Burnaby as world-renowned culinary hot spot? Don’t knock it. Depending how much he wows the judges on Wednesday (January 24), Scott Jaeger of the Pear Tree might well bring home the gold from Bocuse d’Or, the biennial cooking contest in Lyon presided over by founder Paul Bocuse.
Jaeger’s road has been long and painstaking, a 33-month journey that began in April 2004 when he won the position of Canadian entrant. He talks about “designing your life to be ready for it. We fundraise for it.” The Canadian team receives no government financial support, and where Iceland was able to build a replica kitchen to practise in, Jaeger cooks in the restaurant he opened with wife, Stephanie, in 1998. Enlarged in 2005, it now includes a niche for the Bocuse d’Or trophy and the exact model of Combi herm oven that he will use in the five-hour contest this week. “There’s a big learning curve,” he says of it. “You can dial in the percentage of steam and dry heat at the same time. They’re very big in Europe, but not very big here.”
Equipment isn’t the only challenge. Chefs must make two 12-person platters using theme ingredients, this year’s being poulet de Bresse, Norwegian halibut, and king crab. The iconic French chicken is unobtainable here, so Jaeger has been working with Quebec’s grain-fed, milk-finished guinea fowl. Quebec has also supplied farmed halibut similar to the fish he’ll be using. King crab is farmed in Europe. Jaeger has been wrestling with the wild Alaskan variety, tank-stored and expensive: the day before we talk by phone, he paid $140 for, he estimates, four portions. Bocuse judges like truffles, he says at a media tasting a week later. Testing dishes is expensive, so elements have shown up on the Pear Tree’s menu with customers willingly taking the role of guinea pig.
Also factored into the dishes he designs are analyses of previous winning entries and a distinctive approach. “Obviously we want it to be Canadian. More colourful and fresh-looking,” says Jaeger. Assisting him will be apprentice Brody White, 21 (required to be under 23 at contest time). On his case to add more salt to suit European tastes, Jaeger says, have been Robert Sulatycky, executive chef at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and Canadian judge Michael Noble, culinary development director for Earls Restaurants and manager of the Bocuse d’Or Canada team. Sessions with a sports psychologist have forged a champion attitude.
Seeded for the first time this year, 24 countries compete over two days. Canada has drawn eighth place on the second day—pole position, in Jaeger’s view, shortly after France and Norway, and just before Denmark, all past winners. (Canada’s highest ranking is fourth in 1999 with Sulatycky.) Marking follows the same format as figure skating, Jaeger adds: scores can’t be adjusted after Day 1.
By early January, heavy equipment is en route to France, and there’s one last full practice before Jaeger and team fly out, 10 in all, including a documentary film crew. Cheering them on will be around 90 supporters, all in vintage-style hockey jerseys. By Saturday (January 20), Jaeger and White will be practising with the real ingredients: whole halibut, live crab, and poulets still with their distinctive red-feathered heads, blue legs, and innards.
Finished platters are borne before 24 judges, then portioned for tasting. “Bocuse d’Or is about show,” says Jaeger. “It’s about getting judges to leave their chair and say, ”˜How do they do that?’ ” The halibut will be alchemized into rack of halibut, bones removed then strategically reinserted; teamed with crab, truffles, and leeks; and coated with a crab-and-tarragon glaze. Small rings of pickled yellow beet are actually tiny trays holding crab-and-fennel salad under a dome of anise-cured tomato. Small pastry rectangles support cippolini-onion custard topped with two rows of double-shucked peas tweezered into position.
Peas and carrots sound blah till you bite into this and Jaeger’s warm carrot jelly topped with intense carrot “air”, a warm snowflake on the tongue. Accompanying the chicken, its liver becomes a parfait, served in a crisp potato cup with a poached quail egg and Hollandaise, a tiny ambrosial take on eggs Benedict. Approach and ingredients are “Canadian but paying respect to France”. The style—elegant, intelligent, and deeply sensual—is all Jaeger’s own.
THE PEAR TREE 4120 East Hastings Street, Burnaby, 604-299-2772. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 5 p.m. beginning February 6.