Back in February at the Perth County Food Summit, I attended a panel discussion where Chef Nick Benninger was speaking about the restaurant he owns with his wife Natalie in Waterloo, called Nick & Nat's Uptown 21. I had come across their food before at the Savour Stratford Sunday Tasting Tent, where I vividly recall trying a truly kickass duck-on-duck dish that's been etched in my memory ever since. At this year's Summit, Nick revealed one of the secrets of his culinary success, which is his strong relationship with local farmers and his ability to adapt his menu to the ingredients they show up with seasonally.
He also talked about the fun Iron Chef challenges his restaurant's been hosting for the past two years to test other chefs' ability to take whatever farm product was at hand and create something memorable. After the panel I told Nick I'd love to come watch a Stratford chef battle it out at the NN Uptown 21 Kitchen Stadium... and last week Chef Aaron Linley of Bijou Restaurant was given the opportunity to throw down!
Without a doubt, Nick and Nat couldn't have picked anyone better from Stratford than Chef Aaron. He grew up here, graduated from the Stratford Chefs School in the same class as his wife/business partner/pastry chef Bronwyn, and together they created Bijou, which is quite simply the best restaurant in town. Aaron and Bronwyn's success is based on their ability to also adapt their menu to whatever ingredients are available seasonally using a combination of all sorts of culinary techniques and traditions. Bijou's ever-changing chalkboard menu is testament to Chef Aaron's versatility and creativity - two signs of a true Iron Chef.
I really wanted to try Nick's own cooking so I went down a little early with my friends Kimberley Payne, who is the Executive Director of the Stratford Chefs School, and Bob Friesen, the Chefs School's Recruitment and Admissions Officer. There was a lot of buzz that it was going to be Battle Wild Leeks (they've just come into season around here); every course on the Uptown 21's Prix Fixe menu (except dessert) had the option of a dish featuring wild leeks, so Bob and I decided to see how Chef Nick handled what we thought might be the secret ingredient.
Our first course was a Gratin of Wild Leeks, Berkshire Prosciutto, Dried Red Prince Apples, Ermite Blue Cheese and Bread Crumbs (above). The salty Prosciutto balanced the strong garlicky flavour of the wild leeks, and the strong blue cheese and tart/sweet apples also contributed some robust flavours to this definitely-not-shy dish.
The season's first fresh wild product was combined with a local ingredient that keeps great all winter in the second course: Wild Leek & Sunchoke Soup with Wild Leek Brown Butter (above).
I really like Nick's somewhat brash yet balanced cooking style - the Mushroom & Wild Leek Risotto with Parmesan Cheese and Lemon Truffle-Dressed Frisse (above) took no prisoners with its intense and indulgent combination of tart, cheesy, savoury, fresh, and spicy flavours. If he were competing, and it was Battle Wild Leeks, he would be a tough Chef to beat.
But Nick and Nat (above) didn't pick Wild Leeks to be their secret ingredient on Wednesday night. Chef Aaron and his competitors from Verses Restaurant in Kitchener were instead presented with the challenge of creating up to four dishes using (drum-roll please....)
All sorts of absolutely gorgeous cuts of grass-fed organic beef from Baer's Organic Beef farm in nearby Baden!
What a blast the competition was! A crowd of food lovers gathered around the somewhat intimate open kitchen, cheering on the chefs as they and their respective sous chefs raced against the clock to create the best possible dishes they could using Baer's ultra-lean cuts of beef. Judges included the Baers themselves along with Kristina Roman from Rosewood's Estates Winery in Niagara and Waterloo's king-of-all-food-media (and friend of the blog) Andrew Coppolino. A local high school media arts class was filming the whole thing and streaming it onto large screen TVs for the whole restaurant to see. And proceeds from the night supported the local food bank! This was my definition of a damn good time, and I had a front row seat for the whole thing!
Chef Aaron prevailed! I tasted a lot of what he cooked and I have to say he really rose to the occasion and brought the flavour of the beef out in four very different ways that all worked for their own reasons.
I do have to give props to the chef from Verses for pulling off the unlikely feat of a dessert featuring beef - her bone marrow beignets with ice cream were devilishly rich and I'm sure got top marks for originality from the judges. I think my friend Kimberley was particularly proud: all of the chefs and sous chefs competing in the kitchen that night were graduates of the Stratford Chefs School.
But the night belonged to Chef Aaron Linley - he really killed it. The best part is that every night is a kind of Iron Chef challenge at Bijou, as Aaron and Bronwyn bring out the best of all the special ingredients that come their way over the season. They've just renovated their kitchen, and I'll bet Aaron's added another culinary tradition to his impressive repertoire after their family's recent trip to Peru this winter. I couldn't recommend a better place to eat than Bijou or a better talent to represent Stratford's restaurant community than Chef Aaron Linley. And if you ever have a chance to go to one of Nick and Nat's Iron Chef nights - don't miss it!