In the global classroom

This week, we continue to discuss ways of staying informed and on top of the field of the culinary arts. As was said last time, visiting or being involved in international competition is the best form of teaching. So, right after my Taste of the Caribbean event, my travels took me to Louisville, Kentucky in the USA where I attended the SkillsUSA Champions at Work National Leadership and Skills Conference. Just being in Kentucky alone, even before we got to the event, was inspiring, because immediately you knew you were in the home of one of the greatest in his field who ever lived, as everything pointed to, and felt like, the entire city was built on this great person – none other than the great Muhammad Ali. Unfortunately for me, as hard as I tried, I didn’t get to visit his gravesite, so this is a must-do on my next trip.

What I did visit, however, was the ground where millions of dollars are exchanged every year. Frankly speaking, just standing there and taking in the ambiance made me feel like a millionaire. Of course, I am speaking of no less a place than Church Hill Downs, home of the great Kentucky Derby. One can’t help but be inspired just gazing upon the track where some of the greatest horses in history would have run, or to marvel at the accuracy of the bust of Secretariat, one of the greatest horses ever bred, in full flight, as you enter. All this inspiration is achieved even without entering the museum, which is also located on the massive, immaculately appointed property.

I had to remind myself, though, that I was in the wonderful state of Kentucky for the SkillsUSA Champions at Work National Leadership and Skills Conference. This event did not fail to live up to the standards of all the other inspiring experiences that I mentioned earlier, as being in the location where 6,000 young people were about to take part in more than 100 competitions over a three-day period, in every discipline or field of work imaginable, could almost intimidate us mere mortals. I was forewarned that to walk through and view each one of the competitors over the three days was an estimated 18-mile journey; quite mindboggling just to think about it.

Just as mindboggling was the fact that as many as six tractor-trailers, 12 to 16 brand new cars, boat engines and even functioning airplane parts, were made available for these youngsters to apply their skills as they worked out premade mechanical problems or fixed intentional damage with things such as body work, spray painting, plastic repairs and so on.

There were students engaged in competition where they were required to complete tasks such as constructing miniature houses; creating specific objects using bricks and mortar; completing electrical installations from plans presented to them; arc welding; and building robots from scratch that would have to perform pre-set tasks on their completion. It would take an entire article just to tell you about the number of skills that were being tested. So you could imagine how difficult it was to remain focused on the one skill I was there to observe – the culinary arts, and more specifically, the hot and cold food competition and commercial baking.

In the culinary arts, competitors were required to prepare a four-course menu and were rated on organizational skills, knife skills, cooking techniques, creative presentations, sanitation, food safety techniques and, above all, the quality and flavour of their prepared items.

In commercial baking, students were required to scale, mix, prepare and bake six products (including bread rolls, Danish, cookies and pies) and demonstrate cake-decorating skills. They were required to deliver a quality, saleable product, while working under job-like conditions. This is no small demand, as added to the degree of difficulty, you are under the gaze of hundreds of eyes, and being critically observed as you execute your tasks.

The finished products were quite varied, and some of the presentations were rather ordinary. But to my mind, most exceeded what was to be expected from students still in junior and high school. What was clear, though, was the level of preparation and time that was spent getting these students ready for this most challenging competition, as the confidence level of these competitors was quite high. One only had to have a conversation with any one of them and their obvious knowledge and understanding of their craft were clearly revealed.

So, here is where attending events like these become very important for our local craftsmen, not only in this field but in any of the over 100 other competitions that took place over the three-day period. Whether you are competing or judging, there is so much to learn at an event of this level and magnitude. For students, it would be watching your peers execute their technical skills and blend their textures and flavours to the best of their ability. If you are a teacher or an organizer of events, seeking an understanding of the steps required and identifying the skills needed to organize an event such as this, would be your goal.

All the disciplines in the competition were further enhanced at the numerous Skills and Leadership Workshops and Seminars that were conducted throughout the event. Not least of all, as far as information is concerned, would have been the opportunity to see what you would be up against in the WorldSkills event which is scheduled for later this year in Abu Dhabi, as out of these competitions the team to represent the USA at WorldSkills 2017 would be selected.

In my humble opinion, it would serve the organizers of the local WorldSkills competition well to attend this conference, as the knowledge and understanding you can achieve is absolutely priceless as we continue to prepare the Barbados team for the WorldSkills competition.

The inspiration is indeed total and complete, as it does not end with the competition. You could not help but be motivated by the massive spectacle which was the awards ceremony, at which approximately 20,000 people gathered in a basketball arena for the presentation of awards and prizes. This grand event was preceded by a spectacular laser-light presentation and all the bells and whistles you could expect. This too, by the way, was organized and executed by the young people who manage SkillsUSA.

My next stop will be the American Culinary Federation (ACF) National Convention in Orlando, which takes place from July 9 to 14. This ACF Convention is the most important culinary event on the Chef’s calendar in this part of the world, as most of the leading, celebrated chefs and educators converge at the aptly branded Cook. Craft. Create event. You will hear more about this convention in upcoming articles.

(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

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