Nova Scotia chef wins Canadian grilled-cheese throw-down

Chefs who fried and fought: Lucas Castle of Holt's Cafe (left), Melissa Craig of The Bearfoot Bistro, Paul Rogalski of Rouge Restaurant and winner Michael Howell of Tempest Restaurant.

Canada’s favourite comfort food received the gourmet treatment at the Dairy Farmer’s of Canada’s first-ever Grate Canadian Grilled Cheese Cook-off today.

Four acclaimed Canadian chefs fried and fought for the title of grilled-cheese champion. They were Melissa Craig, head chef at The Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, British Columbia; Paul Rogalski of Rouge Restaurant in Calgary; Corbin Tomaszeski of Holt’s Cafe in Toronto (represented by his sous Lucas Castle); and Michael Howell from Tempest Restaurant in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

Each competitor cooked two original grilled-cheese creations in 20 minutes, in front of a foodie crowd at the Canadian National Exhibition. The dishes, all showcasing Canadian cheese, were then presented to a panel of expert judges, comprised of Lucy Waverman, Rita DeMontis and Corey Mintz, all food writers. Gurth Pretty, cheese author and chair of Ontario Cheese Society, was the engaging master of ceremonies.

Chef Michael Howell: Grilled-cheese champion.

Chef Michael Howell was hailed the champion for his recipe dubbed the “Panini Toscano,” an Italian-inspired creation that featured Nova Scotia Fox Hill Cheese House Havarti accompanied by prosciutto, figs, arugula, lemon aioli and balsamic vinaigrette.

Howell, who has run Tempest Restaurant for the past eight years following stints in Toronto and the United States, is committed to local, sustainable cooking. He believes the competition will inspire Canadians to experiment with locally produced cheese:

“This wonderful cook-off and my fellow chefs have all shown us that making a winning grilled cheese sandwich is simple: all you need is bread, your favourite Canadian cheese, and some imagination.”

Judge Rita DeMontis described the winning creation as being “a burst of flavour. A mouthful of joy!” Waverman praised the calibre of the food prepared by all four chefs, while Mintz declared that the judging might have been “the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

The task assigned to the attendees was much easier: after watching the chefs battle it out, we were able to sample their tasty inventions. While they were all scrumptious, I was partial to Chef Craig’s decadent French Toast Grilled Cheese, which featured Canadian camembert, figs, and walnut cranberry bread.

All the chefs’ recipes are available online. I plan to recreate them all.

—Phoebe Powell

Phoebe Powell, a roving reporter for, is crazy about grilled cheese. Her fave is aged cheddar on multigrain bread.

Cook-off judges: Rita DeMontis (left), Corey Mintz and Lucy Waverman.

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