S.Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition – and a giveaway at Lee restaurant!

Cole Nicholson, George Brown Chefs School.

Cole Nicholson’s earliest memory of cooking was as a little kid where he would stand in the kitchen and watch his mother make dinner.  She wouldn’t let him help but the simple act of standing there made him feel a part of things. Every once in a while she would let him make “soup”. putting a kitchen chair at the side of the counter and giving him a big stock pot full of water and the whole spice rack. He’d merrily add “random stuff” to the pot and stir it with a big wooden spoon, tasting it and declaring it “really good”. From those early days making “soup” Cole’s come a really long way.  Yesterday he competed in the regional finals of the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition (the tenth anniversary of the event ) which took place at the Calphalon Culinary Centre in Toronto, and which I attended as a guest of Polaris Public Relations Inc.

Cole, from The George Brown Chef’s School and his five competitors was selected from the top of his class to participate in the Canada Regional Competition.  His competition was DeAille (Yee Man) Tam, also from George Brown, Hans Berg from The International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Vancouver, Charles Gignac and Anne-Marie Plourde from École hôtelière de la Capitale (Québec City) and Daniela Molettieri from the Institut de Tourisme et d’Hôtellerie du Québec (Montréal).

A panel of chef and media judges (Chef Jonas from Lee Restaurant in Toronto, Chef Heinrich Meesen of Le Château Laurier in Ottawa, Chef Julia Hanna of Julia’s Ristorante in Oakville, Chef Sebastien Houle of Restaurant sEb in Québec City, Chef Richardo Roque from Brasserie Crème in Toronto, Annabelle Waugh, Food Director of Canadian Living Magazine, Emily Richards, Food Columnist for Metro Newspapers, Alexa Clark, blogger at unsweetened.ca) evaluated competitors on kitchen skills, taste and presentation of the dish plus their personality and general charisma.  The students also competed in a People’s Choice segment where guests at the event had an opportunity to vote for their favourite dish.

Chef Jonas, Chef Heinrich Meesen, Annabelle Waugh - Almost Famous Chef Competition regional finals judges

I had a chance to interview Nicholson earlier in the week via email to find out a little bit more about this up and coming talent – I was most interested in finding out why he cooks.  He credits a high school cooking class teacher with helping him realize all that cooking had to offer.  The high school he went to was originally a trades high school when it was opened; it had professional auto shops, carpentry labs and a full production kitchen.  Students had to take a trade class with a choice of Auto, Carpentry, Cosmetology and Cooking.  Nothing really interested Nicholson so he chose Cooking.  Fortunately for him, the teacher was fresh out of the industry and was up on modern cooking techniques and styles.  He helped the students realize that cooking could be cool and Nicholson believes that had it not been for that teacher, he would have chosen a completely different career.  It’s interesting for me, as a teacher (of cooking to young boys) to read how much of an impact that one teacher had on Nicholson and his career path.

I asked Nicholson what he hoped to learn from participating in the Almost Famous Chef contest.  He believes competing  it is a great way to try something new  and push yourself to come up with new ideas.  A lot of the fundamental skills required in a competition can translate to cooking better at a restaurant because you learn to work fast and clean and organize yourself to produce the best food possible.  Nicholson told me he’s a pretty quiet person so getting the chance to speak in front of a crowd and cook in front of an audience will be a chance to help him become more outgoing.  I have to say I thought he did a great job in his Q&A with the judges and had I not known he was shy, I never would have guessed!

Cole Nicholson competes in the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition

Students were given just two hours to create their unique signature dish. The judges (including Chefs who judged them on their performance in the kitchen) critiqued them on every meticulous detail from taste, texture and aroma of the dish, to presentation. The judging panel sampled each of the dishes during the tasting reception, as prepared by the competitors.  Chefs from the Calphalon Culinary Centre prepared tasting portions of each contestant’s dish for guests.  At stake?  The chance to compete at the 10th annual Finals Competition in Napa Valley in March, with competitors from 73 schools across North America.

I actually had a hard time deciding which dish I liked best – they were all so unique. Cole’s dish of Maple Juniper Venison Loin with Chocolate Infused Red Wine Jus, Leek and Potato Mash was actually my favourite.  The venison didn’t taste too gamey and was cooked to perfection.  The leek and potato mash was heavenly, silky and smooth and a wonderful contrast to the rich, dark jus.  I’ll be making a version of this over the weekend and posting it next week – stay tuned! Unfortunately, Cole’s dish did not earn him a trip to Napa and was not chosen as people’s favourite but I know this young man has a very bright culinary future ahead of him.  Next week, I’ll share some more interesting tidbits from my interview with him.

Maple Juniper Venison Loin with Chocolate Infused Red Wine Jus, Leek and Potato Mash
Cole Nicholson's Maple Juniper Venison Loin with Chocolate Infused Red Wine Jus, Leek and Potato Mash

(image: Cliff Spicer, CP. Used with permission)

The People’s Choice Award went to Anne-Marie Plourde for her Roasted Duck Breast and Gingerbread Crusted Foie Gras with Yukon Gold Potato and Green Onion Mash.  Though I am not a huge duck fan, I did enjoy this dish, though I feel the execution for the tasting plates was definitely not as Anne-Marie might have wanted. The foie, though tasty (and a gingerbread crust – ingenious!!) was a little rubbery on my plate, and the duck not quite as pink as it perhaps should have been. But the flavours were definitely there.  Anne-Marie was very endearing as she was the only one of the six chefs who showed any signs of nervousness (others might have been, they just didn’t show it).  Here she is taking a deep breath after her two hours were up and she was about to present to the judges!  It’s the sort of thing I could see myself doing!

Roasted Duck Breast and Gingerbread Crusted Foie Gras with Yukon Gold Potato and Green Onion Mash
Anne-Marie Plourde's Roasted Duck Breast and Gingerbread Crusted Foie Gras with Yukon Gold Potato and Green Onion Mash

(image: Cliff Spicer, CP. Used with permission)

The regional winner who will be heading to Napa in March was the effervescent (and hungry for a win!) Daniela Molettieri for her Filet of Veal Stuffed with Wild Mushrooms, served with Butternut Squash and Roasted Hazelnut Puree.

Daniela Molettieri Almost Famous Chef Toronto regional winner
Daniela Molettieri Almost Famous Chef Competiton Canadian regional winner

Here she is with her beautifully plated dish:

Filet of Veal Stuffed with Wild Mushrooms, served with Butternut Squash and Roasted Hazelnut Puree
Daniela Molettieri wth her signature dish of Filet of Veal Stuffed with Wild Mushrooms, served with Butternut Squash and Roasted Hazelnut Puree

(image: Cliff Spicer, CP. Used with permission)

Veal is a meat I don’t eat all that often, so I was a little dubious about this dish when I heard it announced. In fact, it is a wonderful mélange of flavours and textures, particularly suited for an autumnal menu, I think.  The earthy mushrooms, the slightly sweet purée and the nuttiness from the hazelnuts complemented the tender (and perfectly cooked) veal wonderfully.  It was *this* close to being my favourite dish of the night.

It was a fairly fast paced evening at the Calphalon Culinary Centre with the six competitors’ dishes presented over the course of 2 hours.  With live video feed from the kitchens upstairs, we could keep an eye on the remaining competitors cooking and plating their dishes as we were listened to each presentation and Q&A.  If this contest is a hint of what’s coming to restaurant kitchens across Canada over the next few years, Canadian diners are in for a treat.  So much talent.  We wish Daniela the best of luck as she heads to Napa to represent Canada at the Almost Chef Finals and to the other fine competitors, best of luck in what are sure to be five brilliant careers.



I’m giving away a $150 Gift Certificate for Lee Restaurant in Toronto, courtesy of S. Pellegrino and the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition 🙂

To enter, simply email me with “Lee restaurant giveaway” in the subject line of your email and in your email tell me the top 3 restaurants (anywhere in the world) that are on your “must eat” list.

For a bonus entry, tweet the following message:
I entered to win a dinner for 2 at Lee Restaurant (Toronto) on @eatlivtravwrite.  You can too! http://bit.ly/wPuQHX
then email me again letting me know you did. That’s it!

Contest closes on Sunday, February 5th at 9pm EST. I’ll announce the winner the following day! Good luck!

* Updated to add: The giveaway is now closed and a winner has been chosen. To be announced on February 6th in that day’s post.

10 thoughts on “S.Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition – and a giveaway at Lee restaurant!”

  1. Sounds like a wonderful time was had by all! (not to mention some delicious-looking dishes)
    I wish I could have landed one of those much-coveted invitations… guess I’ll have to settle for throwing my hat into the ring for that Lee gift certificate instead. 🙂

  2. Great post, Mardi! It was such a fun night. And I completely agree about Cole’s dish. It was actually my favourite, by a hair. I scored him a point higher than Daniela, although was not at all disappointed that she ended up winning. Her dish was absolutely outstanding. They both have very bright careers ahead, indeed.

  3. Great post – so fun to read about the event as well as the young chef. “A day in the life” kind of thing. Nana and I are too far to enjoy the restuarant but we wish luck to all who enter. And I enjoyed reading about your adventures with the boys and the mushroom risotto. So cute !!

  4. I know I’m a year late to this post, but I just wanted to say hi! I had no idea you had covered the Toronto competition! I met Daniela at nationals and she did a fantastic job! Anyway, I’m headed out to our New England Regionals competition tonight. Are you covering the competition again in Canada this year? Hope all is well!


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