By Mike Lowe
The scene: a Monday evening at a restaurant closed to the public for the night. A group of gentlemen assemble, greet each other, and hand out sheets of paper which they study carefully while awaiting further instruction.
This is not a secret gathering of some sinister, clandestine group. The meeting is one of about eight similar sessions held each year by Les Marmitons Niagara. Les Marmitons, which is French for “The Chef’s Assistants,” is actually an international organization of men who share a passion for good food, fine wine and the culinary arts. They join together, under the tutelage of a guest chef, to cook a four-course menu specially designed by the chef who will critique his helpers’ results after the service of each course.
Chef Bruce Worden explains his menu
The Niagara chapter meets at Benchmark Restaurant at the Canadian Food and Wine Institute located at Niagara College’s Niagara-on-the-Lake campus. The chapter has even established a bursary fund with the college, worth about $130,000 , which is awarded to select students in each of the primary study areas- Culinary, winery, brewery and hospitality.
Past-President Ross Macfarlane
The group, made up of members from all walks of life, takes the craft of cooking very seriously. But you can still count on an evening of laughs, good-natured ribbing and, most certainly, great food and wine. So, that’s why I’m here. You need an invitation to participate and, lucky for me, an acquaintance of mine is chapter past president and international vice president Ross Macfarlane.
Preparation of the dessert course
After a taste of zesty NCT Winery semi-dry riesling, and a draw to determine which team you will be on, the group heads to the kitchen to start work at about 6:30pm. Chef Bruce Worden, Benchmark’s Chef Manager, circulates in the kitchen checking on progress and offering instruction to his “assistants.”
Chef demonstrates assembly of Beef Wellington
Energy in the kitchen is high as we work toward an 8:30 p.m. start-of-service (to ourselves). Chef Worden, the consummate teacher, keeps everyone on their toes, and one eye on the clock. Plating of the first course goes off without a hitch and almost on time. Smooth and silky Traves Farm squash soup pairs beautifully with the sweetness of the shrimp and corn combination in the delightfully light and crisp fritter.
Squash soup with shrimp and corn fritter
Next up is capon prepared three ways — smoked breast, confit leg and sausage, served with traditional cassoulet and a savoury, herbed/salted caramel. The smoky-sweet character of the dish is wonderful paired with Ravine Sand & Gravel Redcoat 2011.
Capon with cassoulet
A rib eye of beef “Wellington” topped with mushroom duxelles and encased in flaky pastry follows. The dish is served with an earthy pot-au-feu of seasonal vegetables. The combination works extremely well with Ravine’s Picone Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Franc 2010.
The dessert course is moist plum cake and chocolate ganache tart with honey/blue cheese tuile. A surprising treat is the pairing of Niagara College Teaching Brewery bourbon barrel aged bock beer with the dessert which matches very nicely.
The evening concludes with a quick scrub-down of the kitchen and thanks to the guest chef. Les Marmitons offers passionate cooks an opportunity to work alongside seasoned professional chefs and learn a few tricks of the trade in the process. For anyone interested in joining, you can find contact information on the Niagara chapter’s website. Les Marmitons motto says it best: ”Gastronomie et Fraternité — from Friendship to Gastronomy.”