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Wed 10 Feb 2010 04:00 AM

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Salon style

With Salon Culinaire around the corner, the region’s chefs are prepping, carving, chopping and challenging themselves, doing their best to ensure they walk away with one of the coveted class medals. Lucy Taylor talks to some of this year’s entrants to find out what goes into cooking up a winning entry.

Salon style
Plating up at Hilton Dubai Jumeirah’s Salon Culinaire practice run.
Salon style
Hilton Dubai Jumeirah’s Steven Benson-Flower.
Salon style
Al Bustan Rotana Dubai’s Yuphin Khocksila.
Salon style
DWTC executive sous chef Raimund Haemmerle.

With Salon Culinaire around the corner, the region’s chefs are prepping, carving, chopping and challenging themselves, doing their best to ensure they walk away with one of the coveted class medals. Lucy Taylor talks to some of this year’s entrants to find out what goes into cooking up a winning entry.

Since its inception, the Salon Culinaire has been a showcase for the region’s top culinary talent and a highlight of the Gulfood exhibition — and with more classes than ever before, 2010’s edition promises to be a major crowd-puller.

Last year, the team from Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC) walked away with the most medals awarded to a single establishment for the third consecutive year.

According to executive sous chef Raimund Haemmerle, the pressure is on to live up to expectations this time round.

“We’re going to have 87 participants across 20 different categories, so it’s almost all the categories covered, from pastry, to live cooking, to Arabian cuisine, to the gourmet dinner,” he reveals.

Beach Rotana, another big winner at 2009’s Salon Culinaire, will have 24 chefs participating across 48 different categories.

“I will myself be participating in five categories in the kitchen art area, in the Chocolate Carving, Individual Ice Carving, Fruit and Vegetable Carving and Marzipan Showpiece categories,” adds sous chef Chamika Prabath.

“I will also be pairing up with my colleague for the Team Ice Carving event, for which we will make a large artistic showpiece with three ice blocks.”

Yuphin Khocksila, chef de partie at Al Bustan Rotana Dubai’s Blue Elephant Restaurant, will be the first ever female chef to represent the property at the event, competing in the Fruit and Vegetable Carving showpiece category.

“I am very excited because this is my very first time at the Salon Culinaire; plus I feel proud of being the hotel’s first lady representative,” she says. Prepping for prizes

Of course, it take more than just turning up on the day to be successful at the Salon Culinaire.

Each participant must undertake several months of preparation before the big day, as DWTC’s Haemmerle explains.

“We have to be really careful when we choose who will take part in each category. We go through a whole load of trials internally, to see where each chef’s strengths and talents lie,” he says.

“It can get quite competitive, as spaces are limited, so you have to make it as fair as possible.”

Any competition hopefuls must also be prepared for hard graft, adds Beach Rotana’s Prabath.

“It takes a lot of practice, sleepless nights and patience to do the artistic work,” he comments.

“And of course, it’s also important that we take care of our guests at the same time, so most of the practice is done after duty hours — a lot of burning the candle at both ends!”

At Al Bustan Rotana, Khocksila and her fellow competing chefs started planning for the event a several months back. “We started off with brainstorming sessions, sharing ideas and giving feedback to each other,” she explains.

“It’s hard work, but our senior chefs ahave been very helpful and they provide all the support we need to be at our best for the competition.” Competition challenges

Once a chef has proved himself capable of taking part in the event, and of shouldering the work burden that comes with such an undertaking, there are still a few more challenges that must be addressed.

The past year has been a busy one for DWTC, says Haemmerle — but while this is undoubtedly good news in the current economic climate, it means less time for competition training.

“Four years back we’d have slack periods in the summer, during which we could really train our chefs for culinary competitions; but that does not happen anymore,” he says.

“We have to do training at night time, after daily duties, so it requires an extra effort from the chefs to show that on top of their busy work schedule, they can really commit to being a part of the Salon Culinaire.”

Hilton Dubai Jumeirah executive chef Steven Benson-Flower adds: “We advise chefs to finely gauge their workload to see if they want to embark on such a commitment. Albeit exciting and motivating, competitions require a great deal of focus and do at times levy additional stress on the individual.”

And as Dusit Thani Dubai executive chef Flemming Schulthess notes, participating in any competition is not just about winning first prize.

“Those competing should see it as an opportunity to gain more experience, to learn from other industry colleagues and to further develop their skills,” he asserts.

Medal motivation

Nevertheless, winning a medal at the renowned event is one of the highly appealing prospects for competing chefs.

“They gain appreciation and acknowledgement of their own skills if they win a medal, and it looks great on their CV,” points out DWTC’s Haemmerle.“But on top of that, being involved in the Salon Culinaire is an enormous motivation, for any chef; there’s a great atmosphere, they see new things to inspire them, and it’s an opportunity to meet other chefs and network.”

According to Hilton Dubai Jumeirah’s Benson-Flower, culinary competitions are ideal for unleashing a team’s creativity. “Our chefs have come up with some very innovative recipes and presentation styles in preparation for a competition, which we have subsequently included in many of our menus,” he reveals.

“Overall, competitive events are essential for developing the industry’s skill and talent, and they work as a great motivating tool as well. Regardless of whether you win or loose, just being part of a high profile competition, involved in the energy of it all, gives the team a lot of inspiration.”

Salon status

The Salon Culinaire at Dubai’s Gulfood is today a renowned event, and a true hotbed of emerging kitchen talent — so has it seen the Middle East reach the level of other world regions when it comes to culinary competition?

Al Bustan Rotana’s Khocksila believes so, but adds: “I would love to see more female chefs like me participating in such events, as competitions in the region are still predominantly dominated by men.”

According to Hilton Dubai Jumeirah’s Benson-Flower, the region’s F&B industry is “moving in the right direction when it comes to cultivating and showcasing talent”.

“There is a lot we can do to help develop the industry’s potential, and competitions are a great tool,” he adds.

Dusit Thani’s Schulthess agrees: “Culinary competitions are great opportunities for all participants to showcase their skills and knowledge and to exchange ideas and techniques, and the Salon Culinaire is a prime example of that.”

Clearly, there is a great deal of regional support for this established event; now the Middle East’s chefs must focus on proving once again that Salon Culinaire can be counted among the top culinary talent showcases in the world.