lorelei’s was a petite “big things come in small packages” warmth and comfort of a delight: pan seared medallion of beef seasoned with salt, pepper and spruce shoots served over Dijon and chive mashed potatoes with Panko and dusle mussels and a garlic butter sauce* (which just about made my stomach growl!). So many different interpretations and styles and yet they all worked together as one cohesive food presentation.
After careful deliberation, Lorelei Simbulan from Liasion College was crowned winner of the Taste of PEI Cook-Off Challenge with a big fat cheque of $500 to take home! Watching the 4 chefs duke it out Chopped and Iron Chef-style was incredible (no easy feat to plate the same dish 4 times and to keep things consistent! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Chopped or The Next Iron Chef or something or other and one judge will love it and another will say, “um, mine was undercooked!”) and it was such a fun, eye-opening experience to see them push their creative minds for the love and passion of food and cooking. A HUGE thanks to Tourism PEI and Mosaic for organizing the event (*and for providing us bloggers with all the nitty gritty details of all the ingredients that went into the chefs’ final dishes!), to Mildred’s Temple Kitchen for providing their beautiful space for the event, to all the great people I met that night (shoutouts go out to Alex Ward from Fresh Juice, Dave and Deb (my name twin!) at ThePlanetD, Brian @ProjectBLT and The Huffington Post, and Foodies Inked) and to Chef Micheal Smith for hosting, brining PEI to TO and for being an inspiration all these years.