Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Grate Canadian Cheese Cook-Off - Mac & Cheese Edition

Chef Thompson, Chef Feswick, Chef Farrell, and Chef Gomes with their mac & cheese creations. Photo courtesy of DDB PR. 
I have a weakness for both cheese and puns, so it would come as no surprise that even though I'm not always the biggest fan of media events, I couldn't help but reply with an enthusiastic "YES!" when invited to attend the Grate Canadian Cheese Cook-Off last month. The competition, which was apart of the Toronto Food & Drink Market, pitted four top chefs, each from different parts of Canada, against one another to create the ultimate Canadian mac and cheese. 

With last years winner of the Grate Canadian Cheese Cook-Off, Chef Andrew Farrell, participating once again, as well as a Top Chef Canada participant, Chef Nicole Gomes, in the competition, the stakes were high for who would receive the coveted Cheese Grater Award. Former Second City member and current home economist Mairlyn Smith was our host for the afternoon, guiding us through the competition as we watched first Chef Andrew Farrell (2 Doors Down Food & Wine - Halifax, NS) and Chef Thompson Tran (The Wooden Boat - Port Moody, BC) go head-to-head with only 30-minutes to make their mac and cheese, followed by Chef Nicole Gomes (Nicole Gourmet - Calgary , AB) and Chef Alexandra Feswick (The Drake Hotel - Toronto, ON). 
Chef Nicole Gomes and Chef Alexandra Feswick working on their mac & cheese.
It was great to get to see the chefs in action and hear all about the inspiration behind each of their dishes. While the chefs scurried around the kitchen, we were introduced to the judges of the competition, Afrim Pristine (owner of the Cheese Boutique, which Mairlyn Smith so lovingly called "like a sex shop but for cheese"), Vanessa Simmons (Cheese Sommelier at Savvy Company), Georgs Kolesnikovs (of and the Great Canadian Cheese Festival), and Rita DeMontis (Sun Media Food Editor). It was clear to see the judges passion for Canadian cheese as they told us all about their favourite Canadian cheeses, what they love about Canadian cheese, and what they would be looking for in the ultimate mac and cheese. 

So what is it that makes Canadian cheese so great? Afrim Pristine had the best response to that question, talking about the amazing versatility and extremely wide variety of fantastic cheese that we produce here in Canada. Sure there are other parts of the world that produce great cheese, but often it's only a select few cheeses that they produce, while here in Canada we produce around 1000 types of 100% Canadian cheese! It was only fitting to compete for the ultimate mac and cheese seeing as Canadian's eat more mac and cheese per person than any other country in the world! I guess we really love our cheese! Unsurprisingly, when I asked the judges what their number one mac and cheese faux pas would be, they all agreed "not enough cheese!" They also commented on their distaste for runny sauce, not enough variety of cheese (a great mac and cheese should have more than one type of cheese), soggy noodles, and cheese not being the main flavour of the dish. 
Chef Nicole Gome's Apple Beer Mac & Cheese
With those things in mind, the chefs confidently brought their final mac and cheese creations up to the judges to critique. Chef Andrew Farrell created a Smoky Cauli-Power Mac & Cheese with a cauliflower sauce, aged cheddar cheese and blue cheese, and topped with crispy roasted cauliflower, cremini mushrooms, and panko breadcrumbs. Chef Thompson Tran created a Cod You Believe It's Shmoked Mac n' Cheese with smoked BC black cod (to highlight BC's abundance of fresh sustainable seafood), truffle oil, serrano chili peppers, chopped cabbage, tarragon, and Emmental and aged cheddar. Chef Nicole Gomes created an Apple Beer Mac & Cheese with strong IPA beer, grated golden delicious apples, a crispy panko topping, and five different Canadian cheeses, which included Black River Medium Cheddar, Muenster, Gunn's Hill Five Brothers, Sylvan Star Smoked Gouda, and Raclette. Chef Alexandra Feswick created a Nutty Home-Style Mac & Cheese with Jerusalem artichokes, beech mushrooms, a crispy panko, sage, Alpindon cheese, and hazelnut topping, as well as four other cheeses in the sauce, which included aged cheddar, Niagara Gold, Blue d'Elizabeth, and more Alpindon.

Though all of the chefs final dishes no doubt wowed the judges (I was conveniently sitting right next to them and was eavesdropping the whole time!) there could be only one winner. With her focus on comfort, her wide variety of Canadian cheese, and fantastic flavour and texture, Chef Alexandra Feswick's Nutty Home-Style Mac & Cheese was the winner of the competition! Being a newbie-fan to Jerusalem artichokes, I personally had a soft spot for Chef Feswick's mac and cheese, and was hoping she would win. Though Chef Feswick's mac and cheese was my favourite of the day, the other three followed very close behind! 
Chef Alexandra Feswick with her winning mac & cheese creation. Photo courtesy of DDB PR.
What I really loved about all four dishes was how imaginative they each were, featuring unusual ingredients that you often wouldn't find in mac and cheese. I love seeing these unusual and gourmet flavours in mac and cheese like this because it's such a great way of inspiring parents to look beyond the traditional mac and cheese. Adding these bold and unfamiliar flavours to something that is very familiar with childen, mac and cheese, is such a great way to introduce new flavours to your kids! You may not be able to get your child to eat something like black cod or Jerusalem artichokes, but I bet you'll have a way better chance when you hide them in their favourite cheesy pasta dish! 

As I stated previously, I don't always love media events, but I was so glad that I attended this one! I felt like I really learned a lot from all of the chefs and judges, not only about mac and cheese, but Canadian cheese in general. I walked away with so much new knowledge, a folder full of all of the participating chefs mac and cheese recipes, and a package of squeaky Cheese Boutique cheese curds for my own enjoyment! My love affair with cheese continues on...

To check out all four mac and cheese recipes from the competition visit

Listening To:
Nothing but Beyoncé Lemonade for the next month

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