We have seen or heard about those fascinating and exciting culinary competitions on television from Top Chef to Chopped to Iron Chef. There seem to be more popping up every new television season, maybe all hosted by Padma or Ramsey. But this comes from a more personal experience. When I was in culinary school at The Art Institute of Michigan, I was part of two culinary competition teams. These competitions are sanctioned by the American Culinary Federation (ACF). The competitions take place at the state level, then proceed onto the regional level, and the final competition finishes at the ACF’s National Convention.
There are strict guidelines and rules to follow when a team takes part in the culinary cook-off. The competition team is made up of four members who participate in the cook-off. In addition, each team may have two alternates who may participate in the skills part of the competition. The first part of competition day is the skills portion, which consists of butchery and handling of a whole chicken, filleting of a round or flat fish, knife skills, making a pastry cream, and how to supreme an orange. The key to score a few extra points with the judges is to use some or most of the items from the skills portion. The order is predetermined by the judges as well, as which team member does what section of the skills.
After the skills, teams have 30 minutes to set-up for the cooking phase of the day. The cook phase has four courses with one that will be a ‘classical’ dish, which is usually a chicken dish recipe taken from Escoffier. The other three courses would be a salad, fish, and dessert course. All three dishes will be portioned four ways; three to be judged, and one for photographs and critique. The skills section is a relay-style and must be completed in 80 minutes. The cook-off portion is 75 minutes with a 15 minute plating window for all four courses.
Wow! I think I just made that sound very simple and straight forward. That is not always the truth. We practiced at least once a week and sometimes more to hone our skills to fit within the allotted time. In my first year (or first few months) of culinary school, I auditioned for the team at the urging of my introduction to culinary skill chef. That might have the most nervous I have been in the kitchen up to that time. Approximately 25 students auditioned my first year for the salon team in a kitchen where space was a premium. I worked cleanly and efficiently in the skills part, then plated a simple dish for the cooking portion. I was pleasantly surprised that I was chosen as an alternate for the team. As the alternate, I got to take part in the skills part of the day, then aided the team during the cook-off section by keeping them on time and clearing dishes. The next year I was a full member of the team and participated in both sections of the competition. We received a silver medal my first year as a team, then the next year we brought home a bronze medal.
Being a member of a team whether it is sports, business, or culinary, makes a person better. It helps them to handle the changes and challenges of life. In the kitchen, and by being a culinary competition team member, the experience has taught me to work clean and efficiently as well as honing my knife skills. I like to thank my former team members and coaches (and judges) for the opportunity to be an integral member of a wonderful experience.
Richard J. Steward