It was the Monday before Christmas. I was helping out at the evening community hot meal that's held at the Screaming Avocado Cafe (the alternative student-run cafeteria supervised by Stratford Northwestern Secondary School's celebrated Culinary Arts teacher Paul Finkelstein) every other week.
As I offered the patrons of the meal a special Christmas appetizer treat of lobster pinwheels - which had been generously donated by Chef Shawn from Simple Fish and Chips - I experienced an extended mash-up of surreal flashbacks from the weekend that had just passed.
Visions of an urban underground supper club were juxtaposed with those of a lavish country restaurant, which all commingled with recollections of a seemingly boundless fantasy menu featuring ingredients as unlikely as horse, pig's tail, seal, walrus, narwhal and beluga whale, muskox, and caribou. Secret identities, a secret location and a not-so-secret embedded blogger added to the enigma, which was all carefully constructed and executed by a group of passionate food adventurers and talented chefs bound together by a shared desire to push the limits of Canadian fine dining.
Allow me to explain. I'll start back at the beginning...
Hopefully you've been able to check out the blog post describing my once-in-a-lifetime food education adventure serving as a mentor with the Stratford Northwestern SS Culinary Arts class on their epic trip to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, this past October. In that post, I provided a link to the Screaming Avocados' first blog entry from the trip, which saw the gang being treated to a preview of Northern food ingredients at the home of Steve and Twyla Cooper/Campbell in Edmonton. These two enthusiasts of food in general and Northern food in particular (check out Twyla's own food blog) prepared a gorgeous Arctic feast for us, which really helped the kids transition to the dramatically different food culture they encountered once we reached Nunavut.
Well, it turns out that Fink and Special Agent Cooper were also working that night on concocting another, slightly more elaborate Northern feast to share with food-loving folks from the South. Paul had caught wind of a travelling, invite-only dining club out of Toronto known only as "Charlie Burger", which was quickly becoming infamous for challenging even the most adventurous palates (for example, a previous version of this "Anti-Restaurant" featured a gourmet menu composed around insects). Paul proposed that Steve and Twyla call upon their vast network of food connections above the Arctic Circle to supply the ingredients for an irreplicable dining event for Charlie Burger in Toronto. He didn't need to plead his case very far: they were immediately in.
All they needed now was a chef who wasn't afraid of taking-on Canadian ingredients as 'exotic' as walrus, muskox, seal and whale. Earlier this year, Paul had connected with Chef Louis, a true king of high-end Canadian cuisine. King Louis was contacted and also agreed almost instantly to come to Stratford and Toronto to make the dream of a Northern fine dining feast a reality. "Charlie" was approached (as much as a fictional, pseudonymic, mysterious alter-ego can be 'approached'), and the wheels were put into motion for a $235-a-plate meal showcasing Arctic product via a menu designed by one of Canada's luminary chefs.
And somehow, by some stroke of fate, I found myself hurtled right into the middle of this cyclonic food adventure...
It started on Friday. I volunteered to go to the airport to pick King Louis up, and brought him back to Stratford. Fink and several students from the Stratford Chefs School were waiting at the Screaming Avocado with knives poised at the ready to begin the two days of prep required to bring his menu to fruition. Steve Cooper was also there, but left to pick Twyla and the rest of the Northern product up from the airport. I had expected to be doing dishes, but was delighted to be invited by Chef Louis to take part in the prep. The next morning I arrived and joined an expanded kitchen team that now included two former-student veterans of the Fink Food Network show and one current student from the Culinary Arts program.
I was honoured to be entrusted with King Louis' razor sharp knife and the important task of slicing slabs of marble-like narwhal skin and blubber into paper-thin pieces for a ceviche and into diced cubes destined to be fried-up nice and crispy a la bacon bits (above). I took a great deal of care in preparing the whale exactly as Chef instructed me: these sacred Northern ingredients did not travel all this way for me to waste or ruin them.
I watched-on along with Steve and Twyla, Paul, the Chefs School students and the returning SNSS alumni as Chef Louis prepared the traditional Inuit ingredient of seal for his signature dish the next evening (above, being broken down, and below, as it was being cooked).
The whole team worked their butts off all day at the Avocado to get every course prepped as much as possible for the dinner the next evening. As a reward for our hard work, and as inspiration for the meal ahead of us on Sunday, Paul, myself, SNSS Principal Deborah McNair (who was also on the now-legendary trip to Nunavut) and our respective partners joined Steve and Twyla and King Louis Saturday night at the five-diamond-rated Langdon Hall, the opulent country manor outside of Cambridge, for a spectacular dinner prepared by our own friendly neighbourhood culinary genius: Chef Jonathan Gushue.
Perhaps inspired by whisperings of our own adventurous menu, Chef Gushue presented us with some of his own creations using unique and challenging ingredients. The lowly pig's tail was elevated into a Criminski, basically a croquette composed of a rillette quenelle with a crispy fried exterior (photo above).
As part of Chef's tasting menu, we were presented with a tartare (above).
Me: I'm sorry, did you say...
Server: Yes, sir, I did say 'horse'.
Considering that I'd spent the day dicing whale skin and cleaning seal for other people to eat the following night, it would have been somewhat hypocritical for me to turn down this equine offering. It was actually perfectly seasoned and unbelievably tender, certainly the most memorable dish of the outstanding night.
The next morning it was off to Toronto. The location had been revealed early that day to the 62 lucky patrons who had been hand-picked by Charlie from among the five hundred or so who had applied to attend the meal, which was dubbed the "Arctic Culinary Diplomatic Incident". Historic Campbell House (above), located on the Northwest corner of Queen and University, was the site of this North-Comes-South dining event, and provided the perfect rustic backdrop with its walk-in fireplace and authentic Upper Canada furnishings.
With no one stepping forward to identify themselves as Charlie, it was up to Paul and Steve to host the evening and tell the story of its coming-to-be to the adventurous enthusiasts of cutting-edge Canadian cuisine in attendance.
I, on the other hand, was right in the thick of it in the kitchen, as I worked elbow-to-elbow with King Louis and two of Fink's most accomplished culinary prodigies, both of whom had taken a day off from their present cooking duties. I have never been a part of a kitchen team delivering such an exceedingly high standard of dishes, and while I admit I made a few bumbles here and there (let's just say me and piping bags do not get along) I learned a tonne about service, plating, and what Chef called "flow" as he led us through the execution of his unprecedented menu.
It all started-off with a gorgeous roasted turbot from the Pagnirtung fjord topped with a heaping spoonful of Batawawna Bay herring roe.
Next came a Northern spin on the smoked meat sandwich, with smoked muskox served on a mustard seed bannock alongside a pickle and a sliver of smoked whale meat.
My previous days' efforts slicing paper-thin pieces of narwhal skin and blubber were put to delicious use in this ceviche of narwhal served with wakame salad.
Cape Dorset Arctic char was served four ways: tataki, ginger cured, fennel candied, and cold smoked.
Chef Louis presented a Northern tartare of his own design, with muhamara caribou Kibbeh Nayyeh (essentially a highly-spiced Middle Eastern caribou tartare) holding-up baked mipkuzola chips (thin, incredibly tasty slices of what might be described as muskox jerky).
Next came the walrus dish. Chef created a mac and cheese topped with the whaleskin 'bacon bits' I'd prepped the day before. On the edge of the dish was a thin morsel of the grilled Iglukik walrus meat Steve had sourced from north of the Arctic circle. In jest, a clothespin was included for those who might find the aroma of this unique meat overpowering. The walrus tasted better than I thought it would - slightly fishy and salty like roe with the toothsome texture of a well-cooked pot roast.
This was followed by the signature dish of the evening: the Qikitarjuaq bouillabaisse. This entree saw the rare combination of rack of seal, roasted muskox, and foie gras aswim in a cloudberry juice broth, and topped with fried soba noodles and a generous drizzle of saffron sabayon.
Finally, little profiterole pastries filled with a rich cream made from caribou fat were appropriately formed into the Northern symbol of the Inuksuk.
When dessert was finished, the kitchen crew was called into the dining rooms where we all received a standing ovation alongside King Louis, Fink and Steve and Twyla. The meal had satisfied the most adventurous of Toronto tastebuds, and I think Charlie (whoever you are) would agree that the meal's success was attributable to a holistic combination of storytelling, culture-sharing, and inspired culinary creativity, all presented in an environment that was stimulating and historic.
As I reflected upon the whirlwind events of the previous weekend while helping out at the free community meal that following Monday, I felt incredibly privileged to have taken part, particularly from the front line perspective of the kitchen. Although eating walrus and whale is certainly not for everyone, I mentally applauded those who accepted the challenge to open their minds and their mouths to try the Northern foods upon which the people who reside above the Arctic Circle have survived for millennia.
I will probably never have another weekend like that again. That is, unless Steve and Paul follow through on the next plan they're hatching...
Next Arctic Culinary Diplomatic Incident stop: James Beard House in New York City!?!