As the luminous digital numbers rapidly reduced to zero, the already frenetic activity on stage intensified. Like piano-playing fingers, their hands deftly flitted from frying-pan to plate, from sieve to saucepan. The staccato chop-chop beat of knife on board, the hazy helixes of steam taking shape under the spotlights, the taunting aromas of seasonings and spices, of sauces and sautees, was a symphony to the senses.
This was the Taste for Success Kosher Chef Challenge, billed as the first of its kind in Canada. The event was a fundraiser for the recently founded Toronto Teachers’ Center of Torah Umesorah, a not-for-profit organization committed to providing teachers with resources and tools to promote educational excellence. The ultimate beneficiaries, of course, are the students, who profit from an enriched pedagogic experience.
But at this May event, the beneficiaries were also the attendees, who drove out to The Warehouse venue in Downsview Park to watch the three chefs battle it out.
Wielding knives and spatulas, meat tenderizers and spoons, these professionals were indeed ready for cuisine combat. In order to save time and minimize wastefulness, each chef had selected a menu in advance and had been allotted time for food prep before the competition began. They were not only going to be judged on the key elements of taste, creativity and presentation, but also on their skillful incorporation of a mystery ingredient, all completed in 30 minutes of cooking-competition time.
The entertaining Adrienne Gold, a former CTV host, emceed the event and introduced the amicable competitors. Chef Maurice Benlezrah, a personal chef who also offers cooking parties and classes, has been professionally cooking for 17 years. Chef Samuel Kanner trained at the Kosher Culinary Academy in Jerusalem and has worked at many upscale kosher establishments, culminating in the recent opening of his own restaurant and catering company, Pantry, just last fall. Chef Mitch Lipperman, trained by Master Chef George McNeill at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, has earned numerous awards for his craft and now offers private catering and cooking classes.
With the three chefs on stage, standing before their individual, micro kitchens, they were 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 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 Chefs Benlezrah and Lipperman seemed to have put the whole coconut aside, Chef 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 elaborately set tables by professional artists, designers and event planners. Attendees were able to satisfy their aroused palates with savoury samples from some of Toronto’s best kosher vendors.
As the 30 minutes neared its conclusion, Ms. Gold held the microphone in hand and counted down the last 10 seconds. While Chef Benlezrah smiled satisfactorily as he stood slightly back from his table, where three beautifully prepared dinners awaited, Chefs Kanner and Lipperman were somewhat more frenzied as they rushed to finish cooking and then plate their food. Lucky for them, the generous Ms. Gold slightly extended the time.
Perfectly plated, the food was then passed to the three judges: Norene Gilletz, cooking teacher, culinary consultant, founder of Gourmania.com and author of many 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, Chef Kanner was grinning as he accepted accolades and congratulations from event participants and audience members alike. When asked what was the most intense moment, Chef Kanner admitted, “Finding out the secret ingredient and figuring out how to use it.” After a pause he honestly added, “That, and the last moments.”
Not to mention the invincible coconut.
Article re-printed with permission from The Canadian Jewish News by Reva Kaiser.
Pictures of event courtesy of Hudson Taylor Photography.
Below are recipes for the dishes prepared during this contest. Enjoy!
English Ribs by Chef Maurice Benlezrah
Cornish Hen with Pistachio Nuts by Chef Mitchell Lipperman
Apricot Gastrique by Chef MItchell Lipperman
Hand Thrown Potato Gnocchi by Chef Mitchell Lipperman
Roasted Beets by Chef Mitchell Lipperman
Basic Spaghetti Squash by Chef Mitchell Lipperman
Shredded Duck Leg Salad by Chef Sam Kanner
Coconut 5-Spice Duck Breast by Chef Sam Kanner
Dried Cherry and Coconut Risotto by Chef Sam Kanner