Butterflies in his Stomach
Oz Kafé chef Jamie Stunt is starting to feel the heat of competition.
“Yeah, I would say I’m nervous,” confides the 32-year-old in charge of the kitchen at the unassuming Oz Kafé on Elgin Street.
Less than a month remains before Stunt, 32, flies to the big, potentially career-changing party in British Columbia. He is one of 10 Canadian regional Gold Medal Plates finalists competing in the Canadian Culinary Championships Feb. 8 and 9.
The event, a fundraiser in support of Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes, will consist of three gruelling cooking events involving a secret wine pairing, a mystery black box of ingredients, and a grand finale dinner. Stunt, who is not formally trained as a chef, will find himself pitted against some of the brightest stars in Canada’s culinary firmament.
“I looked at the calendar and it’s a month away, but I feel we are where we should be as far as planning and organizing,” Stunt says.
“But serving 600 people on the other side of the country and trying to make the best dish of anyone in Canada is maybe the craziest thing I’ve ever done, ” Stunt says.
He especially appreciates the moral support from his Ottawa peers. Twenty volunteers from Ottawa’s close restaurant community are keeping the café lights on while the home team is off to Kelowna trying to bring back gold — for the second year — to the nation’s capital.
Last year, many of the same volunteer chefs staged a “weekend takeover” of tiny Atelier restaurant on Rochester Street so that chef/owner Marc Lépine, 37, and his staff did not have to worry about the home fires when they travelled to the 2013 Gold Medal Plates finals.
For Stunt and Oz Kafé, the cost of competing on the other side of the continent could otherwise easily ring upwards of $10,000 in lost revenue, not counting hotel rooms, wages, airfare, and surcharges for the inevitable excess baggage to lug ingredients and perhaps special gadgets to the contest.
You can appreciate the gratitude Lepine felt last year to know his restaurant in Ottawa was in good hands, and that revenue would be coming in while he and staff were away. (Of the $150 ticket price to 2012’s “weekend takeover” at Atelier, $50 went to the food bank. This year, the price for Oz Kafé will be a more modest $80, which includes $20 for the Ottawa Food Bank.)
Lepine won the coveted Canadian Culinary Champion title last year.
“I know how he (Stunt) feels because I remember last year thinking it’s incredible that all these chefs I respect so much will be working in my kitchen,” Lepine recalls.
“Apart from that, I remember wishing that I could attend. It was such a cool dinner, I just wish I could have eaten here on one of those nights because it was a pretty special thing.”
This year, Stunt expects to take with him Simon Bell, his sous chef, and cook Michael Bednarz, as well as café owner and enthusiastic supporter Oz Balpinar.
While Stunt isn’t giving away his entire battle plan, he does allow that his proposed plate for the finale will be a variation of the seared yak from Tiraislin Fold Farm in Maberly, Ont., prawn pickle, crispy tomatillo, smoked boar vinaigrette, herbs, citrus and spice that won him first place in Ottawa. Again, it will be paired with a special brew created by Ashton Brewing Co., a brew pub in nearby Ashton, Ont.
“Most say it’s wise to make the same dish, but because a lot of stuff we used the first time was seasonal, we felt to try and re-create the same using out-of-season ingredients may actually produce a worse dish than we made in Ottawa. So our plan is to be even better by changing some ingredients to keep them seasonal while retaining the same idea.”
Stunt says: “Oz has been absolutely unbelievable; she’s spared no expense. She’s given us total freedom to spend and do what we want … We’re had very good help with Canadian caviar donated from Northern Devine, but nonetheless this is still a very expensive undertaking for us.
“But Oz has total faith in us, which makes things a ton easier to try and bring home a gold medal to Ottawa for the second year in a row.”
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