What makes a great chef

Earlier this week, I visited the Barbados Culinary Team as it was hard at practice for this year’s Taste of the Caribbean competition, which will be held in Miami from June 2-6.

Seeing the young cooks hard at work and going through their paces, brought back memories of my junior days in the industry: the excitement of preparing for competition; the everyday expectation of learning something new which never failed, whether it was about the technical aspect of cooking, a new spice or herb and applying its flavor, manipulating textures of ingredients, or even the all important time management, an element which is crucial in the kitchen.

At that point, I had a discussion with some of the participants about the power of competition and that it was one of the best avenues through which to accelerate your knowledge and understanding of this noble craft. You see, without really realizing it, so much learning takes place and so much knowledge is passed on during this process, especially if you are being coached and trained by knowledgeable chefs who understand and have themselves studied in-depth, the ins and outs of the profession, as only then can useful information be disseminated to the juniors.

Barbados has been blessed over the years with some very talented and competition-savvy chefs. The results at the Taste of the Caribbean can attest to this as, over the years, we have won a number of Gold medals in the individual and team competitions, as well as the bar competition, and on one occasion, even copping the Caribbean Pastry Chef of the Year and three times, the Caribbean Chef of the Year title at this event.

Now granted, I have not been to this event for the last three years as I do think the quality has diminished somewhat from what used to be a highly anticipated challenge and battle of culinary wits, which created tension that could be cut with a knife once you get in the competition arena and culminating with lunches and dinners attended by hundreds of people from every island in the Caribbean, swapping plates just for a chance to sample the exquisite dishes prepared by the competitors from the many islands.

That being said, the discussion continued as to what direction should be taken at this time to elevate the standard of chefs and how they are viewed as professionals, as we evolve with the rest of the world. No doubt the advent of the international television chefs, most of whom don’t even exercise this craft in a professional kitchen on a regular basis, has given a false impression as to what being a chef really is, as these young impressionable minds don’t even realize that for most of those television programmes, the person they see looking most glamorous and important on the screen is just the result of a number of researchers and producers who put together that flawless performance. In short, some are very good actors.

To be considered an excellent chef by your peers is the ultimate reward for any craftsman in this field. Success in competition ranks high in measuring this achievement. Therefore, one needs only to look at the major competitions around the world like the Bocuse d’Or and the Culinary Olympics, in addition to the numerous pastry and chocolate competitions which are held annually and strive towards the standards of these events. Once that quest is embraced, the importance of attending a professional school or college and being guided or instructed by some of the most highly qualified chefs who have committed themselves to the training and development of these young people, becomes necessary.

What sets these chefs and educators apart from their television counterparts are the hours of work devoted to learning the craft and the subsequent testing and certification, as not only do they say they have made it to this level, but  also have the certification with which to substantiate the claim. This is the bank from which the trainers and managers of the best culinary teams in the world draw to plan and execute the training of the young aspirants. All of this was explained to the people with whom I was speaking.

So competition remains all powerful, as all of the techniques and methods that are applied under the strictest of times, make it even more important that you develop the ability to master the motor parts of the field. At these times, knowledge of the very basics is also very important, as again, here is where the understanding and execution begin and here is where you revert to regain your footing should the pressure of competition cause a momentary lapse in concentration or loss of focus.

I felt it necessary to go deep into this subject with my audience so that they fully understand and respect the power of competition. My only aim here was to point out to them that although a very powerful method, it can’t be separated from formal training in a good culinary college or institute and the subsequent certification, which serves as not only strong motivation for the recipient but also provides a visible yardstick by which they can be measured if challenged by anyone about their right to be where they are.

I just wanted to make it clear to all present that development, though being very well achieved through competition, should never be divorced from formal training and the same intensity with which they chase competition should also be applied to formal training because only with acquisition of both, can you be considered a great chef.

(Peter Edey is a Certified Executive Chef with the American Culinary Federation, a graduate of l’École Ritz Escoffier, Paris and a Certified Caribbean Hospitality Trainer. Email: peter@dcbarbados.com)

2 Responses to What makes a great chef

  1. Anthony April 8, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    Hi, Peter very good reading , yes, we have excel as a nation in the culinary arena, it has not happen overnight . Our present successes are on the backs of those who got involved with limited knowledge but who were driven by a passion for what they did. I am happy that you are giving back in such a manner and i am hoping that in the near future you can work with others to taking baking and pastry arts to another level. I believe their is a lot of room for improvement for small bakeries to begin providing the general public with the kind of pastries you can easily find in any North American bakery or European bakery.

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  2. CC April 8, 2017 at 11:08 pm

    Peter, I agree with your comment with respect to formal training. What the heat of competition does not provide are the basic requirements to successfully run an industrial kitchen including food, labour and overhead cost management. Though these “iron chef” competition formats have added a sexy veneer to food preparation and brought many people into the profession that may not have previously contemplated such a career, it does not communicate that restaurants are businesses that need to service debt and provide an acceptable return on owner’s equity. Yes, our competitors are to be congratulated for their successes, but until they can successfully manage a kitchen in its entirety, they will probably not reach the levels to which they aspire.

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