Stephen Baidacoff and the Black Box Challenge at Get Cooking

As I type, eight of Canada’s brightest young chefs are competing in the Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship competition in Vancouver. By the time I’m done writing this, the winner of the $10,000 and stage (internship) at a top international restaurant may have already been declared.

I’m rooting for Edmonton’s Stephen Baidacoff.

I first met this young man a couple of months ago at a Slow food Edmonton event held at Tangle Ridge Ranch. Stephen is part of the instruction team from Kathryn Joel’s Get Cooking culinary school and on this day, Kathryn’s crew was creating all the food for Dia del Cordero, Day of the Lamb. Fifty (or so) food adventurers made the trek 30 miles southwest of the city’s limits for this Mexican-themed eating and learning experience. It was clear that Stephen had serious culinary chops, and I was not surprised to hear that he had recently secured a spot in the Hawksworth preliminaries held in June.

A couple of nights ago, I joined a dozen of Stephen’s supporters at Kathryn’s cooking school. As practise for the scholarship final event, Kathryn, and the Get Cooking team (Wendy Mah, Eric Hansen) arranged a Black Box event where Steve would have 2.5 hours to create an entrée and dessert for this group out of ingredients revealed to him right then and there.

The black box contained: corn, pine nuts, prawns, spinach, eggplant and smoked trout.

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“Time starts now!” With those three words, Stephen’s demeanour changed entirely. He was instantly focused, centred, intense. Years of training, cooking, and creating got the wheels turning and he began to write out his menu ideas on the black board.

At Fridge P1040003_Fotor

His focus and calm intensity comes, apparently, from years of training to be a boxer.

With his friend and co-worker, Chef Eric Hansen, acting as assistant, the entrée started to come together.

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Stephen worked methodically as he constructed each part; oblivious to the chatter around him, the cameras clicking, the clock ticking, minutes counting down. And while he worked, we sipped wine and dined on two dishes: the first dish being the one Stephen cooked in June to secure his place in the finals.

Chicken in Smoked butter, Kale, Charred Onions, Sherry Jus.
Chicken in Smoked butter, Kale, Charred Onions, Sherry Jus.

Visually, the dish was an art form in itself but one bite, and it was easy to understand why this young man was one of the heat winners.

A short time later, guests enjoyed dish #2, an exquisite purple-hued soup:

Red Cabbage Velouté with a Gorgonzola Sorbet
Red Cabbage Velouté with a Gorgonzola Sorbet

While we sat back and relaxed, things heated up at the front of the classroom.

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With one second remaining, Stephen finished the last plate with a swift drizzling of olive oil. At this point, all guests were on their feet, counting down the clock.  The applause and cheering that ensued reminded me of a New Year’s Eve celebration. The result, as expected, was beautiful and delicious.

Smoked Trout Tortelli on Brûléed Eggplant Purée with Citrus-Charred Prawns and Crispy Trout Skin
Smoked Trout Tortelli on Brûléed Eggplant Purée with Citrus-Charred Prawns and Crispy Trout Skin

But, he wasn’t done yet. There was dessert to be made.

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Sweet Corn Custard, Spinach Sorbet with a Pine Nut Cialde and Burnt Corn Glaze.
Sweet Corn Custard, Spinach Sorbet with a Pine Nut Cialde and Burnt Corn Glaze.

Now came the hard part: receiving feedback. It is easy, at an event like this, to heap praise on a friend and say “everything was delicious” but what good are you really doing a person who, in 48 hours, will be appearing before professional chefs and critics and vying for a $10,000 purse? The maturity of a chef is often seen in how he handles criticism.

The pureed eggplant could have used a bit of sparkle to pretty it up (eggplant usually tastes better than it looks), a pinch more salt; more colour on the plate; the spinach sorbet overpowered the custard; the corn glaze hardened too quickly: comments and observations made by guests — somewhat hesitantly—but received with graciousness by the chef.

On Sunday, September 28th, I will be holding my breath, crossing my fingers and thinking of Stephen Baidacoff as he competes in Vancouver. If he wins, he will leave Edmonton to work in a highly acclaimed restaurant somewhere far, far away. For Edmonton, no doubt, a loss; for Stephen, though, an opportunity of a lifetime, and one well-deserved.

Fingers crossed. Good luck, Stephen.