This past week, I finally got the chance to meet Top Chef Canada’s Rich Francis. Doing a bit of travelling in Alberta, the chef came down to Calgary to join fellow Top Chef Canada chef Karine Moulin at her restaurant, Raw Bar, for a Top Chef Canada episode six viewing party. Rich chatted with a full room of folks about his time on the show, what it was like cooking off against Karine and the other competitors and all of that good stuff. Post-viewing, both chefs popped over to Charcut to see Pierre Lamielle. In a competition that can get so intense, it’s nice to see everyone playing nice together at the end of the day, isn’t it?
One of the things that I love most about watching Rich on the series is from where he draws his inspiration. Being the first Aboriginal chef on the show and watching his intent to bring Aboriginal cuisine to the mainstream made him someone I've been rooting for since the premiere.
Stepping into the kitchen with Rich to watch him recreate his pickerel dish from the "Restaurant Wars" episode was exciting. It’s one thing to see the chefs buzz around the kitchen on television, but like any sport, it’s much more captivating in real life.
I couldn’t help but notice that this particular pickerel dish with confit fennel, potatoes and shellfish reduction (think bisque) is not completely in-line with his Aboriginal-focused cooking style. I asked Rich about this and he shared that "Restaurant Wars" was all about cooking to a theme and in his team’s case, a French leaning dining concept. Vying for the title of Top Chef Canada means having to be flexible and that can mean stepping outside something that’s ‘you’ for the sake of the competition. Although, the team didn’t fare too well at the end of the day, the pickerel dish was the only stand out on his side of the war.
Rich's pickerel dish from the Top Chef Canada episode "Restaurant Wars."
Since pickerel is the star of this dish, if I was going to remember one tip from being in the kitchen with Rich, it would be how to end up with a perfectly crispy skin on a fish fillet.
After lightly flouring the fillets on all sides and seasoning with salt and pepper, we got a pan smoking hot, added some canola oil and began to fry the fish, skin side down.
After about 2 minutes, the skin was golden and crisp. The fish is good to flip when the skin moves away from the pan with ease. If it feels like it’s sticking, don't force it. Give it a little while longer. Rich also tossed a bit of butter into the pan when the fish was searing and used a spoon to baste the pickerel so it wouldn’t become dry.
Pickerel is found easily enough in most of Ontario and Manitoba. If you’re in Saskatchewan, Walleye is equally plentiful and offers a similar taste and texture, but regardless of what fish fillet you’re deciding to cook up for dinner, this Top Chef-style tapenade will be a great finishing touch.
Big thanks to Rich and Karine for recreating this delectable dish and for sharing the details on how to recreate it at home.
Pan Seared Pickerel with Braised Fennel, Confit Potatoes and Tapenade
Yields: 6 servings
Total cook time: 1 1/2 hours
6 pitted cerignola olives
6 pitted black olives
3 sun-dried tomatoes
2 anchovy fillets
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
Confit fingerling potatoes ingredients:
1 1/2 pounds of fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise
5 French shallots, halved lengthwise
1/4 cup melted duck fat
2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley, for garnish
1 tablespoon finely chopped thyme, for garnish
Braised fennel ingredients:
2 large fennel bulbs, rinsed clean
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons anise-flavoured liqueur
1/2 cup vegetable stock
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons chopped fennel fronds
Zest from 1 orange
Juice from 1 lemon
6 fillets of pickerel
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup white wine
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup fresh herbs, chopped (parsley, dill, chives or your favourite mix of herbs)
1 tablespoon cold butter
1. Place the first 4 ingredients in a food processor and pulse a few times until a chunky paste forms.
2. Pour in the olive oil and pulse several more times.
3. Transfer to a bowl, season to taste with salt and pepper.
4. Place in the refrigerator until ready to use. Will keep for up to 2 weeks.
Confit fingerling potatoes directions:
1. Preheat the oven to 350˚F
2. In a large bowl, combine the potatoes, shallots, duck fat, and balsamic vinegar. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. Spread the potato mixture onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet.
4. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 1 hour or until potatoes are tender. Stir from time to time while baking.
5. When ready to serve, sprinkle with parsley and thyme and plate as a side dish with the pickerel and braised fennel.
Braised fennel directions:
1. Cut the tops off the fennel bulbs, chop 2 tablespoons of the fronds and set aside.
2. Slice the fennel bulbs in half, lengthwise, through the core. Then slice each half lengthwise into quarters (you should get eight pieces total out of each fennel bulb), leaving some of the core attached so the pieces don't fall apart as they cook.
3. Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and place the fennel pieces in the pan in a single layer. Reduce the heat to medium and cook the fennel pieces, without moving them, for at least 2 minutes.
4. Sprinkle the salt and sugar over the fennel. Cook for another minute, turn the fennel pieces over and brown the other side.
5. When both sides of the fennel are nicely browned, add the anise liqueur to the pan. Increase the heat to medium high. The liquor should boil down quickly.
6. When the liqueur is almost gone, add the stock and water.
7. Bring the liquid to a boil. Then reduce the heat down to low, cover the pan and simmer for 15 minutes.
8. Remove the cover, increase the heat to high and let the stock cook down until it's a glaze.
9. Add the fennel fronds and most of the orange zest and combine gently.
10. When ready to serve, garnish with the rest of the zest and a few splashes of lemon juice.
1. Combine flour, paprika, salt and pepper in a bowl or container that will fit the pickerel.
2. Preheat a frying pan on medium-high heat. Add the oil.
3. Coat the fillets in the flour mixture and fry till golden brown on both sides, about 2 to 3 minutes on each side.
4. Remove from pan and place on paper towel until they are all done.
5. When all fillets are cooked, pour the wine and the lemon juice into the same pan to deglaze it.
6. Allow the liquid to reduce a bit (about 3 or 4 minutes) and add the chopped herbs and then add the cold butter.
Remove the pan from direct heat and swirl the pan until the butter
melts and incorporates with the wine, lemon juice and herbs.
8. Plate the fillets and pour some of the sauce onto each fillet.
9. Serve the pickerel with the potatoes and braised fennel. Garnish each plate with the tapenade.
Dan Clapson is a food writer and culinary instructor based out of Calgary. He is constantly creating new recipes and striving to expand his culinary horizons. He thinks yam fries are overrated.