James Hanna earns top prize, off to nationals
Chef James Hanna will reppresent Sask. at a national culinary competition.
Beneath the whirr of the kitchen fans one could hear the swift clack, clack, clack of chefs’ knives, efficiently slicing, dicing, chopping and mincing. A few feet away, an intense 600-degree Fahrenheit cooktop stood topped with bubbling and sputtering copper pots, their brews slowly cooking down into rich reductions. A nearby skillet hissed and splattered as the searing heat caramelized the outside of several juicy strip loins.
A heated culinary battle was underway Sunday morning inside the kitchen at the Legislative Building. Two Regina chefs armed with intense focus and energy went toque-to-toque for top prize: to represent the province at the Canadian Culinary Federation National Chefs Challenge in May in St. John’s, Nfld.
The competitors, James Hanna, sous chef at Crave Kitchen + Wine Bar, and Akshay Shastry, chef de cuisine at the Hotel Saskatchewan, worked fervently within an intense three-hour window to prepare a three-course menu for six. Together with an extensive pantry stocked with fresh and dry ingredients, herbs and spices, they were required to prepare an appetizer using scallops and shrimp, a main dish employing beef top butt and strip loin steak, and a dessert infused with goat’s milk and its cheese.
As each competitor fought the clock, Trent Brears — the head kitchen judge — kept watch, scrutinizing every move for cooking techniques, organizational skills, safety and sanitation procedures. Among a myriad of details, Brears — executive chef at the Legislative Building — was surveying whether competitor ingredients were organized, what skills and techniques were used, if stations were clean, and if a new spoon was used for each taste. The list was extensive, leaving no room for error.
Three tasting judges — Leo Pantel of the Conexus Arts Centre, Tyler Koloski of Sysco Foodservices, and Anthony McCarthy of the Saskatoon Club — were sequestered awaiting the first dish.
At the 90-minute mark, Hanna shouted, “Time chef ?” The pace quickened and hands began to move at a faster pace. Shastry drained several litres of goat’s milk into a pot and quickly added several heaping spoonfuls of matcha powder. Using his priceless Santuko blade, Hanna expeditiously minced the shrimp and scallops, seasoning with a sprinkle of salt and a mere tablespoon of rich cream. A misty cloud of steam blasted the ceiling as a lid was lifted to test and taste.
As the clocked ticked down, the personality and passion of each chef began to emerge. At 21 minutes, Hanna’s first plates moved from stark white to an abstract explosion of colour and texture. A delicate prawn mousse was smeared across the base creating the yin in the yin-yang circle. Then came sliced baby plum tomatoes and a scattering of dressed ultra tiny root vegetables, their leaves still attached. A warm prawn and scallop croquette, pickled ceviche and a single perfectly seared scallop added the required protein elements.
Then, another call for time. With just 10 minutes to go, Shastry added several tiny saffron threads to the bottom of his soup bowls. Into the fryer went tempura-breaded shrimp and at precisely eight and a half minutes to noon, his bacon wrapped meatloaves made their way into the oven.
Then at 12:30 p.m. came the main course with Hanna presenting an umami-inspired strip loin wrapped in nori and encased in top butt forcemeat. Slices lay on a berth of prairie chickpea purée. Darling miniature winter vegetables and dashi jus dressed the plate. In contrast, Shastry chose a rustic approach with meatloaf and chimichurri sous vide cooked strip loin, a single carrot garnish and a churned potato cup with a wild mushroom and blue cheese stuffing.
Thirty minutes later, the competitors wiped their brows and set down their spoons. Hanna finished with a complicated cubist checkerboard sweet ending. On a base of candied red and yellow beets sat a cube of rich white and dark chocolate pate and a mound of slightly frozen goat cheese and matcha spuma.
Shastry evoked Japanese kaiseki presentation with two quenelles of goat milk, honey and green tea ice cream topped with a delicate raspberry butterfly tuile.
Following the tastings and an interview with each competitor, the judges unanimously awarded Hanna the golden ticket.
“James had more diversified flavours using flavour profiles that worked together,” explained Pantel of the judges’ decision. “He got a high score for taste.”
Although both dishes would fit in a restaurant setting, the criteria was about more than just having a great restaurant plate.
“It was about creating chef-attended plates that took each dish to the next level with lots of technique and skill,” said Pantel.
Hanna’s work is far from over. Over the next 10 weeks, he’ll refine his dishes, including creating cleaner, tighter presentations, shrinking some of his portions and adding more detail to his menu descriptions.
This will be Hanna’s second time representing Saskatchewan at the national competition and this year, with some extra polish, he may just bring back some hardware to hang in his kitchen.