Canada Cooks the Books Winners

Matthew Warren and Michael Clarke - Winners of the 2011 Canada Cooks the Books

When Canada Cooks the Books issued the challenge to culinary schools across the country, we had no idea the team from furthest away would be taking home the trophy. But after three days and 13 heats, Matthew Warren and Michael Clarke from Holland College Prince Edward Island earned the title of Canada’s Best New Student Chef for their interpretation of Oyster Fricassee with Wilted Spinach from Flavours of Prince Edward Island by Jeff McCourt, Allan Williams and Austin Clement. They also won the trophy and a Nokia X7 Smartphone.

Not only was their dish perfectly cooked, it was visually impressive.

Oyster Fricassee with fried potato rings

The winning dish: Oysters sit on a bed of wilted spinach. A deep fried potato ring frames each oyster.

Second place went to Eric Neaves and Vincent Tummillo from Stratford Chefs School for their Pan-Fried Perch from The Harrow Fair Cookbook by Moira Sanders and Lori Elstone. The dish was served with a tomato-thyme reduction and a side of Italian opera.

Bryan Kenny and Patricia Penkauskas from Liaison College Kitchener placed third for their innovative twist on Chard à la Aldona from Incredible Edibles by Sonia Day.

Now that Canada Cooks the Books is gearing up for another year, we asked the winners to share a bit about themselves and their experience in the competition. Michael Clarke answers our Q&A for the team. While he gives sound advice and encouragement to students considering a culinary career, he also admits to a dose of stage fright. Clearly, that didn’t stop him — or his team mate — from going full out.

What’s your weakness? Dessert or mains?
For me personally, I find desserts to be more of a challenge when compared to a main course.

Who or what got you interested in food?
I always cooked at home with my Dad growing up, so cooking turned into a passion at a young age.

What’s the most challenging aspect of culinary school?
The most challenging aspect of culinary school for me was the month of core subjects like math, law, and human resources. When you are used to being in a kitchen all the time, sitting down at a desk for 7 hours a day can be hard to deal with.

What do you wish you were told before enrolling?
There is nothing I wish I was told before enrolling. If I had my time back I would make all the same decisions again.

What was your biggest fear when entering this contest?
My biggest fear before entering this competition was having to get on stage in front of such a large crowd.

Once you got your recipe, how did you prepare for the competition?
After receiving the recipe, we practiced after class, working on our timing, creating garnishes, and our plating presentation.

What aspects of the dish inspired you? How did you use this inspiration?
The aspect of the dish that inspired me the most was the fact we were using PEI oysters. Using local products is very important to me when cooking. So we wanted to represent PEI and its products in the best of our ability.

What aspects of the dish did you find challenging or limiting? What did you do to overcome this?
The most challenging aspect of the dish was how delicate our potato garnish was. Once it was made there was no second chances, if we broke one we were in trouble. Luckily we didn’t.

Which is harder? Cooking on stage alone or sharing the stage with another person? Why?
For me, I think it would be much harder to be on stage and cook alone. When you have a partner with you it helps a lot because you have that support, and it builds your confidence when you have someone to bounce ideas and problems with.

What advice would you give students entering their first competition?
The best advice I can give a student entering their first competition is to have fun and see it through to the end. Even if you have a problem, work through it and be proud of what you present to the judges.

What do you plan to do once you graduate?
My immediate plans once I graduate are unclear, but I know in the long term I would love to be a Culinary Instructor at the Culinary Institute of Canada.

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