By Paula Roy
In his 15 months as Chef de Cuisine at Bar Lupulus, Justin Champagne has made quite an impact on diners at this popular Wellington West eatery. He’s garnered much praise for his ability to take ingredients both humble and exotic and transform them into inventive, delicious dishes.
On October 23, 2019, the Winnipeg native, who now lives in Hintonburg, is excited to be competing in the third annual Breaking Bread, Breaking Stigma gourmet sandwich competition, a fundraiser for the Hopewell Eating Disorder Support Centre.
“It was very humbling to be nominated to participate,” said Champagne. “I didn’t really realize that my name or that of Bar Lupulus was getting out there to this level so that’s pretty exciting. I am a competitive guy and I love sandwiches so that makes me a great fit for this event.”
Champagne is no stranger to intense culinary competitions, having previously served on Marc Lepine’s team from Atelier which won the prestigious Gold Medal Plates national championship for an unprecedented second time in 2016. During his five years at Atelier, he also assisted Chef Michael Holland (later of Hintonburg’s Holland Cake & Shake and now Morning Owl Coffee) when the duo competed on the Food Network show Donut Showdown.
Having grown up playing sports, Champagne admits he genuinely feels the need for competition and loves the adrenaline rush it brings.
“It’s also fun to get out of your own kitchen for a night and interact with a big group,” he adds. “Cooking is a social thing, so an event like this offers a different way to share food and make people happy. Having said that, as a competitor I really want to win so I put pressure on myself as I don’t want to fail. The good thing is that the process of creating a new dish, like my sandwich for this competition, gives me a chance to fail initially then tweak and refine until I move on to something more wonderful, which I find so rewarding.”
Although he has yet to nail down his sandwich recipe for the event as it’s been so busy at Bar Lupulus, he has lots of ideas since sandwiches are always on the lunch menu. Known for his success at combining ingredients in seemingly unorthodox ways, Champagne has proven that with patience and the appropriate technique, surprising pairings can offer brilliant flavours and textures.
“I’m looking at environmentally friendly proteins and I have a ton of fermented items in my pantry that I can work with to make things pop. Of course, I’ll be serving up my creation on house-made bread. I’m aiming for something simple with big, deep flavours.”
In assessing his competition – including Shane Brown of Beckta and Cory Baird from Eldon’s who have already been confirmed – Bar Lupulus’ chef says that a culinary showdown is just like playoffs in sports. “Anybody can win. The best chef can have a bad day, others can have a great day. Everyone in this event is very talented and capable of putting out a winning dish at any moment.”
Champagne describes the competition as being like a sporting event for people who love food and says it’s an interesting way to help generate awareness about an extremely important cause.
His thoughts are echoed by last year’s winner, Pat Garland of Hintonburg’s Absinthe Cafe.
“With all the media and body shaming aimed at young people on platforms like Instagram, it’s no wonder that people often don’t feel good in their own skin,” said Garland. “Rather than demonizing food, it should be prepared and enjoyed with friends and family. Competing to create a masterpiece out of the seemingly lowly sandwich is a great way of doing this.”
When asked if he had any advice for Champagne, Garland said that he likely doesn’t need any, but suggested to not underestimate the bread.
“Last year we used a top-split brioche hot dog bun which we brushed with bacon fat and toasted it on a grill for lots of crunch and bacony flavour to boot. I’m sure Justin has some tricks up his sleeve and I’m 100% confident that Justin will kill it.”
Although the format is different, Champagne says Breaking Bread, Breaking Stigma will help him prepare for his participation in the Canada’s Great Kitchen Party regional qualifier in November. “Any competition helps because it teaches you how to move quickly, efficiently and precisely while also keeping your emotions in check.”
An unabashed Wellington West fan, Champagne agreed that having a second winner from the neighbourhood would be terrific. “It’s such a great area and still under appreciated – so it could put this area a bit more on the map. We already have so many gems, like Stofa, Supply and Demand, Wellington Gastropub and The Third, plus great coffee shops. Our neighbourhood has so much going for it right now but there’s still room for more.”
Tickets for Breaking Bread, Breaking Stigma are available on Eventbrite.