Boasting copious cakes, scores of starters and an array of ice carvings, the jam-packed Salon Culinaire at this year’s Gulfood was proof of the region’s growing enthusiasm for culinary competitions; Lucy Taylor investigates just how such events are encouraging new industry talents.
Chefs have a reputation as a temperamental lot, so it's not surprising that many think of culinary competitions as events rife with arguments, pan-throwing and red-faced men shouting.
But, as last month's Salon Culinaire proved, this could not be further from the truth.
Competitions for the F&B profession are vital to encouraging new talent, fostering innovation and building bonds within the industry, as Royce Peter Rodrigues, first commis in the pastry kitchen at Fairmont Dubai, explains.
"Culinary competitions encourage new chefs and let them see what else is going on out there; it helps when you have something to aspire to and it's good to be able to gauge yourself against other chefs in the industry, as well as learn from them," says Rodrigues, who competed in Salon Culinaire 2009's three-tier wedding cake category.
According to Al Bustan Rotana executive chef Christophe Prudhomme, there is also an element of wanting to see how you measure up to others.
"[Competitors] want to compare themselves, to prove that they are good and can compete with other chefs. When you see them preparing in a class, they may have their faces turned to what they are doing but they are actually looking around at the competition,' he asserts.
The Address Downtown Burj Dubai executive chef Uwe Faust adds: "It's a good vehicle for chefs to get out of their kitchen and update themselves on the new trends in the industry, while the interaction with other industry professionals also helps them increase their knowledge."
But according to Geoff Haviland, recently-appointed Southern Sun corporate executive and development chef - offshore, professional cooking competitions are about much more than the obvious educational and social advantages.
"They give the young guys an outlet to demonstrate their passion and I think that's great because usually in the work place you're working to menus, you have a set list, you don't often have a chance to express yourself through the food. Competitions give the younger chefs a chance to experiment; it's all about them and instilling in them that passion so they can progress," he explains.
Haviland adds that such gatherings provide an opportunity for young chefs to discuss the industry with their peers and keep abreast of current trends and shared challenges.
Professionals agree that competitions such as the Gulfood Salon Culinaire play a vital role in fostering new talent - but showcasing this talent is not the sole responsibility of the competitor, as Fairmont's Rodrigues explains.
"Hotels will often encourage their chefs to take part and the senior chefs will encourage the more junior ones, which is extremely helpful as they have obviously had experience of these kinds of competitions and can advise us on the general procedure and what we should aim for," he says.
"We have several chefs from the pastry section competing at Salon Culinaire this year and there has been a great deal of support from our superiors."Al Bustan Rotana's Prudhomme adds that although it is up to the hotel group or the senior chefs to offer support and broad guidance, ultimately the competitor "still has the pressure of making the piece".
"It is hard work and can be stressful, but it teaches them to think outside the box, be creative and get out of the daily routine," he says.
The Address' Faust agrees, pointing out that "using their own imagination helps young chefs to create new culinary delights and keeps them updated on new trends in the industry".
Of course, when so many people are involved - and when so much is at stake - there are inevitably certain challenges that will arise.
"For something as delicate as, say, the wedding cake category, I think transportation can be a worry," says Fairmont's Rodrigues.
"The decorations are so fragile and take so long to create that it is always nerve-wracking transporting it to the venue; you just have to be very careful and pray it arrives in one piece."
Another challenge with pre-prepared competitions items, agree Rodrigues and Al Bustan Rotana's Prudhomme, is the time competitors must put in.
"You basically write off your social life for a month beforehand," admits Rodrigues. "You are still working your normal shifts as well, so it's up to you to put in the time creating your competition piece outside of working hours - which means you end up spending a lot of time in the kitchen."
Prudhomme adds: "Many chefs will know what they want to produce well in advance, which essentially means they start work well before the actual competition date. They eat, sleep and breathe what they do. It takes a lot of work; no one takes days off. So competing requires real determination and a lot of patience."
Another challenge, points out Prudhomme, is the pressure on the competitor - not from their seniors, but from themselves.
"Entrants put a lot of pressure on themselves; I know our chefs who compete do," he admits. "They truly want to win. But if they fail and do not get the gold, they are not deterred; they will simply aim for the following year, or perhaps try different area of competition. There's always some new challenge to aspire to."
In addition to these issues, there is of course the dreaded stage fright.
"To go from an environment where you're cooking in a commercial kitchen and you're surrounded by your friends and colleagues to a competitive forum, where you've got the public, people from the industry and executive chefs from other properties can be pretty daunting," points out Southern Sun's Haviland. "You just have to hope that they can concentrate that nervous energy into showing what they can do."
Can the Middle East compete?
The regional F&B industry is one which has really only gained worldwide recognition over the past decade, which is paltry experience in comparison to other major global culinary competition hubs.
So how does the standard of competition here measure up against the rest of the world?Having seen the competition from the inside, Fairmont's Rodrigues asserts that Dubai's Salon Culinaire is "very impressive".
The Address' Faust adds: "I've only been in Dubai for a year and already I am very impressed with the nature and type of competitions I've witnessed here, particularly their organisation and set-up.
"I believe they can definitely be compared to any competition in Europe and Asia, although I suspect the exposure received is not as high as for shows held in the US or Europe," he adds.
A competitive future
There are some strong supporters of the Middle East's competitive chef events - but is there still some room for improvement?
"I think we can always do more on the competition front," asserts Al Bustan Rotana's Prudhomme.
"Maybe something for female chefs, as there are the best judge of skill and are not done enough," he continues. "We see so many events involving culinary art, but not enough actual on-the-spot cooking. We need to look at that as a region."
Southern Sun's Haviland is even more specific... more and more of them in this region and I don't think we support them enough.
"And for me, live cooking competitions are the best judge of skill and are not done enough," he continues. "We see so many events involving culinary art, but not enough actual on-the-spot cooking. We need to look at that as a region."
Southern Sun's Haviland says if he could bring one competition to the Middle East, it would be the Bocuse d'Or. "This is held every two years in France and is open to all nations," he explains. "I think they're already actually considering bringing it here."
"But I would tweak it so it's not so traditional and allow the competitors to introduce more creative elements," he suggests. "There are usually quite strict presentation guidelines regarding what you have to prepare, and I would mix that up to give them a bit more freedom."
"We're seeing the Middle East emerge as a real competitor on the world stage right now because we're so multicultural, so to introduce a competition like that would be great," he adds.
"We're finding that now the regional market is starting to mature a bit; it got off to a very speedy start, but now things are slowing down, people are able to really focus on the great concepts and the key trends, rather than pandering to fads."
Rising to the challenge
Whatever this year holds for the F&B industry, it seems that the competitive element of cooking will always be appreciated: indeed, the age-old test of ‘chef versus chef' has helped the Middle East attain international recognition as a culinary hub, as this year's Salon Culinaire proved.
The challenge now is for the region's chefs to build on this strong position and continue to draw the Middle East to the forefront of global gastronomic events.
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