by Cynthia Peters

When most of us think about raising money for breast cancer, it’s usually a run or walk. Well Mount Sinai took it too new heights and wooed Chef Gordon Ramsay and five other celebrity chefs to create, the first ever, Chef’s Challenge: The Ultimate Battle for a Cure.  It took place on November 20th in Toronto at the Carlu, a restored 1930s-era event venue.  The top 50 fundraisers in Canada had the opportunity to show off their culinary skills in a makeshift kitchen stadium.  I was fortunate to be one of those participants. It truly was a memorable day.

We arrived at the ground floor of College Park, awaiting our cue to be escorted to the 7th floor to the Carlu. We spotted each other by our white t-shirts, our basic uniform of the day. There were dentists to developers; mostly hobby cooks seeking a thrill of a lifetime. One thing we all had in common though, was our love of cooking, the drive to make a difference and the chance to meet and mingle with some of the best chefs in the country. And of course, the ultimate challenge, to be critiqued by master chef, Gordon Ramsay.

The pre-huddle room was ready for our arrival with a continental breakfast and team tables. The top fundraisers had the opportunity to pick their celebrity chef  – Massimo Capra, Lynn Crawford, Jamie Kennedy, Mark McEwan, and David Rocco. The rest of us were assigned to one of the teams.  I was fortunate to be selected for Mark McEwan’s team, and boy did we have fun!

We then assembled in the main concert hall where the stage had been dressed with 20-foot banners, team cook stations, ready for television action. While the celebrity chefs were used to this type of setting, the majority of us realized at that moment that this was going to be a bit more nerve reckoning than we had envisioned. Cameras rolled and producers shouted. This really was kitchen stadium!

Then, the room cheered as the master himself, arrived on stage.  He was a real showman and to our surprise, a warm and engaging person. The morning was filled with skill testing exercises where we got to fillet fish, sear steaks and challenge our taste buds. Gordon Ramsay was in fine form using the F-word and having a good time critiquing our work.  I was thrilled when Gordon tasted my blue and rare steaks, and I quote” They are seared beautifully and cooked to perfection”. What more could a chef ask for?

After the morning events we moved into the commercial kitchens of the Carlu to do some prep work for the evening show. Each team had three courses to cook, a pan-seared Halibut appetizer, and Angus tenderloins with a variety of sides for the entrée, and a Crème Brulee with fruit compote and shortbread for dessert. We were all given the same recipes, but could improvise. And that was the key to winning.  Mark encouraged us to keep it simple in cooking techniques and too use our creativity in the combinations of flavors and plating.  He led us through the development of the recipes and assigned us to our roles. I particularly loved his drawings for the plating, as I had seen him do this on his show a few times and wondered if it was for the camera. Apparently not. It was a great guide for his 10 anxious cooks hoping that they will remember how to do their tasks in time – in front of the cameras, lights, and to an audience of around 500 people.

We assembled back at the Carlu around 6pm. Thank God for the cocktail reception! We all needed a glass of wine (or two) before we hit the stage. Decked in our whites, we were ready for battle.

As we waited for our turn, we were fortunate to enjoy the five-course dinner that our viewers were eating, along with paired wines. It was a welcomed diversion. The judges’ dinner on the other hand, was going to be the fruits of our labor. And that was going to be an adventure. Jennifer Bain, Food Editor of the Toronto Star, Leslie Roberts of Global TV, ET Canada’s Roz Weston and Florida Chef, Paula Dasilva (a Hell’s Kitchen runner-up) made up the panel. As I rose to go the stage to help my teammates with the entrée course, I was thankful that I knew how to cook and that it would be a natural movement rather than a worrisome experience.  We finished on time, it looked great, but in the end after all the courses were completed and judged, Lynn Crawford’s team took the prize.

Team McEwan rocked that night. And even though we didn’t win the “celebrated whisk trophy”; we won in so many ways.  Mount Sinai raised $1.1 million dollars, we made new friends and we got the chance of a lifetime to have fun and cook with a team of amazing chefs!

Cynthia Peters is a personal chef, food writer, community advisor and owner of From the Farm Cooking School, located in beautiful Prince Edward County.