It’s Official: Michael Howell is a Grate Chef

Michael Howell's Grate SandwichMichael Howell’s grilled cheese stood alone at the Dairy Farmers of Canada’s Grate Canadian Grilled Cheese Cookoff in Toronto at the Canadian National Exhibition. The chef and co-owner of Wolfville’s Tempest World Cuisine emerged victorious at August 24’s cookoff, walking away with a cheese grater trophy, after out-grill cheesing Melissa Craig, executive chef at the Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, BC, Corbin Tomaszeski, executive chef at Toronto, ON’s Holts Café, and Paul Rogalski, executive chef and co-owner of Rouge in Calgary, AB.

Howell took some time to answer a few quick questions about the contest and what makes a great grilled cheese.

Tell me how it felt to be selected as one of only four participants from across the country for the contest?

“I was delighted to be asked. I did a promotion last year for the DFC (Dairy Farmers of Canada) to help promote the 2010 Milk Calendar, but never thought that I would be saked to compete with such an august group of high profile chefs.”

Describe the sandwiches you made and how you selected your ingredients.

“My Dark and Stormy was the one I thought might actually win – Chinese BBQ duck sliced thinly and tossed in smoky bbq sauce, grilled red onion, cilantro, Fox Hill Gouda, szechuan peppercorn mayo on dark rye, cooked on a barbeque. The winner was actually an interpretation of the Tuscan pizza on my menu that you had recently – we used fresh figs, prosciutto, arugula and added balsamic marinated roasted red pepper and lemon aioli. The bread was a miniature ciabatta loaf, brshed with oil and cooked in a panini press. I was delighted to be able to use Fox Hill cheeses as they subscribe to the DFC’s 100% Canadian Milk Program.”

[ed. note: I did, indeed, eat that Tuscan pizza a few weeks ago when I went to Tempest to review the restaurant for The Coast. That pizza is super, super good and I can see why translating it into a grilled cheese would be a surefire winner.]

I know you regularly use Fox Hill Cheese at Tempest — why was using their products in this contest really important to you?

“I have a great personal relationship with the Rands – I love and promote their products and they love and promote mine. What better two way street of professional respect could there be?”

What makes a great grilled cheese sandwich, in your opinion?

“Great bread, great cheese, and an ingredient that lifts it from the plebian to the ethereal… whether it be figs in my case, mango chutney and curry in Paul Rogalski’s Curry Me Brie, Sundried Tomato Tapenade from Melissa Craig or Corbins Spicy shrimp and bacon.”

It’s pretty much the greatest time of year in Wolfville for fresh, in-season local products — what are some suggestions for exciting or unique local products to throw together to make an outstanding grilled cheese sandwich?

“Great Greens including arugula, basil or cilantro! Tiny sun gold tomatoes exploding with flavour sliced thin with cheddar! cheese. Apples and pears, sliced thin with brie or a creamy alternative. Even Grilled peaches with havarti! Think Fruit, greens and rich cream cheeses for the best grilled cheese, but be sure to pick up a great loaf of you favourite bread from a bakery like Boulangerie Vendenne, like a black Olive bread. Think outside the grilled cheese box!”

What are your thoughts on contests like these ones? Do you think that they have a real influence on how Canadians eat? Do you see direct results from the efforts of organizations that put on food contests?

“That is harder for me to judge. I think so… As chefs help dictate eating/buying habits because of celebrification they can influence healthy/local choices that are better for us and better for our economies. This is the philosophy I  live by. It might be useful to ask Jeanita Rand if cheese buying is affected by the results of the competition. (Perhaps not this week, but in coming weeks…) There was significant exposure to media across the country for this event because of DFC’s efforts to promote buying cheese made with 100% Canadian Milk – a program which the Rands are participants. Buying Canadian is the first step to getting consumers to think about where their food comes from.”

Look for the winning sandwich on the menu at Tempest. And look for me eating it, the first chance I get.