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Sun 25 Jul 2010 04:00 AM

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Culinary competiton

A group of F&B professionals with a range of competition experience met up at the delicious Downtown Deli in Dubai Mall this month, to consider why culinary contests are integral to industry progress - and why Middle East events still need some refining.

Culinary competiton
[L-R] Michel Miraton, Christophe Prud’homme, Michael Kitts and Eranga Naleendra chat over refreshments at Downtown Deli.
Culinary competiton
The group discusses challenges facing the region’s F&B competition industry.
Culinary competiton
[L-R] Lucy Taylor, Wael Riachy, Zain Sidhu, Rebecca Sturt and Raimund Haemmerle.
Culinary competiton
The participants discuss what difficulties both organisers and competitors can encounter when taking part in a culinary event.

A group of F&B professionals with a range of competition experience met up at the delicious Downtown Deli in Dubai Mall this month, to consider why culinary contests are integral to industry progress - and why Middle East events still need some refining.

In what way do food and beverage competitions help advance the industry?

Raimund Haemmerle: I think for young chefs, it's a great opportunity to learn something - to get out there, see what other people are doing, and push themselves; and this all helps to raise standards within the industry.

Michel Miraton: For young chefs, it's good to get outside the hotel, to see something different and experience a new way of working.

Michael Kitts: Culinary events are a bit like a fashion show; chefs will see small details or perhaps whole works that are new to them, they will be inspired by those elements and take ideas away from the show. And certainly from a student perspective, competitions really do inspire them to aim higher each time, and get involved in other competitions, because they get a real buzz from it.

Eranga Naleendra:
My personal opinion is that competitions can also offer chefs taking part a refreshing change. We are used to spending our time in the kitchens at our property, cooking for guests, and if that's all you do you can get stale. So getting outside your comfort zone, going somewhere new and cooking for a different audience can be really enjoyable.

Rebecca Sturt:
From an organiser's point of view, what we're really aiming to accomplish with our competitive events is to bring the industry together. I know, for the beverage industry, things have changed massively since competitions were introduced to the region, and I think it's helped put the Middle East on the global map, because people who win events here are then going to do very well in the global finals - which didn't happen 10 years ago. So the competition scene is really an opportunity for us to show what we have here and bring the region to the world's attention.

Zain Sidhu: And from another perspective, competitions also help us highlight our products: for example, chefs get the opportunity to try out a new item and get creative with it in a way they might not have tried in the workplace. Then we can get feedback from them about how to improve our products to really meet their needs.

Wael Riachy: For us, we are looking to showcase the diversity of our brands through the events we organise, and give the chefs a broad view of their applications.

Culinary competitions are comparatively new in the Middle East; how does the standard at events here compare to more established foodie regions?

Kitts: I've been in this region for 10 years, and there have definitely been massive improvements in the industry, particularly with regards to the standard we're seeing at competitions. But I think in a hot kitchen things are still a little bit flaky; sometimes people try to put too much on a plate, or use too many flavours.

Also, looking at the arena these competing chefs are working in, what can be a bit disappointing is when it's all about numbers: people wanting to say they've got 1500 entrants. To me, that's wrong.

You'd be better off getting quality people, who would then raise the standard, as opposed to thinking ‘right, he's got legs - let's stick him in a competition so we have more of our people involved'.

Christophe Prud'homme:
It all stems from the basis that hotel restaurants should be allowed to select their own candidates for these events. Because if the group tells you ‘right, the pastry competition is big, we need to send all our pastry chefs', that is not the right approach.

The point is that you send those who are capable of competing at the required standard. Because if they're floundering and out of their depth, what is the point of going?

If someone is just making up numbers, not only is it demoralising for them, but it also means you're splitting valuable resources and time which could be better employed with serious contestants.

A culinary competition, for me, is more about participating; I think sometimes you have to participate to fully understand the event and the standard of the other competitors, and learn from it. Having said that, there is no need to put 20 or 30 chefs through just for the sake of it.

Riachy: But it is a good learning and development opportunity for those chefs who do take part. It often acts as a real confidence boost, and they can take the skills they learnt there and transfer them into their everyday roles.

But going back to how competitions here compare with other regions, I think we need to look at other areas of the Middle East, so we have a spread of competitions around the region rather than everything concentrated in a few areas; that way, we will be better able to compare ourselves with more established hubs.

What other issues crop up with regards to furthering the region's competitive status?

As organisers, there are so many F&B competitions nowadays that you have to really differentiate yourselves to encourage attendance. Plus many chefs now are short-staffed on their teams, so they cannot attend everything.

There are a lot of competitions around. I think a lot of them could easily be made every two years, rather than annually, because it can get too much.

Several of our big competitions are biannual - Menus of the Masters, for example, and Female Chef of the Year. You don't want to inundate chefs with the same thing over and over. If you make an event less frequent, it's a bit more special, a bit more of an attraction.

Miraton: Salon Culinaire is fantastic, and that's run every year. However it can be challenging for the organisers, as you have a lot to do, you have to push things, give feedback - it's not easy.
Sturt: For the Platinum Fusion competition we're setting up now, which involves both a food and a beverage element, the biggest issue we've encountered is trying to find a venue. We need to put an open kitchen and a bar next to each other, which hasn't been easy!

But going back to the idea of frequency, we try to make sure we only hold three competitions a year, and that they are all distinctive events focusing on different groups. You don't want to overwhelm the industry, otherwise they won't take your events seriously.

What about the difficulties that the competitors themselves face?

Prud'homme: At last year's Salon Culinaire, we lost two showpieces; the guys got them there OK, but in the back-of-house area there were a lot of people moving around and getting set up, and two pieces got broken.

That's really sad when you've been working on something for two or three months; it's extremely demoralising for the chefs. But these things do happen.

That's why organisation, space and logistics need to really be thought out properly at big events, otherwise people will suffer.

I think going into a competitive event like Salon Culinaire, with so many other people there, is pretty tough - particularly for a new competitor. You've got to keep your nerve and keep your wits about you, and just do what you do best.

But I have to say, one of the elements I liked about this year's event was the international judging panel; they were strict, but you really felt like you were competing on a global level.

Haemmerle: We have been competing in the Salon Culinaire for many years now, and in the five-course plated category, the criteria have remained the same, but of course in the judging, personal opinion does come into it. So the points can vary a great deal, and there is no definitive right or wrong answer. One year a competitor could get the gold medal, the next year he gets nothing - and that can be difficult for the chef to understand.

That's why it's really important to make sure you get the right judges. They should be unbiased, not give preferential treatment and must certainly be able to give constructive feedback.

I think getting someone who can offer good feedback is key, as well as someone who can understand the stress and pressure that the competitors are under. That plays a big part, because these guys can be really nervous.

I also think a judge should be up to date with F&B trends, and also open-minded; so although he might not like something personally, he should be able to recognise if it is well executed.

Riachy: When we find judges, we try to look for chefs of different cultures and nationalities, so they can appreciate different flavours. And for sure, they need knowledge of judging and experience in the field.

Prud'homme: Judges also need to see input from the organising committee. At the end of the day, the people running the event know what they are looking for in a winner, and they should make the criteria clear to their panel.

Haemmerle: Organisers also need to ensure there is sufficient time, even in a large competition, for the judges to give feedback and explain what was right and what was wrong to anyone who wants more information.

Prud'homme: That really requires the event to be well planned, because it can be a wearing process for the judges too - up at 6 o'clock, judging the same sort of thing all day, giving their feedback, going back to their hotel exhausted in the evening, then getting up to do exactly the same thing the next day!

Kitts: I have to say, how on earth can you have a competition [like the Salon Culinaire] that has hot meat and fish classes for four days? The judges turn up at 7 o'clock in the morning and sit there all day long, judging fish. There could be 90 plates of fish. Who on this planet can judge 90 plates of fish in one day, and then give out one gold medal? It's ridiculous!

This is why I think Gulfood should be a cut-and-paste Olympia, or Birmingham, or somewhere like that.

You have a fish class with 10 people, a lamb class with 10 people, a pasta class with 10 people - and you have a nice theatre where the guys are not stuck in a crummy corner, but rather working on beautiful individual stations, where it's a proper theatre and people can watch.

It's less slap-dash, more together and much more interesting.

I think freeing up the categories a bit more could help; every year in the fish class you see salmon, salmon and more salmon - so maybe we could let them freestyle a bit more, open it up to some creativity.

Sidhu: I think if they did a proper classification of classes - for example a back to basics field, where there just given a whole chicken to see what they can do and have to cut it down, de-bone it, then prepare it - then you could properly see each competitor's creativity and their technical skills, rather than just giving them a chicken breast.

Kitts: On my life, I've known incidents where the judge has asked a guy in the fish class ‘how many times have you practised this?' and he's said today is his first time cooking it.

How can a chef send a guy along to compete, who's never even done it? That's not the kind of attitude you want to encourage.

We need to streamline the classes and raise the standard of entrants if we want to raise the bar in these culinary events.

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