As the luminous digital numbers counted down to zero, the frenetic activity on stage intensified. Hands deftly flitted from frying pan to plate, from sieve to saucer. The staccato chop-chop beat of knife on board, the hazy helixes of steam rising under the spotlights, the taunting aromas of seasonings and spices, of sauces and sautées, were a symphony for the senses.
This was the Taste for Success Kosher Chef Challenge, billed as the first of its kind in Canada, a fundraiser for the recently founded Toronto Teachers’ Center of Torah Umesorah, a not-for-profit organization committed to providing teachers with resources to promote educational excellence.
But at this May event, the beneficiaries were also the attendees, who drove out to The Warehouse in Downsview Park to watch the three chefs battle it out.
Wielding knives and spatulas, meat tenderizers and spoons, these professionals were ready for cuisine combat. In order to save time and minimize waste, each chef had selected a menu in advance and had been allotted time for food preparation before the competition began. They were going to be judged not only on the key elements of taste, creativity and presentation, but also on their skilful incorporation of a mystery ingredient. Everything was to be completed in 30 minutes of cooking competition time.
The event’s MC, Adrienne Gold, a former CTV host, introduced the competitors. Chef Maurice Benlezrah, a personal chef who also offers cooking parties and classes, has been cooking professionally for 17 years. Chef Samuel Kanner trained at the Kosher Culinary Academy in Jerusalem, has worked at many upscale kosher establishments, and opened his own restaurant and catering company, Pantry, last fall. Chef Mitch Lipperman, trained by Master Chef George McNeill at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, has earned numerous awards and now offers private catering and cooking classes.
The three chefs were on stage standing before their individual micro-kitchens, and each was each handed a box containing the secret ingredient: coconut, in its natural, shredded and milk forms. The chefs were required to incorporate at least one form into their food.
Digital clocks appeared on large screens flanking the stage, and the countdown began. As did a flurry of chopping, stirring, pouring, dicing, spooning, scooping, mixing, pounding, sautéing, ladling, tossing and tasting.
For those of us sitting in the front rows, the aromas were tantalizing. My seatmate turned to me and said, “I’m salivating – and you can even quote me!” Indeed, we couldn’t help but inhale deeply as the cooking progressed.
While Benlezrah and Lipperman seemed to have put the whole coconut aside, Kanner was more adventurous. He attempted to open it. But his efforts with the chef’s knife were as vain as his attempts to smash it against the table. In a comedic display of resilience, he kept pulling it back to try again – but always without success.
The event also featured tables elaborately set by professional artists, designers and event planners, and attendees were able to satisfy their palates with savoury samples from some of Toronto’s best kosher vendors.
As the 30 minutes came to an end, Gold took the microphone in hand and counted down the last 10 seconds. Benlezrah smiled with satisfaction as he stood slightly back from his table, where three beautifully prepared dinners were watiting. Kanner and Lipperman were somewhat more frenzied as they rushed to finish cooking and then plate their food. Luckily for them, Gold extended the time – slightly.
Perfectly plated, the food was then passed to the three judges: Norene Gilletz, cooking teacher, culinary consultant, founder of Gourmania.com and author of cookbook favourites including Second Helpings, Please and The New Food Processor Bible; Estee Kafra, publisher of Spice it Right and Cooking with Color, and creator of KosherScoop.com; and Chef Joan Monfaredi, who has more than 28 years of extensive culinary experience and is one of the few female chefs in Toronto with the title of executive chef, a position she has held at the Park Hyatt Toronto for the last 13 years.
The judges paused over the food, sampling, savouring and surveying. Before announcing their joint decision, each judge complimented the three chefs individually and, if applicable, pointed out any weak spots.
A successful incorporation of the coconut element and a creative presentation, as well as a deliciously prepared menu, were the factors that pushed Chef Sam Kanner into first place.
Gripping his trophy, a mounted, etched glass plate, Kanner was grinning as he accepted accolades and congratulations. When asked what was the most intense moment, Kanner said, “Finding out the secret ingredient and figuring out how to use it.”
After a pause he honestly added, “That, and the last moments.”
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