Two years ago, Mark Gray finished second at the Halifax edition of Gold Medal Plates, the competition that sends each city’s winner to the Canadian Culinary Championships, done in by a careless pairing of his dish with a craft beer.
On Thursday, Gray, the executive chef for Brooklyn Warehouse and Battery Park, won by brilliantly pairing a tasting of classic French charcuterie preparations with a cocktail he titled Preserved, made with Ironworks gin, spruce and wild apple kombucha (fermented tea).
“To do a cocktail with a dish, on paper it always seems like a good idea, but in practice it’s so often a disaster because it’s too sweet or it’s too boozy, it just doesn’t work,” said James Chatto, the national chief judge for Gold Medal Plates.
“But he obviously spent a huge amount of time on that cocktail, and he fine-tuned it, and it worked grandly with all three elements on the plate. It had a different relationship each time, but worked grandly. I was very impressed by that, the best cocktail-dish pairing I’ve had in many years.”
Gray’s victory was by the narrowest of margins. A seven-member panel, judging on six criteria, named him the winner by 0.8 per cent over Luis Clavel of CUT Steakhouse and Shuck. Ardon Mofford of Governor’s Pub and Eatery in Sydney was third.
Gray used locally raised Berkshire hogs to create a mousse of liver and foie gras, a paté
“It was all charcuterie but there were so many different varied things, a very rich mousse of foie gras that was amazing, then the paté of pork shoulder was quite different, then the terrine of the belly was a different experience,” Chatto said.
“So there was a real variety on the plate, even though it was all one idea of charcuterie. Then the little things he added to cut the fat …I thought were really well done. The pork bone cracker was probably the most delicious thing I had all evening.”
That pork bone cracker looked like a garnish, but the sold-out crowd of 600 at the Cunard Centre realized upon tasting it that it was much more. To create it, Gray reduced a broth made from pork bones and skilfully applied several techniques.
“I knew that tapioca starch will fry and pop. Basically you can take any liquid, reduce it to a syrup and mix it with tapioca starch, and it’s going to create this sludge,” he said. “Then you chill it, roll it really thin in a pasta roller, steam it 15 minutes until it’s translucent. Then you dehydrate it for an hour and a half, then you fry it and it puffs up.”
As for the cocktail, Gray said he got the idea from a chef in Singapore and went with it even though Brooklyn Warehouse co-owner George Christakos, who’s a sommelier, was very skeptical.
“I’ve never been happier with a pairing,” said Gray, who went to the Cunard Centre expecting to earn a place on the podium.
“I got a lot of good feedback so I was very confident. Coming into it, it was the most confident I’d been in the three years that I’ve been doing this competition. Throughout the process of designing both the dish and the beverage, we tasted it and tasted it and tasted it….and (it was different) from just pulling a bottle of wine down and going ‘yeah, this will work.’ ”
Gray said he hasn’t decided whether to serve the same dish at the national championship in Kelowna, B.C., in February. He does know he’s much more prepared for that competition than he would have been two years ago.
“We were still building as a company, we hadn’t opened Battery Park,” he said.
“Did we even have the time to go to Kelowna? Now, I’m two years older, I was only 26 then, so I don’t know if I was ready. Over the last few years, I’ve developed so much, and I’m ready to take a real good stab at it.”