ON June 10, Cactus Club menu development chef Matthew Stowe was named Top Chef Canada on the season finale of the Food Network's popular TV series.
Stowe is the second Vancouver-based chef to bring home the title; Dale MacKay, formerly of Daniel Boulud's Lumiere in Kitsilano, won the top spot in 2011.
An invitation-only audience watched Stowe's win at the Cactus Club's new Coal Harbour location. In a heartfelt speech following his win, the newly crowned Top Chef explained that British Columbians are privileged because of the breadth and quality of food ingredients at their disposal.
It is hard to argue with Stowe's comment. Whether it's an elusive matsutake mushroom forged from our coastal rainforests or a prickly sea urchin plucked from the depths of Howe Sound, it seems that around every corner in this province there is a prized ingredient waiting to be harvested.
I must confess that when I tune into cooking shows, particularly ones in which chefs square off against each other in heated competition, I daydream about the meals I might create at home if I had access to the same ingredients available to TV contestants.
I suspect that with half a kilo of white Alba truffles, a jar of Muscovy duck fat, and a tank of live lobsters I too might be able to produce some spectacular dishes.
One of the keys to making this fantasy a reality is finding the right suppliers for high quality ingredients that can transform a home-cooked meal into an unforgettable dining experience.
It so happens that on the North Shore we have a number of such suppliers.
Among them is Olives on Tap, a boutique retailer that offers a wide assortment of premium olive oils and balsamic vinegars sourced seasonally from small producers around the world.
Shop owner Andrew Cameron's passion about his products is infectious. A late Sunday afternoon visit to Olives on Tap evolved into a fascinating 90-minute odyssey through the world of olive oil, as Cameron recounted tales of international fraud and governmental negligence, of toiling micro producers and the emerging body of research on the health benefits of polyphenols, the naturally occurring antioxidants present in olive oil.
This information was all brought to life with an in-depth sampling of Olive on Tap's wares.
Sampling is performed in a style not unlike wine tasting, with an established process to reveal the subtle characteristics of the products. Half-ounce samples of olive oils are poured from stainless steel vats into small, transparent vessels that permit the taster to note unique colour, aroma and flavour attributes.
A tasting begins with a flight of milder oils, lighter on the polyphenols that influence the character of virgin olive oils. These lighter oils reveal aromas of freshly cut grass and capsicum. On the palate, they exhibit notes of tangy fruit, avocado and a peppery spiciness that tickles the back of the throat. Gradually, the tasting moves on to more robust oils that are higher in polyphenols and are marked by a complexly bitter, ripe, and extracted flavour. This is amazing stuff, a far cry from the supermarket olive oil that sits in my cupboard at home.
I learn from Cameron that a staggering 70 per cent of olive oils labelled "extra virgin" do not conform to the accepted standards for that designation. The widespread trade of substandard and mislabelled olive oils was one of the driving forces behind the creation of Olives on Tap, which traces the origins of its oils to the farms of production and can isolate the olive crush date to within four hours.
Their products come with an extensive paper trail to ensure that buyers are getting only the highest quality extractions available.
Classic and infused Balsamic vinegars, of which Olives on Tap carries nearly 20 different varieties, are tasted via small spoons that provide just enough of the acidic elixirs to make flavours apparent without overwhelming the taster.
On the heels of my exceptional tasting experience I armed myself with a modest new inventory of two vinegars and one olive oil and headed home to dazzle my own judges' panel (my wife and two children) with a truly spectacular salad dressing.
Small bottles of oils and vinegars cost $12 each, medium bottles are $20 and large bottles are $30.
Olives on Tap is located at 928 West 16th St. in North Vancouver. Contact info: 778232-5421, olivesontap.com.
Chris Dagenais served as restaurant manager for several restaurants downtown and on the North Shore. A self-described wine fanatic, he earned his sommelier diploma in 2001. Contact: email@example.com.
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