Eating-up Stratford
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Sunday, March 6, 2011

First Things First: Chef Sursur Lee at Conestoga College Culinary Arts Fundraiser

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my experience at the Perth County Regional Food Summit. One of the workshops I attended was a panel discussion called "Culinary Tales: Making the Most of Media Attention". On my post, I celebrated one of the panelists, Andrew Coppolino, as our local "King-of-All-Food-Media" due to his gigs as a radio personality hosting The Food Show on 570News, as the publisher of his own foodie site Waterloo Region Eats, and as the host of a regular TV spot called Foodstuffs on the local Rogers cable program Grand River Living.

Andrew is a huge fan and supporter of the Stratford food scene. He's also a great friend of the blog, which was confirmed when he 'Direct Messaged' me on Twitter last week and asked me if I wanted to come to a very special fundraising event being held in support of the Conestoga College Hospitality and Culinary Arts programs. I've encountered Andrew many times as he's  covered the Stratford  beat, and now he was hooking me up with the opportunity to come and share in a food blog adventure on his home turf in Waterloo, which is a little more than a half hour drive from where I live.

But this wasn't just any invitation. The person leading the students in the kitchen for this event was none other than the Toronto/New York/Washington DC/Singapore restaurant icon and legendary Top Chef Master himself: Susur Lee!

[But I have more to thank Andrew Coppolino for than just connecting me with event organizer Matthew Worden, the Sommelier and Maitre D' of Bloom (the culinary program's restaurant at Conestoga College). I came to this incredible  dinner to cover Susur's visually-spectacular food for the blog, only to find upon arrival I had exactly zero juice in my camera's battery! This potential disaster was narrowly averted by the generous Mr. Coppolino, who took all of the dazzling photos I've included on this post.]

There might be only one blogger who I encounter on the Stratford culinary scene as often as Andrew, and that's Suresh Doss of Spotlight Toronto. Suresh also presented a workshop I attended at the Perth County Regional Food  Summit this past month, where he discussed what the next steps were in the evolution of social media. I was really glad to learn Suresh would be joining Andrew and me at the event's media table - the man knows wine and food like nobody's business, and this was the first meal we've been able to share together.

The event was held in a uniquely improvised space, as Conestoga College's tradespeople-in-training (including gas fitters, plumbers, and electricians) were called upon to create a kind of kitchen stadium, replete with high definition video screens broadcasting real-time images being streamed by a team of roving camera people (clearly Conestoga also has a great media arts program!). As we mingled and enjoyed some appetizers (like duck spring rolls, above) I met the manager of Langdon Hall in nearby Cambridge and told her how much I'd enjoyed the Terroir dinner at Lassdale Farm I'd attended only a few days before, which had been prepared by the Langdon Hall kitchen team. I spotted Nick and Nat of Nick and Nat's Uptown 21 (which from what I gather is gaining a reputation as Waterloo's best place to enjoy a truly great locally-sourced meal) and made a deal with Suresh and Andrew that we'd all go to one of their upcoming Iron Chef events this spring.

Then it was time for dinner. I quickly learned that Susur does not take the phrase "time for dinner" lightly - it is his trademark to begin with a generous entree first, and he definitely came out swinging!

Chef Susur took to the microphone to introduce the first dish and explain his philosophy of starting dinner with the biggest course and then working back through smaller courses, "At my restaurants, I serve the most succulent courses first. That way, people don't want to eat so much bread." I have to say, bread was the last thing on my mind once I sat down and found a gorgeous rack of lamb (pic above) immediately placed before me by one of the hospitality students serving the meal. The flavours went from East to West, with Thai-seasoned lamb mingling with Middle Eastern chickpea puree and cumin tomato sauce, with a scattering of European sweet potato gnocchi. All I can say is that this dish definitely lived up to Susur's reputation: he  puts the "world" in world class.

The next course was less substantial in size but even more complex in flavour. The Spicy Lobster Tart with Bonito (above, in mid-composition) was a puff pastry filled with zingy tomatillos and poached lobster, and finished with a heaping pile of incredibly fragrant bonito flakes. This dish hit my nose first and called upon me to dig deep for the spicy tomatillo and lobster chunks, then at its base everything was brought together by an unexpected-but-crucial piece of crispy pancetta. Described by Susur as a "Surf and Turf Tart", I was again impressed by the dexterity of his cuisine and deft skills of the students who put it all together.

The next course flowed from the previous like an ocean current, as we were presented with a Seared White Tuna With Lemon Grass and Yuzu Japanese Salmon Pearls. For this dish, Susur's unique style combined Nouvelle French with Japanese techniques, and the results were a welcome cool-down from the strong spices of the last two dishes. So was the fantastic wine pairing selected by front-of-house talent Matthew Worden: VQA afficionado Suresh pointed out the fruitiness of the Trius Sauvignon Blanc accompanying this course, which he accurately compared to a "Lychee bomb."

And now for something completely unexpected...

I've been blogging for almost a year now, and this story marks my 70th post to date. I'm not a sweet tooth, and I'm pretty sure I could go over all of my previous posts and not find a single one where I proclaimed a dessert to be the best part of my meal. Not in a million years would I have anticipated  dessert to be the highlight of my first ever Sursur Lee dining experience.

But I was absolutely blown away by the final course of the night: a jiggly Vanilla Panna Cotta with Pineapple and Raspberry Ravioli with Spiced Passion Fruit Sauce (above). The chewy pineapple with the tart raspberry filling was sensuously enveloped by the creamy panna cotta, and the whole works were set off by the spicy-sweet sauce. Honestly, did that just happen?

The main came first, and the best was saved for last. I learned that Susur is the master of the unexpected as well as a genius when it comes to a meal's flow and visual affect. I also came to appreciate his commitment to mentoring the chefs of the future - taking part in the execution of this meal will undoubtedly be a highlight that will always be remembered by the Conestoga  College Culinary Arts students of 2011. I know it's definitely been a highlight of my year, and I want to thank Andrew Coppolino and Matthew Worden again for asking me to come and report on this highly successful fundraising event.

While we're on the subject of fundraising for worthwhile culinary education causes...

Anyone remember this blog post from December, 2010, where I told my story about helping out with the Arctic meal Paul Finkelstein presented at the  Toronto "Anti-Restaurant" Charlie's Burger (the dinner was inspired by the trip I took with Fink and his high school culinary arts class to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut)? At the end, I hinted that Paul had another venue up his sleeve:

"Next Arctic Culinary Diplomatic Incident stop: James Beard House in New York City!?!"

Well, James Beard House has in fact invited Chef Fink, Chef Louis, and some of his students to come to New York City this spring to replicate the meal for US foodies at this mecca of American culinary arts (Susur has cooked there several times). To raise funds to send the students and chefs to fulfill this incredible honour (it's like a rock band being invited to play Madison Square Garden), a draw is being organized with prizes that include a trip to NYC to attend the meal, a dream culinary weekend in Stratford (including a tour guided by yours truly), and a package of dinners at some of Toronto's best restaurants (including The Beast and Centro). For tickets and information keep an eye on the Screaming Avocado website this week!

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