What it Takes to be a Canadian Gold Medal Plates Champion

June 14 2017

Saxophonist, singer, actor, husband, father, author; these are just some of the accomplished titles London-born James Chatto has achieved over the years.

James is currently the Head Judge and National Culinary Advisor for the Gold Medal Plates Culinary Championships. This initiative raises funds for Olympic athletes through a celebration of Canadian excellence in a number of fields from culinary to wine-making to entertainment and more.

We spoke to James to get his perspective on not only how to get to the Gold Medal Plates Culinary Championships but also how one can cook their way onto the final podium.

Every year, chefs across the country compete for the Canadian Gold Medal Plates Champion title. How does a chef qualify for this competition?

We host regional events in 11 cities across the country for which we select and invite the top 8-10 chefs in each city or region to compete in them. These chefs are chosen by a local senior judge with input from me.

For the regionals, we look for chefs who have great talent and are working in a kitchen, hotel or catering business. They must also be the top or executive chefs in their kitchens. We seek out the established stars in these cities but also mix things up by bringing in some young blood, as they keep the experienced chefs on their toes.

During each heat, the chefs cook one dish, allowing the guests and each judge to try it. We then award a bronze, silver and gold medal that same night and all chefs who have won gold within their regional heat compete in the Gold Medal Plates Championship in Kelowna, BC in February.

During the Canadian Culinary Championship, chefs must first complete the Wine Pairing Challenge where chefs are given a mystery wine and have 24 hours to taste, assess and create a pairing dish. What type of attributes constitute a “winning dish” for a pairing like this?

There are several attributes we encourage chefs to take into account when planning and preparing for this type of competition. The first main attribute is wine compatibility. The dish that they create must be a brilliant match to that wine. The other is taste. These two categories make up 30% of their score each. We also take into consideration presentation (20%), texture (10%) and "wow factor," a personal response to that dish (10%).

Next, chefs participate in the Black Box Competition where they have 60 minutes to prepare a signature dish using each of the secret ingredients inside the box. Tell us more about this part of the competition and what it entails.

We provide each chef with 7 ingredients in their black box that they are required to use to make one dish for the 13 judges. Each of these ingredients are unusual and un-obvious as we try to avoid having the same dish offered to the judges 11 times. Above all else, we’re looking for creativity and imagination so the chefs really have to think about what they’re going to create.

For scoring, we give 40% for creativity, 30% for taste and then 10% presentation, texture as well as "wow factor."

The Black Box is also a timing competition. If the chefs even go over by a few seconds, there are heavy time penalty points applied so it’s about being able to plate and have it finished to the judges before the bell rings.

What then happens during the Grand Finale? How is a winner selected?

At the Grand Finale, the chefs prepare whichever dish he or she wants to present to the judges and 700 guests. Usually, they tend to use the dish they won their regional event with because they've spent a lot of time perfecting it already and it has already been proven to be a winner.

Each of these competitions has equal weight in terms of marks and at the end of that Grand Finale, we crunch all of the numbers together to find our winner.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to the chefs participating in this competition?

Be true to yourselves. Don't try to cook in a way that you're not used to just because you think that's what the competition judges want. Cook for yourself, be an artist, be a creator in your own style and don't try to change course midstream. Be fast on your feet and be mentally nimble, especially in the black box competition.

The cooler you are going into these competitions, the better you will do. You really have to keep your wits about you to be successful. 

In your experience as a Gold Medal Plates judge, how have you seen Canadian cuisine evolve and what impact have these changes had on the dishes participating chefs create?

I've been doing this now for 11 years and there has been a huge change, especially in smaller cities. When I first started out, I’d go to the prairies and found that chefs mostly did basic hotel banquet-styled, French-based dishes. That's not what this competition has ever been about and they were not going to do very well with that. We were looking for more multi-cultural ideas.

Meanwhile, we have had great success over the years when chefs with an East-Asian background or a South-Asian background decide to cook using those references which they're accustomed to. Japanese-style presentation of dishes are also very well-suited for this kind of competition because it's elegant and beautiful. These are things that judges at this level learn to look for.

We've created this network of chefs across the country who communicate, watch and pay attention to what's happening in various cities. St John's has become a culinary centre along with places like Edmonton. With each year that goes by, there is more cross-pollination, imagination and sophistication in this competition.

Is there anything you’ve found many of these competing chefs have had in common in terms of the dishes they present?

One commonality is that the dishes are regional and seasonal. Chefs across Canada value these qualities and we see that on their plates. Another is Asian, South-Asian and Vietnamese-inspired dishes. These chefs are taking risks and it’s exciting for the judges to experience them each year.

Can you tell us what defines a Canadian Gold Medal Plates Champion?

Our champion has an improved sense of self-control and self-possession. They’re mentally equipped with an active imagination which gives them the power to think outside the box. These are the valuable traits that our Canadian Gold Medal Plates Champion has in their knife kit.