Sharpening skills through competitions

Before we move on to our next topic, I have to clarify some questions that were raised by our readers about culinary competition and its power. Let me start by saying that most, if not all, of the locally-known names in the culinary industry, even up to today, had their genesis in competition. One only needs to research the practitioners and you will see that they all came through competitions such as the NIFCA Culinary Arts, the Junior Duelling Challenge or and any other event that might have been planned and executed through organizations such as the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA).

They would also have benefitted from working under some pretty decent ex-pat chefs; therefore, the copying of styles and techniques, as well as reproducing what was created by these ex-pats was the common way to learn. Yes, there was The Barbados Hotel School which eventually became PomMarine, and yes, culinary programmes were and are still taught at this institution, but one must understand that these are not dedicated culinary programmes and are indeed part of a larger curriculum that touched on many other areas.

Therefore, the more technical aspects of the culinary arts were learnt from these chefs, the imports, as you got into the industry or it was left to competition. Once you examine these competitions, you will always find that the Barbadian competitors’ final dish reflected dishes that were served in the hotels in which they worked and never had their own originality as far as character and identity of dish were concerned. In other words, they saw what was prepared and were taught these dishes by the Executive Chef for service at dinner time and that is pretty much what they knew and re-created.

True competition, though, is the avenue through which you are required to do lots of research: understand the products you are using; know the chemistry of these products; understand the heat you will apply, as heat, as we described in a previous edition, is not just any old heat, but can be moist or dry, radiant or mild, conduction or convection, with each one having a totally different effect on the commodities to which they are applied; here, by the way, is where formal training comes in.

Continuing on this topic, competition is also a test of discipline and time management, as well as the ability to think on your feet while under other pressures that might arise during such culinary battles. Research skills are especially sharpened through competition. Once you have made your decision to enter, your first task is to find out as much as you can about the competition itself, including things such as the type of competition. Is it a themed competition or an open competition where you are free to produce whatever you want? Is it a mystery basket competition, or is it a signature dish competition which means that the dish you are planning to present is one that you would have practiced and perfected over time?

Whichever format the competition takes, you should always be aware of who the sponsors are, the length of the competition, availability of commodities, the conditions under which you are going to perform, as well as the equipment that will be available, before you even begin to plan your masterpiece. It also pays to know who will be judging the competition, as it does not hurt to appeal to the culinary palate of your judges, as you try to excite their taste buds with your dish description, even before the competition starts, since these factors all play a part in determining what your final production will be.

An untrained competitor, once he has worked with a trained and skillful chef long enough, might be able to produce a beautiful plate which possesses all of the required elements for judging, such as height, balance, flavour, texture and even a symmetric or asymmetric appearance. These things can be produced by someone having seen it done before and many times this is achieved in competition without the practitioner even realizing what they have fashioned. This creation would have been inspired by what the practitioner would have produced on any given work night and in fact, is just a reproduction of his chef’s imagination and creativity.

So here you see that although you would have learnt to create a beautiful plate all through competition, you are still left short if you never took the time to be formally trained in the skills and techniques required to create these dishes and to be absolutely sure that your product meets competition standards.  One must be taught the importance of things such as focal point, shingling, stacking and balance, as they apply in the culinary world. Saucing, glazing, garnishing and decorating are also important techniques to master if you want to be the creator of these dishes rather than imitating what you might have seen in a previous competition.

Another critical element of acquiring invaluable knowledge in this field is exposure to other cultures and seeing how they put together their dishes, given that this changes considerably from island to island and even from continent to continent. Our Caribbean youth and all who might be desirous of learning or understanding these subtle differences will be given a fantastic opportunity to see these diverse ways of blending flavours, spices and commodities later this year when CARIFESTA comes to Barbados, as there will be a food court, open every day of the event, representing the different islands present. We will talk a lot more about this exciting opportunity next week.

This week, we show you the work of some of our competitors from the Caribbean Junior Duelling Challenge. These students would have been given some training in competition before they executed their rather innovative dishes.

(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)

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