Sask. chefs competing for national culinary title

A lot of time, trial and teamwork goes into preparing for the National Gold Medal Plates.

Chef Scott Torgerson and Chef Garrett Thienes representing Saskatchewan at National Gold Medal Plates

Chef Scott Torgerson said being able to compete at the National Gold Medal Plates is a testament to his team at the Radisson Hotel in Saskatoon. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

Two Saskatchewan chefs are in B.C. to compete for Canada's top culinary title this weekend in the National Gold Medal Plates competition.

"We never concern ourselves with how we finish," said Scott Torgerson, executive chef at the Radisson Hotel in Saskatoon. "As long as we stand behind the plates that we do."

Torgerson earned his spot at the national competition by winning the Gold Medal Plates contest in Saskatoon in October 2016. He had taken silver in the same event the year before.

Chef Garrett 'Rusty' Thienes said his start in a kitchen didn't come until his early 20s when he began as a dishwasher in Calgary. (Chris Attrell)

Also heading to Kelowna is Garrett "Rusty" Thienes of Harvest Eatery and Fresh Market in Shaunavon. He won the Regina competition, also held in October 2016.

"We're not just going there to compete; we're going there to win," Thienes said.

Torgerson began his culinary career at a young age, as his family was involved in restaurants in Winnipeg, where he grew up.

After getting his education at Red River College, Torgerson began training at what he referred to as some of the better restaurants in Winnipeg. That's where he says his competitive side came out.

Since then, he's worked in kitchens around Canada, and has even competed globally as part of Team Canada in the Culinary Olympics.

"In the restaurant, we try to work with the same mentality as we do in competitions. It's a matter of organization and the way you structure yourself to build a plate."

Chef Scott Torgerson said his competitive side came out when he trained at what he calls some of the better restaurants in Winnipeg. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

Thienes's start came much later. He said he was in his early 20s when his friend, who now works with Thienes in the Shaunavon restaurant, gave him a job as a dishwasher in a Calgary restaurant.

A year later, Thienes was the assistant night sous chef. After spending time at a number of Calgary restaurants and in B.C., Thienes and his wife eventually made their way back to his hometown, where he opened his own restaurant.

'Eat with your eyes first'

Building the plate itself is something that takes a lot of time, trial and teamwork, Torgerson said.

"You eat with your eyes first so we try to make sure we can wow people as much as possible."

Torgerson said getting the plating right can take many attempts, both from himself and other members of his kitchen.

To come up with a dish, Torgerson will review things done in the past, draw on what's worked before, make sure the plate works with the wine it's paired with — all while making sure it looks good in presentation.

Garrett 'Rusty' Thienes has now set up a restaurant, Harvest Eatery and Fresh Market, in his hometown, Shaunavon. (Kristy Thienes)

Thienes said the idea for a dish usually comes to him quickly. He admits, however, it takes a lot longer to get the dish right.

"A lot of these dishes, I can taste them. And I know that seems really strange … when I start imagining the dish, I can taste it in my head without taking a bite. Then usually, when it hits the plate, it's just a matter of fine tuning stuff."

When it comes to the National Gold Medal Plates, it is up to the teams to bring the supplies themselves.

"We try to think as locally as we can and find the suppliers that are available for us to use," Torgerson said.

Preparations for the Saskatoon team began more than a week before the competition, as they did as much as they could ahead of time.

National title a 3-part competition

The competition itself consists of three events. The first is a mystery wine pairing where chefs are given a mystery bottle of wine and must create a dish with local ingredients that compliment it. They have a set budget and set amount of time, and must serve about 400 people.

Chef Scott Torgerson has prepared a black trumpet-crusted elk and Cactus Lake beef tenderloin dish for the competition — the same one that won him the Gold Medal Plate title in Saskatoon. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

The second event is the black box competition, where chefs are given one hour to produce a plate using diverse foods presented to them in a black box.

The third and final test allows chefs to serve their best dish for the guests and judges.

Torgerson will be serving the dish which won him the Gold Medal Plate in Saskatoon, a black trumpet-crusted elk and Cactus Lake beef tenderloin dish.

Thienes chose to make a new dish — one that he had to perfect in just a few weeks.

Though he's keeping the grand finale a secret, Thienes said it would feature local lamb and incorporate the yellows and greens of Saskatchewan.

"We're going to bring dessert onto our plate for our grand finale dish, even though it's a savoury dish," Thienes hinted.

No matter the outcome, Torgerson said he's proud to be representing Saskatoon with his team.

"If we can keep things running here and be able to do our jobs, and be able to do these things on the side, it's just a testament to our kitchen and our environment and the people we have around us."

Chef Garrett 'Rusty' Thienes (second from left) will serve a dish featuring local lamb that incorporates the yellows and greens of Saskatchewan onto the plate. (Kristy Thienes)

While Thienes has his eyes on the top prize, he said the biggest part of the competition is measuring himself.

"It's not really an ego thing about winning a medal. I think it's about a justification for a long career, for me, that I've made the right choices and been successful at it."

About the Author

Courtney Markewich

Courtney Markewich is a Saskatchewan journalist and Social Media News Editor/Presenter for @CBCSask and @CBCSaskatoon.