It began as a pun celebrating both the day and the star attraction. As Cava chef and owner Chris McDonald explains the timing around Groundhog Day and a love of charcuterie (which is usually made of ground hog) had him inspired him to host a chef challenge at few years ago.
So the industry veteran called on some of his colleagues to see if they would be game for a competition where the only rule was all dishes had to be 50% pork. Not only were they interested, but everyone who participated and attended had a great time. Four years later, Cava's Annual Groundhog Day Challenge has developed into a friendly competition that many of Southern Ontario's top chefs look forward to every year. It's also equally anticipated by many of Toronto's food lovers—it sold out in 11 minutes this year!
I was invited to take-in the 4th annual challenge, which took place earler this month, and I could feel the excitement from the moment I entered the door of the 66-seat restaurant and saw chefs and food lovers mingling over glasses of wine. McDonald officially opened the evening by introducing the line-up of chefs; thanking sponsors Bodegas Torres importer Family Wine Merchants and Henry of Pelham, who supplied plenty of Tempranillo and Pinot Blanc to fuel the evening; and most importantly explaining the format of the challenge. One at a time the chefs, along with their teams, make their way into Cava's kitchen and prepare a pork-based dishes to be eaten by all attendees and judged. They then come out and to speak to their creations, giving diners a detailed explanation of the dish and the inspiration behind it. At the beginning of the evening every diner is given a score card to rate each dish out of 20 with half the points going to taste and the other half split between presentation and “ham factor” (use of the feature ingredient). At the end of the evening the chef team with the best overall score takes home the People's Choice honours and a bottle of top-shelf Torres Brandy.
Sequestered at sister chocolatier Xococava next door so they could do a proper blind tasting of the dishes, were this year's panel of expert culinary judges: Dick Snyder of City Bites, Andrew D'Cruz of Toronto Life, and Malcolm Jolly of Good Food Revolution. They were tasked with determining the winner of the evening's big prize: a gift certificate for the Cookbook Store, bragging rights that come with cooking the event's best dish and the coveted Groundhog Day Challenge trophy, and what a trophy it is. Appropriately quirky, the trophy initially consisted of a cutting board with pata negra legs mounted to it. But it has become a tradition for the winner to add a personal touch such as the skull from the Berkshire pig of the winning dish and most recently decorative feathers, before returning it. Past winners chef Michael Steh then of Red's Bistro, chef Geoff O'Connor of Nota Bene and chef Ryan Crawford then of Stone Road Grille also have their names engraved into the board.
This year Carl Heinrich and Ryan Donovan (Richmond Station), Albert Ponzo (Le Sélect Bistro), Cory Vitiello and Curt Martin (The Harbord Room), Fabio Bondi (Local Kitchen & Wine Bar), Matthew Sullivan (Skin and Bones), Teo Paul (Côte de Boeuf) and returning champion Ryan Crawford (Gastrohomstead) were all vying to be the latest name immortalised on the trophy.
Since every proper meal needs an easing in, the Cava team gave us a small taste of imminent porcine feast with an amuse. Although Cava focuses on Spanish cuisine, flavours and dishes from other Latin countries play a big roll in the restaurant's food. That showed in this amuse which was a take on the Oaxacan street food molote (similar to Spanish croquetas). In this case a smooth and earthy black bean filling was wrapped in a slightly sweet and crispy fried plantain shell. It sat upon a spicy and bright pork-tomato ragù. The conrast of flavours and textures set the stage beautfiully for the seven guest chefs who had their eyes-focused on the trophy.
Up first was chef Albert Ponzo of Le Sélect Bistro, who kept things simple anchoring his creation around bacon he made from Mangalitsa pigs (a heritage breed related to wild boars that were bred to provide top-notch pork for the House of Hapsburg) reared at the Møsefund Farm in New Jersey. It was crisp, not too salty, smoky or fatty—everything you want in bacon—allowing the porky depth of the naturally raised, free-range Mangalitsa to shine. The accompanying fruit relish with crunchy mustard seed and sweet honey was a beautiful accompaniment, but my favourite element was a perfectly crisp, etherial and greaseless chicharrón (fried pork rind).
My favourite overall dish of the evening came next from defending champion Ryan Crawford. The Niagara-on-the-Lake-based chef recently left Stone Road Grille to start the process of building Gastrohomestead, his farm/small restaurant/inn. It's a perfect fit for Crawford and his wife who have taken-up raising Tamworth pigs in recent years for access to top-quality pork—an ingredient that features prominently in his farm-to-table cuisine. For the challenge Crawford took a cue from his wife's suggestion and cooked an inspired play on the classic full English breakfast. It centred around his housemade pancetta and prosciutto, which were more than admirable substations for back bacon. Their snowy white fat was full of beautiful and delicately creamy pork flavour which would not be bested that evening. Instead of blood pudding Crawford provided a jet-black squid ink risotto studded with oatmeal. It cut through the pork's richness and provided a nice ever-so-slightly-bitter balance against the moderately-sweet breakfast sausage. But the star element of the dish was the butter-sauce-topped pork belly served with smoked ham hock ragù in an egg shell. It was packed with umami-rich pork flavour, creamy and cheesy dairy notes, and comforting egg yolk. It went beyond the full English breakfast standard of a fired or poached eggs and was closer in flavour to Eggs Benedict—only better executed than the brunch staple, which is all too often made with little love and tastes as such. It was also the most beautifully presented dish served on a reclaimed stave with some hay underneath.
The third dish came courtesy of Richmond Station's chef Carl Heinrich and butcher Ryan Donovan . Heinrich explained that their dish was inspired by the French bistro classic lardon frisée. The pretty plate featured the restaurant's house-made truffled salumi in a circular pattern with a fried egg and Chicharrón topped frisée salad placed front and centre. The frisée's naturally bitter edge and the mustard-bacon dressing was a very welcome change for much of the crowd. For me the standout touch wasn't the frisée, salumi or egg, but the croutons. Fried in pork fat, they had a slightly crunchy exterior which relented easily under tooth to reveal a warm, soft centre packed with pork flavour. They stood in nicely for the traditional crispy lardons.
The Harbord Room sous-chef Curt Martin, who come spring time will be running the kitchen at a yet-to-be named sister restaurant next door, got us past the half-way point of the challenge. He promised that his dish, featuring an ultra tender 36-hour sous-vide tongue and cheek pork terrine, was a preview of the kind of food you could expect when the restaurant opens. Rounding out the dish was a pleasantly bitter and lively salsa verde with enough kick and acid to brighten-up the dish; the spicy crunch of fried pig ears finished with guajillo chilli; and lastly The Harbord Room chef Corey Vitiello's contribution—fresh pea shoots. The latin flavours were right at home in Cava and the dish continued the charcuterie and salad theme started by the previous dish. But my favourite aspect was how it showcased the odd bits and the spectrum of textures possible with a versatile ingredient like pork.
The fifth dish, from chef Matthew Sullivan of the recently opened Leslieville wine bar Skin and Bones, featured the most ambitious use of the night's celebrated ingredient. Figuratively and literally it all centred around a circle of fried terrine made using flavourful bits from a pig raised by Perth Pork Products. Around the terrine were abstract flourishes that looked like glossy lines of perfectly-melted bittersweet chocolate. They turned out to be a sauce of pork blood mixed with cream, which was a touch grainy, but had pleasant fruity and earthy notes reminiscent of good dark chocolate. Atop and to the side was a pickle brine foam. On its own I found it high-toned and acidic and difficult to get use to. But when eaten together with the pork, its considerable vinegar bite helped cut through the very rich fried terrine. But my favourite detail on the plate, what Sullivan described as pork-targa, was by far the challenge's best and most ingenious use of pork. Inspired by bottarga, the Mediterranean delicacy of cured fish roe, Sullivan took pork heart and was able to transform into an ingenious finishing touch that looked like vivid burgundy coloured threads of saffron. Grated and then sprinkled over the dish, the pork-targa had a brilliant fruit-forward flavour that was pomegranate-meets wild berry—only a slight earthy undertone hinted at its offal origins.
The penultimate dish lived-up to Local Kitchen & Wine Bar chef Fabio Bondi's description as simple, honest Southern Italian cooking. The anchor of the dish was a properly fiery 'nduja, which elicited a few scatter coughs through the room and many requests to refill water glasses. The egg yolk and creamy cauliflower purée accompaniment provided some comfort for those not accustomed to 'nduja's bold stinging nature. I found it to be rustic, clean, intense in flavour, and spicy, but not overwhelming. In short exactly what it should be.
Teo Paul of Union and the soon to be open Côte de Boeuf was charged with providing the finale of the challenge. When it opens very shortly, Côte de Boeuf will be a butcher and grocery (prepared dishes will be featured) just up the road from Union. Chef Paul has competed in a previous Groundhog Day challenge representing Union, so he and his team took this opportunity to prepare something in the vein of Côte de Boeuf. They took a cheeky approach to the challenge and presented what Paul described as a Moroccan pork headcheese—a dish you're never likely to see in the country given its almost entirely Muslim population. The cold headcheese was subtily spiced and when combined with the smoky, blistered naan displayed a great range of tempetures and textures. The salty, spicy green olive tapande and pea shoots also in the dish kept it tasting lively.
The Cava team again took over for the finale and served what was a perfect dessert to enjoy while the business of determining the challenge's winners was finalised. Thankfully pork-free (after eight course there can be a bit too much of a good thing) and light, it was centred around a honey-based frozen yogurt. Joining it was crumbled bits of swiss meringe, a piece of crispy and light puff pastry and the key ingredient—a Seville orange syrup. Crunchy, cool, light, creamy, sweet and just a touch citrusy and plesantly bitter (thanks to the Seville orange), it was everything you could hope for in a dessert.
After all the scores were tabulated and the judges finished final delibrations the Richmond Station duo of Heinrich and Donovan took the People's Choice honours, while the Harbord Room's Martin and Vitiello took home the top prize as the 2013's Cava Grounghog Day Challenge winners.
Both teams were very humble in their victories and took time to celebrate with both fellow food lovers and collegues. In fact, the entire evening looked just like an intimate getogther featuring great food and wine amongst friends. It also acted as a bit of a respite from the arudous fortnight that is Winterlicious for Toronto's kitchen staff. Although each and every chef would have loved to win, I got the feeling that the competion was secondary to the time spent together cooking and laughing in the kitchen and joking in the dining room. "I do it because it's a fun event. I find it brings people together and encourages a bit of comraderie, something that there's all to little of in Toronto's chef community," McDonald told me. In otherwords it's the very definiton of great hospitality and a good reason why as a fellow epicureans, you should keep an eye out for Cava's 2014 Groundhog Day Challenge.
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.