Thursday, November 22, 2012

Oceanwise Chowder Chowdown

Have you ever eaten a dozen different soups in the span of a couple of hours? How about washing each soup down with a different locally brewed beer? That is precisely what I did last night at the Oceanwise Chowder Chowdown at the Royal York Hotel. 

First impression: the oversized spoon provided by our hosts made me feel a bit like Frodo Baggins. Nevertheless, with score card in hand, I embarked on a very earnest attempt to faithfully and properly assess twelve seafood chowders cooked up by 12 very accomplished chefs.

So what was the point of this event? Namely, to raise the consciousness of central Canadians about the plight of our seafood resources. Oceanwise is a program based out of the Vancouver aquarium that has taken on this very broad and noble challenge. I have blogged about this organization in the past, and I suppose the best way to sum up Oceanwise's criteria for sustainable fish is from Dolf DeJong himself, Vice president of Oceanwise. In his introductory remarks, he discussed the four questions to ask when determining the sustainability of the fish on your plate:
  • Is the animal abundant and resilient?
  • Is the animal well-managed?
  • Does by-catch and discards play a role in harvesting this animal?
  • Is the habitat of this animal in good shape?
Being in Toronto, a lake city, and not an ocean city, Oceanwise was acting as a sort of ambassador of our coasts and our oceans. We central Canadians may not put a lot of thought into the seafood we eat, given how far away the ocean really is. So, I think there is a sense of urgency to get these messages out to foodies in Toronto. I had a conversation with Mr. DeJong and we talked about the abundance of fresh water fish that we have in Ontario, and just how many of these species pass the four criteria stated above. There are plenty of options to us Torontonians for environmentally friendly (and gastronomically valuable) fish. For example, on the poster pictured below, you'll see plenty of fresh water fish including whitefish, trout,  walleye and perch. When I was a kid these species were unheard of in Toronto fish markets (you had to catch them to eat them), but I am starting to see Ontario fresh water fish appearing as far out as suburban grocery stores. Perhaps we're finally starting to embrace the local offerings of our own, Ontario fishes.

I am an advocate of local fresh water fish in Ontario; I am also a creative thinker. Why just eat local fish? What about shellfish? Ocean mussels are certainly a sustainable food that is shipped in large quantities from the coasts to Toronto, but what about our own mussels? Yes, Ontario lakes, from the U.S. border all the way up to James Bay are the habitat of local bivalves. Some of these species are actually endangered, especially in the great lakes which have been inundated with invasive species such as the zebra mussel. However, further up north, these creatures are in much higher abundance. The Ministry of Natural Resources discourages people from eating them, given the possibility that they may contain toxins from local pollution. However, talking to old timers up north around Algonquin park and further afield, I have learned that fresh water mussels have been eaten for years - purged in mesh bags for 24 hours and then steamed just like Oceanic mussels. I'm not suggesting doing this, but I'm certainly suggesting we think about new food resources in our province. It's hard to find people that have an opinion about this, so I thought the most logical person to talk to was Jamie Kennedy, renowned Toronto chef, foodie celebrity and judge at the Chowder Chowdown. We discussed mussels as well as the local crayfish in Ontario. Jamie was concerned about pollution in the water, most notably in the Great Lakes, but he agreed that further north, perhaps there is indeed something to explore.  Even if it's just a bug in the ear of someone as influential as Jamie Kennedy, I nevertheless consider it a small triumph. 

Chef Jamie Kennedy contemplates a bowl of chowder

Well, on to the point of the whole evening, namely, chowder.

I was surprised at just how unique and different each soup tasted, despite all being, more or less, the same concept of seafood, potatoes and creamy broth.  I had a bit of a horse in the race with Patrick McMurray, otherwise known as "Shucker Paddy", world-record oyster shucker and owner of the Ceili Cottage, a wonderfully authentic pub down my neck of the woods on Queen East. Us being both East-Toronto guys, I was routing for the home team. However, I have to sadly report that Patrick's was not my favourite. His chowder however was like the story of Canada in a bowl. He combined western oysters with eastern oysters, and added Ontario (aka hogtown) bacon and sprinkled some powdered Japanese seaweed onto the works. An amazing thing - the ingredients were all there, but I think it just lacked that little oompf from more salt and something sour. On my own personal score card, Patrick was tied for second with the folks from Hooked Inc. Hooked Inc had a chowder with such a luxurious and generous offering of oysters within that I had to rank it highly. There was very pleasant tanginess to it that I think came from some sherry vinegar. It was also saltier than many other chowders. I'm a salt-head, and when I think seafood, I think salt. I feel that many of the contenders downplayed the salt, which is likely a personal thing. Nevertheless, the winner for me was actually the hosts of the event itself: the Fairmont Royal York. Their offering, from chef Amira Becarevic, was a Leek Potato Chowder with Warm Salmon and Mussel Salad. I'm not sure how the term 'salad' applies here, but this chowder was my pick for the best. It was perfectly seasoned, the salmon was all buttery flesh that melted in the mouth, and the top of the soup was slicked with an over-the-top flavoured oil. It tasted of fish, and the ocean and was at the same time very creamy. The veg were soft and yielding -- some other contenders had slightly el dente veg in their soups, again a personal thing, but the only crunch I like in  a soup is a crouton, not the celery.  

As for the official adjudication of the event, as mentioned before, the panel included Jamie Kennedy, but there was also a couple of other celebrities in attendance, namely, two of the three 'Food Jammers' from Food network Canada. Nobu Adilman was our MC for the evening, and Micah Donovan was one of the judges. The whereabouts of the third food jammer was unknown.
2 out of 3 Food Jammers
In the end, the official winner of the chowdown was Albert Ponzo from Le Select Bistro. Apparently, unsatisfied with his working recipe, Chef Ponzo actually changed this entire chowder concept at the last minute. My verdict of his chowder: good, but not my favourite. It was not seasoned to my liking and did not have a strong enough taste of seafood in it. It all comes down to personal preference, so I am just one opinion in a virtual ocean of food preferences.

In the end, I had an excellent time and I have to say, three cheers for Oceanwise. Thanks for inviting this 'citizen food journalist' to your event.

Keep fighting that good fight.

1 comment:

  1. The Food Jammers still remain the ultimate show that ever appeared on Food Network Canada. All that's left there now, is tasteless programming.