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I had barely had time to settle in Toronto, following my mad dash across northwestern Ontario, when I found myself flying home to Winnipeg last week for a four-day training program with my coach and evening dining instructor to prepare for the Skills Canada competition in Edmonton.

In short, from the time my brother and I left Winnipeg on May 1, I have been going flat out — as a cross-country driver, furniture mover, newbie cook, and, now, national culinary competitor.

As a consequence, I have tried to avoid sitting for long periods of time; I fear if I stop moving, my head will keep spinning right off my body, onto the floor and down a hallway or street like an errant ball or tumbleweed.

However, the effort and exhaustion have been worth it: the past few days in Edmonton have been great fun and, more importantly, I’ve made great strides technically and creatively as a cook.

The competition spanned two days: three and a half hours on the first day to prepare the appetizer course; four on the second to prepare the main. The scope was similar to the provincial competition: the first course had to feature quail served both hot and cold, and the second, salmon and scallops; both had to feature a farce or forcemeat, and a sauce.

Day One: Quail Duo
Terrine with a Fennel, Orange and Basil Slaw, and an Apple Coulis
Bacon-wrapped Ballontine with a Spinach Farce, and a Port-wine Reduction

Day Two: Salmon & Scallop
Loin of Salmon with a Scallop Mousseline Crown, Pan-seared Scallops with a Shiitake and Button Mushroom Duxelles, Roasted Garlic and Lemon Parisienne-style Gnocchi, Asparagus, and a Beurre Blanc

Did I win? Nah.

I am totally cool with the result, too. I knew the odds were slim, my competition steep. I also knew simply doing it — and all the work that would go into getting ready for it — was reward enough for me.

Will there be other competitions in my culinary future? Hard to say. After all, it’s been many years since I actually competed in anything — and never at something as challenging as cooking.

During my years in secondary school, I competed quite frequently and quite capably in public speaking and debating. And while all competitions are similar in some ways, the key difference, for me anyway, between competitive communications and cookery is that I had natural knack for speaking in front of a crowd.

Cooking is another story.

In fact, I suspect one of the reasons why I’m so enamoured with the culinary arts is because I actually have to work my butt off. Yep, it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

True story.

And being a competitor at Skills Canada? Made the Grand Finals in Cyprus over a decade ago seem so… simple.

No matter. I try to live my life like I might get run over by a big red bus. I love a challenge, too. And on the heels of Edmonton 2012, I’m ready to tackle this challenge.

Knives sharp!

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On Wednesday afternoon, after nearly a month of Monday evenings spent practicing and preparing, I competed in the 15th annual Skills Manitoba Cooking Competition.

Each competitor was required to present two courses; the first of which had to feature quail served both hot and cold, and the second, salmon and scallops. Both courses also had to feature a farce or forcemeat and a sauce. I offered the following:

First Course | Quail Duo
Roasted Breast and Leg | Teriyaki Glaze | Wild Rice Pilaf
Terrine | Green Grape Gastrique | Torched Orange Segments

Second Course | Salmon & Scallop
Pan-roasted Medallions of Salmon | Scallop Mousseline
Parisienne Gnocchi | Asparagus | Carrot Purée | Browned Butter Hollandaise

I’d reluctantly agreed to participate in the event, not so much to compete in the event itself, but to gain additional practice for my final black-box exam, which is taking place in just over a week’s time.

Ironically, I did rather well: I won the gold medal!

I was and remain quite surprised: it’s been many, many years since I’ve competed in anything, save for one other culinary competition last year. Nevertheless, having been named the winner of the competition, I will be moving on to the national event taking place in Edmonton in mid-May.

I am both honoured and humbled at the prospect of representing my school and my province at the Skills Canada competition — and have every intention of bringing to bear every skill and technique I’ve learned in the past two years during that event. I feel I owe it to my instructors who’ve trained me, and to my parents who’ve supported me to do no less.

In the meantime, I shall be honing my technique, refining my menu (the national competition replicates the provincial one’s criteria: two courses; first, quail; second, salmon and scallops); and, more than anything else, practicing, practicing, practicing.

Needless to say, I will be a very busy boy in the next few weeks, balancing the barrage of end-of-term assignments, the final weeks of evening dinner service in the college’s Prairie Lights restaurant, and, now, preparing for Skills Canada.

When it rains it pours!

On Friday, on a bit of a whim and after some gentle chiding from one of my instructors, I competed in the college’s annual Turkey Cook-Off, co-sponsored by Granny’s Poultry and the Manitoba Turkey Producers. It was my first cooking competition.

Know this: I did not secure a spot in the top three, have no idea how I placed amongst the eight of us that competed, and I’m totally okay with it.

Honest.

I didn’t quite know what to expect, and had few if any preconceived notions how I would do. I just wanted to see what this competition thing was all about. And so, a little bleary-eyed at 7:30 in the morning, arrived in the kitchen to give it a bit of a go.

And go I did, producing the requisite appetizer and main course in the allotted time.

My offerings: a ground turkey ravioli with carrot purée and a browned-butter sauce, and a pecan-stuffed turkey breast roulade with a cranberry-red wine reduction.

Could I have done better? Always. Did I have fun and learn a thing or two along the way? Of course.

Mission accomplished, as far as I’m concerned. And hey, great practice for the forthcoming holiday season.