The Group of 7 Chefs – Go Fish

I’m not sure how I failed to attend a dinner by the Group of 7 Chefs up until now. Timing, finances, their predilection for odd bits of the insides of animals… all may play a role. But when they announced they would be doing a fish and beer dinner, teaming up with Bellwoods Brewery and serving sustainable fish, Greg and I knew we had to go.

The Group of 7 Chefs is actually comprised of more than seven local chefs. Scott Vivian (Beast), Rob Gentile (Buca), Mark Cutrara (Cowbell), Kevin McKenna (Globe and Earth), Matty Matheson (Parts & Labour), Chris Brown (The Stop), Bertrand Alepee (The Tempered Chef), and Marc Dufour (Globe and Earth) are the main crew, but they have been joined occasionally by local chefs Nick Liu (GwaiLo), Guy Rawlings and others, depending on the specific dinner and individual availability.

The premise is that the chefs get together once a month, on a Monday, when they’re all off from their regular gigs, and work together to create a multi-course dinner. There are a few sous chefs helping out, but most of the work is done by the chefs themselves, with everyone helping to cook and plate each others’ dishes, and a grand sense of fun and camaraderie, despite the stress and hard work.

While the dinners often take place in one of the chefs’ restaurants, they are occasionally hosted in other unique spaces, such as art galleries, or in this case, a brewery.

Bellwoods Brewery has taken the local craft beer scene by storm; owners Mike Clark and Luke Pestl have tapped into Toronto’s fascination with craft beer and are coming up not only with some fantastic beverages, but they’re getting quite the reputation for their food, which is mostly snack-type items, created in their snack-sized kitchen. Which is sort of what made this fish and beer dinner even more of a challenge for the Group of 7 Chefs – how the heck do you plate up dinner for 50 with no prep space?

Although many of the chefs did pre-prep in their own restaurant kitchens and transported their ingredients to the brewery for cooking/assembly, there were still some snug working quarters. Deep-fryers were set up in front of the beer tanks, plates were laid out along the bar, and “behind!” got yelled a lot as everyone jostled for room to add their element or garnish to each plate.

Amusingly, things ran more smoothly than many dinners I’ve been to where a single chef was doing all the cooking – dishes came out in a timely manner, despite the small kitchen space, and it was clear that the chefs really sat down and created dishes that would compliment the others, as well as the beers.

The Group of 7 Chefs will be doing more dinners throughout the summer as they raise funds to get to New York City where they will be cooking at the James Beard House (quite an honour in culinary circles) on September 11th. When these seven wild and crazy guys hit New York with their fantastic food, the city won’t know what hit it.

Course number 1: geoduck. The giant clam found in the Pacific Northwest can be a challenge to chefs who have never worked with it before, as it is prone to going tough and bouncy if over-cooked. Here Nick Liu offers a cooked version with poached lobster in pork bone broth, and Mark Cutrara serves it up raw and thinly-sliced along with lobster and corn. These were served with Bellwoods Fruit Helmet which uses apricots, mangoes and a fruity New Zealand hops; the beer paired well with both dishes but played off Liu’s dish very nicely because of the more savoury components in the pork broth.

Course number 2 (pictured at top): haddock, with both chefs offering a fishcake. Bertrand Alepee offers his version as a battered and fried quenelle served with tiny red onion rings, brandade and pesto. Scott Vivian gets funky by adding huitalacoche, guacamole and feta, plus tiny frites. Served with Biere de Garde, a fruity beer aged in wine barrels.

Course number 3: swordfish. Marc Dufour offers nori-wrapped and tempura battered fish with sweet and sour eggplant, while Chris Brown serves the swordfish raw with peas, cucumber and radish slaw and miso, in this case dehydrated and sprinkled on top. Served with Muggleweisse, a deliberately soured beer, which I passed on to my table-mates, as I’m not a fan of the sour stuff.

Course number 4: halibut: from Bellwoods Brewery chef Rob Julen, raw with grilled cucumber and greens, and from Matty Matheson, also raw, with mussels and spicy romesco sauce. We think it was a mistake, but guests received spoons to eat this dish with instead of forks, and being polite Canadians, nobody pointed out the error. And while Julen’s very tasty grilled cucumber could easily have been eaten with the fingers, we could actually hear the waves of sharp clicks reverberate across the space as table after table of guests tried to cut that cucumber with the side of their spoon. We called it the cucumber cacophony and it amused us to no end. Served with Bellwoods Fortune Cookie Tripel.

Dessert!: Kevin McKenna offers an ale and smoked sugar panna cotta with wild blueberry wakame gelee and candied seaweed. Served with the Lost River Baltic Porter.  This may have been my favourite dish of the evening, and not just because of my sweet tooth. This dessert just screamed summer at the beach to me, and paired surprisingly well with the porter despite the beer being roasty and rich.

Some of the chefs at the end of the evening thanking the guests. Thanks to everyone involved for an outstanding meal.

Hey! I wrote a book. Check out Stained Pages Press for more information on Kitchen Party – Food Stories From Nova Scotia and Beyond, due out in November.