April 12, 2011
The Sweet Life

The Art of Chocolate

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Is there such a thing as too much chocolate? . . . .

I have a chocolate hangover.

Symptoms: Headache, lethargy, intestinal rumblings, a dark view of the world. Oh, and disbelief. I didn’t know there was such a thing until Sunday, when I tasted 26 bonbons and 13 elaborate chocolate desserts. It was day two of the Barry Callebaut Canadian Intercollegiate Chocolate Competition, and I was a judge.

     Chris King’s white choc puffer fish. Photo Credits: Susan Sampson   

The feasting with the eyes part – the chocolate sculpture contest – had come and gone. Sunday was the heavy eating day, with judges putting the bite on hand-dipped chocolates, molded bonbons and plated desserts. You might call it the way more rewarding version of tasting and tossing your way through a Black Magic box. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Sure there were missteps: misbegotten concepts, misshapen candies, flavour mismatches. But there’s a lot of young talent out there.

Stephanie Duong of George Brown College created a winning work of edible art rather than a mere dessert. Presented on a black slate, it looked so organic, with mossy torn chocolate sponge, sea buckthorn mousse and foam, a squiggle of white chocolate coconut pistachio panna cotta, and a nori tuile. You wouldn’t think seaweed and sugar could work together, but her candied nori sure hit the sweet spot.

Duong was one of the few who took a proper stab at the contest theme, “Under the Sea.” The rules said: “The theme may be interpreted freely.” And so it was. I was forced to reward the majority with only 1 point out of the possible 5 alloted for the theme. It got to the point where I added a point simply if they included sea salt, a common strategy, or anything round purporting to be a “pearl.”

     Marina Butterfly’s bonbons with “seaweed.”

Being a chocolatier is a calling, not a job. It requires steady hands and steely nerves, patience and precision. Thirteen brave souls from nine colleges spent the gruelling weekend slaving over hot pots of molten chocolate in a shiny kitchen classroom at Humber College. Some were barely a few hours into their chocolate courses back home.

So there were plenty of blushes, and at least one accidental profanity accompanied an accidentally dropped garnish. A young woman cut her hand three times. But in general, the students maintained their poise under the scrutiny of a roomful of perfectionists.

     Emily Krause setting out freshly dipped bonbons.

They have to get used to being watched, according to top chefs Derrick Tu Tan Pho and Bruno Elsier. Pho is head of the Chocolate Academy in St-Hyacinthe, Que., and Elsier is executive chef/higher education at Aramark Canada.

The pair reminisced about how hot, hot, hot it can get in restaurant and hotel kitchens: A newbie, bent over while plating, is apt to look up and find three executive chefs glaring at him, arms crossed.

According to Elsier, many culinary students fall into the trap of thinking more is more. “That’s the biggest mistake they make,” he says.

Duong mated coconut, vanilla, Thai basil and frozen corn in her molded bonbon, although this sounded more alarming than it tasted.

Tristan Shah of Red River College constructed a dessert with a dizzying combination of flavours, layering chocolate (cake, tile and feuilletine), pistachio (biscuit and ganache), pear (jelly and ball), and cherry (ganache, syrup, bomb, sorbet and sauce).

On the other hand, Cambrian College’s Marina Butterfly mastered the art of mating a smaller selection of flavours that dance harmoniously in one’s mouth. Her shiny cube of flourless chocolate cake topped by lime brulée and raspberry jelly was gorgeous.

       Plated desserts, with Marina Butterfly’s at front.

For their bits and pieces of brilliance, I must give shout-outs to Steven Pazder of Conestoga College (lime salted caramel and matcha white chocolate bonbon fillings), Maria Boyd of George Brown College (fizzy mango in syrup with Szechuan peppercorns), Jessica Sanabria of Canadore College (caramel green peppercorn sauce) and Kevin Francesco of Humber College (white chocolate lemongrass rice pudding).

Also, thanks to Melanie Robinson of Georgian College for her modern riff on the chocolate cherry. (You know, the iconic bonbon anyone under the age of 60 bites into, then tosses aside.) I wondered whether she could get away with it. She did, and very competently.

As for that chocolate hangover, I have learned from experience and recommend meat and exercise, fresh air and fizzy water as remedies.

The Winners

  • First Overall: Claudia Parent-Racine, École Hotelière de la Capitale
  • Second Overall: Maria Boyd, George Brown College
  • Third Overall: Marina Butterfly, Cambrian College
  • Sculpture: Claudia Parent-Racine, École Hotelière de la Capitale
  • Dessert and Dipped Chocolates: Stephanie Duong, George Brown College
  • Molded Chocolates: Maria Boyd, George Brown College

         Stephanie Duong’s winning work of edible art.