The best of the best of Canadian chefs were cooking up a storm in the nation's capital last weekend, competing in the Canadian Culinary Championships.
Hailing from Shaunavon, Sask., Garret 'Rusty' Thienes represented his province by bringing the spirit of the prairies with him.
This was his second time competing, and his second time making it through provincials, showing judges and guests his specialty of gourmet comfort food that rolls up the wildness of the rolling hills with the warmth of living skies.
"We just kind of stuck with who we were and what we do," said Thienes. "I think this time around versus when I competed in 2017 ... we had a much better feel on who we were. Outside of being a little bit intimidated, we weren't anxious, we weren't stressed. We felt like we belonged there. We really do feel like we have the luxury of having the best ingredients and some of the best people around to support us.
"The weekend itself, the camaraderie of the chefs -- I mean 2017 was great. This year was next level. I've definitely made friends for life."
The Harvest Eatery owner travelled with friends, family, and cherished coworkers to Ottawa, where the heat would get turned up a notch.
The initial challenge, the Mystery Wine Pairing, put Thienes and his team to the test. Handed a wine bottle devoid of any label, they had to guess what it was and create a dish that complimented it. They deduced a young Gamay Noir, likely from the Ontario area and the vintage of 2021.
With a budget of $500, they sourced local ingredients to craft a cherry-wood smoked pork tenderloin, onion jam and gruyere potato pave, pickled shiitake mushrooms, Saskatoon berry relish, double-smoked bacon and pumpkin seed crumble, and micro-arugula.
The second-time competitor described the next phase, the Black Box Challenge, as his Achilles heel.
Chefs are isolated from all phones, watches, tablets, and waited in a room for their names to be called. Upon their turn, they are presented with a mystery box of ingredients -- the second the box opens, the countdown starts. Chefs are given 60 minutes to create, prepare, and plate two unique dishes.
Thienes turned the diverse ingredients in his box, including Nunavut turbot, sake lees, duck tongues, endive, radicchio, local Quebec cheese, sunchokes, and prairie spelt grains, into a culinary masterpiece. The first was sunchokes and cheese perogies wrapped in duck tongue and bacon, and the second was endive with pan-seared halibut topped in a miso and honey glaze on charred radicchio.
“We were a minute and 20 seconds over our plating time,” he said. "Which is still impressive, but you live and you learn. I like to take my time and design my dishes and when we have the opportunity to do that we were at the top of our game and at the top of the class. We feel really proud of that.
“We really want to thank everybody for all their support. We saw the messages even while we were doing the Black Box, they were reading off the live chat.”
For the Grand Finale, anything went.
This was the dish that encouraged creativity through its freedom; chefs arrived in the capital knowing what their last meal would be and had been crafting it for months.
This was The Whole Rabbit.
Thienes and his crew of culinary students showcased rabbit saddle with northern Saskatchewan mushroom duxelles and foreign farse stuffing, featuring prosciutto wrap, smoked potato and sunchoke pommel puree, rabbit parfait, tarragon, sauce poivrade, Seabuckthorn gastrique, pickled turnip, and as the Harvest Eatery crew put it, ‘a whole lotta love.’
“We were literally points away from podium,” Thienes said. “People ask, ‘Why would you open your restaurant here [in Shaunavon]? You could go to a city anywhere, be making millions in sales.’ But I wouldn't have these people. I wouldn't have the support. I wouldn't have the sense of community. That's why we're here and that's why we love doing it here.”
Chef Garrett 'Rusty' Thienes may not have clinched the top spot, but his culinary journey continues to inspire and delight, leaving an indelible mark on the Canadian culinary landscape.
Listen to the whole interview below: