The Four Seasons defended its title at the 12th annual Harvest Soup Contest last Sunday, taking first place for the second year in a row, this time with a lobster pumpkin bisque.
"We were pretty confident," says Tory Martindale, executive chef at the Four Seasons. "We were in the competition to win it, but the secret to winning is you have to appeal to a whole audience of people and that has to be their favourite."
To that end, Martindale says everyone loves three things: seafood, bacon and cream. He chose the former and added pumpkin to fit with the contest's harvest theme. "I made it especially for the competition," he says. "Although, we do have a lobster bisque on the menu... If you go into a restaurant and it has lobster bisque on the menu, it's a good one to get."
The team — which included Andres Gonzalez — beat out eight other local restaurants this year, including the Fairmont Chateau, the Hilton, Earls, Mongolie Grill, Dubh Linn Gate, Cracked Pepper and Ric's Grill. Put on each year as a fundraiser for the Whistler Waldorf School, this year the event attracted 700 soup tasters who shelled out $6 for samples and went on to cast votes for their favourite.
Last year, the Four Seasons won for its butternut squash soup. "It's really great to get out there and work with other people in the community and the other restaurants," Martindale says. "You get to know each other. Many of the people in the competition this year were in it last year. It's a fun, competitive event."
As the bar has been raised over the years for the quality of soup, restaurants have been forced to gain an edge with their display and garnish. "Everyone tries to come back and win it for the next year," Martindale says. "Last year, we had tempura shrimp as garnish with our soup. This year, everyone started decorating tables and had big garnishes. It will be interesting to see next year how people try to get their edge."
The contest is also a good opportunity to meet customers and spend time out in the community rather than in the kitchen. "We really love it," Martindale says. "Being at the (Whistler) Farmers' Market is being in the community and part of the culinary community in Whistler. It's great to connect with people who come to the farmers' market. It gives us a lot of personal one-on-one time to interact with the guests. A lot of cooks don't get to do that all the time."
It might be friendly, but the competition is fierce, says Tracy Bruns, the capital campaign manager at the Waldorf School and one of the organizers. In a close second to Martindale's team was the Fairmont with its Tuscan ribollita soup. "It was (the chef's) family recipe from Tuscany," Bruns says. "I thought that was really cool."
Meanwhile, Earls and the Hilton tied in third place with their clam chowders. "This year, we had a lot of seafood where last year, we had a lot of pumpkin," Bruns says. "We don't dictate what they bring, we just say, 'Bring a harvest soup.'"
The event is popular not only with local chefs, but with the public as well. Many return year after year to enjoy the last weekend of the farmers' market and sample the warm fall offerings. "People have been coming for years," Bruns says. "I talked with one family who said this is a highlight. They've been coming for years and years and their comment was every year it seems there's a different theme without us dictating it. We get a lot of people who know that the last Sunday of the farmers' market we're there. It's great because it's a fundraiser, but it's also giving something back to the community."
While this might be a popular fundraiser for the school, organizers aim to keep the ticket price low and accessible. The money raised is going towards building a new school that will be for students up to Grade 12. "From the school side, we're just so thankful that we have such a great relationship with these restaurants because it's a cool, unique thing to do and I believe we'll continue doing it. It's something people want to see every year."
For local chefs, too, it's something they want to participate in annually. Martindale, meanwhile, says his team will be back next year to try and dominate for a third time. "We're going to keep going for it," he says. "We're going to try to keep it running as long as we can."