TORONTO – The choice facing 200 people who paid $225 each for a unique taste-testing was a tough one: select the best borscht made by some of Toronto’s most renowned chefs.
The four options were presented in miniscule bowls, each with a unique shape. One curved bowl contained a thick ochre liquid accented by swaths of red, while two others were filled to the brim with a pungent crimson puree. The clear glass of the final bowl highlighted the delicate golden broth within, made from yellow beets.
The somewhat quirky fundraiser – with the aim of raising money for a rehabilitation center in Ukraine – took place in the rustic, wood-panelled basement of a local Ukrainian church on Nov. 6. Yet the simple surroundings in no way reflected the complex task facing the four chefs. In the hall sat some of their toughest critics: a generation of Ukrainian women who were bona fide experts on the quintessential Eastern European soup.
“Borscht is all about roots,” said Lida Kudla, a volunteer who helped spearhead the fundraiser, which raised money for the Lviv-based Dzherelo children’s center.
In the end, the event did more than just pull in the much-needed funds. It elevated a simple peasant soup to a high art form, showing just how many different variants of borscht can be eked out of a simple beet. This was, as the name of the event reflected, “Not Your Baba’s Borshch.”
“Borscht is having a resurgence,” noted Tom Birchard, a proprietor of New York’s famous Veselka restaurant and one of the judges of the event. Modernized high-end versions are popping up on menus at some of the trendiest restaurants in North America.
The fundraiser was the second of its kind highlighting Ukrainian cuisine, following a similar but smaller effort undertaken several years ago. The original gathering was such a hit that participants clamoured for more, said Natalia Chyrska, another volunteer who helped with the organization.
The taste-testing pulled in some notable celebrities from Canada’s culinary scene. It was hosted by Lynn Crawford, a well-known TV personality and former executive chef at New York’s Four Seasons Hotel. In addition to Veselka’s Birchard, the judging panel also included a leading Canadian food critic. It also had a real, genuine “baba” in its mix: a local Toronto grandmother known for her own tasty borscht.
The winner of the competition – Chef Tatiana Shabotynsky of La Petite Chef Catering – took home the top Golden Beet award. She also happened to be of Ukrainian origin, giving her an obvious edge with the heavily Slavic crowd. As she laughingly boasted, she had the blood of “many generations of babas” coursing through her veins. Her pureed borscht featured traditional Ukrainian vushka (parcels) filled with wild mushrooms and a crisp, roasted crostini on the side, slathered with a spicy pate.
Following the competition, everyone feasted on an earthy Slavic-themed luncheon put together by Ukrainian-Canadian Anne Yarymowich, the executive chef at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), considered by many to be the best chef in Toronto today.
“It’s a way to reconnect with my heritage,” said Yarymowich of her decision to participate in the event. It was a change of scenery for the culinary icon, who is more often preparing meals for Toronto’s elite in the gallery-like setting of the AGO, recently redesigned by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry.
The three-course meal, inspired by the Veselka restaurant, kicked off with truffled potato and porcini mushroom varenyky, served under a warm truffle sour cream sauce. This was followed by an entrée of bigos with crisply roasted pork belly and cabbage, and then a dessert comprised of individual honeyed cheesecakes paired with soft, mead-poached pears.
The wine was provided by Rosewood Estates, a vineyard in the Niagara region owned by the Ukrainian-Canadian Roman family. There was also a healthy serving of Slava Ultra Premium Vodka, generously washed down by the chefs before the results of voting were announced.
The event succeeded in raising more than $25,000 for the Dzherelo center, a facility that is dear to the Toronto community’s heart. Opening its doors in 1993 with the assistance of Ukrainian-Canadian Zenia Kushpeta, the center helps children with physical and intellectual disabilities and their families. It provides consultation, early intervention and child development programs, rehabilitation therapies, education and counselling. With its multi-faceted approach, it has become a model for others in Ukraine.
Working in partnership with the Children of Chornobyl Canadian Fund (CCCF) and individual donors, the center had been able to provide its services free of charge. More than 2,000 special needs children and youth have been helped at the center since its founding. This year alone, 300 children have participated in a variety of educational and rehabilitative programs at the center, which is wheelchair friendly.
Staff writer Natalia A. Feduschak can be reached at email@example.com.