Mathew Koyanagi knew the dish he’d prepared for the Vancouver International Wine Festival’s Vintner’s Brunch competition was a good one.
But the South Surrey resident never thought his Asian-inspired offering – black rice congee with red wine-braised duck, soy-marinated quail’s egg, black currant gastrique and togarashi crackling – would earn him the ultimate toast last week.
“I wanted to create a dish that I was super-proud of,” said Koyanagi, who represented Vancouver-based Railtown Catering in the Feb. 28 event at Canada Place.
“On a few levels, I didn’t think I had any chance of winning.”
As it turns out, the executive sous chef’s creation stole the show, earning a unanimous thumbs-up from the quartet of judges who sampled their way through the fare of 15 of Vancouver’s top restaurant and catering chefs before declaring Koyanagi victorious.
The 35-year-old said he discovered his passion for catering about 15 years ago, while working at a White Rock restaurant.
His fascination with cooking, however, dates back about three decades. Koyanagi can remember choosing television cooking shows over traditional child’s play from a young age.
“I remember when I was five and six, when a lot of my friends were watching Sesame Street, I was just fascinated with PBS, Julia Child, Galloping Gourmet… shows like that” he said.
He “got the itch” to pursue it as a career during university, a couple of years into studying architecture, while working as a cook to pay the bills. The catering bug hit while working at a waterfront restaurant in White Rock, when he helped the chef with a catering job.
He found that going to a different location and experiencing the interaction that comes with catering added just the right spice to the work.
Over the years, he’s catered in various locales around the world – including on a mountaintop, on China’s Great Wall and at the Emperor’s Summer Palace – and for all manner of celebrity, from royalty, former U.S. presidents and TV personalities to Canadian philanthropist Frank Giustra.
“For a while, that was my thing,” he said. “How can you turn away from unique experiences like that?”
He also headed up the culinary team for the Royal Bank of Canada Hospitality House during the 2010 Winter Olympics, before joining Railtown in 2013.
Koyanagi’s recent win was not his first – there’s been enough over the years that “I could never give you specifics anymore.” But it was no less worth celebrating.
“Hands went up in the air and started screaming,” he said of his team’s reaction to the news.
The win came as no surprise to his employer.
“Mathew has a truly adventurous palate and has been a talented, valued and trusted leader of our culinary team at Railtown for years,” Railtown Catering executive chef and partner Dan Olson said in a press release.
“We’re thrilled that he is garnering the recognition he so richly deserves.”