This is the second part of my 1996 GAMES stories on the Culinary Olympics. For part I, click here.
Though constantly in motion, the chefs seldom rush. They always seem to be deep in concentration, as if constructing atomic bombs instead of meals. Periodically, they stop what they're doing and study a situation, hands on hips, faces grim. The assistant, seeing the chef motionless, hurries over to find out what's wrong. Together chef and assistant stare at, say, a tray of cored apples. Then the chef mutters something to the assistant, and the two snap into action.
|Cooking cakes (Metropolitan Museum)|
Immediately after a mess is made, everything halts until it is cleaned up. The counters remain spotless—nothing is left sitting out in the open. Partially finished dishes are stored on wire racks. After six hours of constant cooking, the kitchens looks almost as clean as they did at 7 a.m. Of course, some are cleaner than others, and the judges take notice.
While the chefs sometimes refer to their watches, not one of them uses a timer. Experience allows for shortcuts most amateurs would never contemplate. Hugelier holds a blue Morton canister a foot above a roast and pours an unmeasured white stream of salt. Stacy Radin, the pastry chef at Desserts International, Merion, Pennsylvania, reaches into a 25-pound bag of sugar and tosses handfuls into a mixing bowl.
But moments of crisis do arise. While Seigfreid Eisenberg, the executive chef at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee is diligently filling orange-flavored ravioli with duck paste, the pot of duck consume, unwatched, boils over onto the floor. Chef and assistant gasp simultaneously and rush over to attend to the spill. Eisenberger blows uselessly on the roiling surface of the 10-gallon pot, then turns and begins angrily dicing carrots into splinters, leaving his assistant to sop up the consume. Fortunately for Eisenberger, the judges, chatting among themselves across the room, don't seem to notice.
Chefs who are not cooking that day hang around, planning strategy and ribbing their fellow competitors.
"These guys are sickening," declares Jeff Gabriel, the executive chef a the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club, in Grosse Point, Michigan. "Sea bass and venison! These guys got nice ingredients. I wish I would have gotten that. You always wish you got what the other person did."
Gabriel points through the glass at Mark Erikson, the chef-manager of St. Andrew's Cafe, hyde Park, New York. Erikson is glazing the coveted venison with honey and thyme. "Venison and sea bass. You're sickening!" Gabriel shouts. Erikson looks up, smiles, stick the thumb of one hand into his ear, and wiggles his fingers.
When the chefs are not watching each other cook, they are eating each other's food. The day after Catherall prepared Cornish game hen, he sits at a table sampling Lawrence Ryan's cooking. But no sooner has he taken a few spoonfuls of the cold carrot bisque than he calls over a busboy.
"Send this back to the chef," he says, suppressing a smile. While waiting for Ryan to receive the insult, Catherall explains that he had tried to find out whether he could bring his own plates, had been unable to get an answer, and ended up using the plates provided. Chefs are sensitive to every nuance of food presentation, ad Catherall believes these plates did not display his cooking to its best advantage. "Ryan didn't bother asking," say Catherall. "He just brought his own plates."
Ryan walks over with a big grin on his face. "I heard you did well yesterday," he says, shaking hands. "Almost a gold...."
The strategy employed by chefs is fairly straightforward. It's good to be creative, but not so creative as to risk failure. The menus for the most part reflect the current trend toward regional cooking: Eastern Shores Sea Bass with Shrimp Leeks, Connecticut Garden Salad Dumplings Minnesota, Minnesota Wild Rice Soup, Minnesota Bread, Medley of Seafood Back Bay, Seafood Medley Oregon.
Some chefs show off more than others. Thus while Radin turns her white chocolate into mere White Chocolate Mousse, Northmore transforms his into Terrine of White Chocolate Mousse with Raspberry and Vanilla Sauce. And for good measure, he converts the nasturtiums into a Flower Tart with Fruit Sauce.
In general, the mystery box does not pose much of a problem, since a chef's normal day in a restaurant begins by looking in his refrigerator and then planning a menu around the food on hand.
|Preparing dough, Tomb of Rekhmire (Met)|
"I had a general idea of what to do," says Foster, after putting the finishing touches on his last pastry. "If I couldn't make one dessert, I'd make another. I was kind of surprised how smoothly it went."
"The way I looked at it, items I had more of were for the entree, items I had less of were for the appetizer," says Larry Banares, executive sou chef at the Disneyland Hotel, in Anaheim, California.
"Before I came, I already planned on something neutral. I would make a seafood mousse, regardless of what seafood I got," says Tan Hung Heng, executive sous chef at the Waikiki Sheraton, Honolulu, Hawaii. "I had to think a little bit to make some adjustments—I got chicken. I had planned turkey."
There is disagreement as to whether chefs need to practice for the competition. Robins says he practiced each night for hours after coming home from work.
"If I practiced like that, I wouldn't be married or have a job," says Banares.
"They all have to practice," says Hermann Rusch, a judge. "A jockey has to practice with the horses, a chef has to practice with the carrots."
Gabriel demurs: "Not much you can practice. how many ways can you bake a potato?"
As in any competition, the mood of the contestants is sometimes cynical, and their strategies often pragmatic. After all, only four chefs will be chosen for the national team, with an additional 10 picked to form the regional team, members of which travel to Frankfurt as assistants and to compete independently in certain cold food events. The difference between being on the national team and the regional team is the difference between driving in the Indy 500 and being on the pit crew.
Three off-duty chefs gather in a corner near one of the kitchens. They all wear blue blazers with gold buttons, and none of them wants his or her name used.
"Even though Jeff Gabriel put up real garbage yesterday, he'll be on the team," a chef with an accent says darkly. "I can name you six people who will be on the team no matter what."
"I think there will be surprises," another chef says.
The discussion moves into the real-politik of the competition: It's a good idea to prepare German food, seeing that most of the judges are German; give the items on your menu vague, general names, so however the food turns out, you'll be safe; no temper tantrums in the kitchen, no looking frantic—a bad attitude will sink you faster than too much pepper; the younger chefs have less of a chance, because they have less experience.
|Pounding meal (Met)|
Though the judges deny favoritism, they admit they don't want to try out any novices on the national team, no matter how sublime their food tastes.
"I like to bring them into the support team and evaluate them," says Galand. "Everyone who goes to Frankfurt on the American team was on a previous year's support team. It's a good idea to bring them up that way, almost like a farm team."
As 12:30 p.m. approaches, the action intensified. Eisenberger, running with a bag of powdered sugar from another kitchen, overshoots his own kitchen and puts on the brakes. "Missed," he says, sheepishly, backtracking. he mixes the sugar into his shallot mustard dressing, pours a bit into a small bowl, and drinks it. This is to be mixed with his "Melange of Greens," which will accompany such other creations as Duck Consume with Duck Ravioli, Corn Crepes, Seafood Medley Oregon (composed of sea bass, sturgeon, and shrimp in a dill sauce), and a Venison Loin "Autumn" on a Bed of Split Peas.
The six judges take their places at a table on a raised, gold-carpeted platform. They all wear white lab coats with red, white and blue USA CULINARY TEAM patches on the breast pocket. A trio of musicians plays nearby. The first appetizer is served—a shrimp-stuffed pear on a bed of carrots. The judges approach it carefully.
"Very good flavor."
"I liked the smoked shrimp."
"Now that is beautiful."
"Before you cut that up, let me get a taste of the center. Let's see how he's done this."
The judges eat only a mouthful or two of each dish. Television cameras, film crews, and still photographers record every bite. After each course, they make notations on their clipboards and deposit their dirty silverware on a plate covered with a peach-colored napkin. Then they take fresh silverware rom a pile in the center of the table and await the next course.
"Very important to have eye appeal," says Roland Shaeffer, a judge who went to Frankfurt with the American team in 1980 and 1984. "If it looks good, you're ahead of the game. Naturally, if it tastes good, too, you have a winner."
Despite the great pomp surrounding the judging of taste, it is the least important factor in the competition. The judges assign 12 points apiece to the categories of Presentation, Creativity, and Workmanship, and only four points to Composition, the category that relates to the actual palatability of the food.
After four days of competition, when all the chefs have displayed their talents, the judges add their hot and cold food scores and divide by two to arrive at the chefs' final scores. Anyone with a 34 or higher qualifies for the 1988 competition, though the judges have considerable latitude when it comes to selecting the final team roster.
When the scores are totaled, Lawrence Ryan has been chosen the captain of the U.S. Culinary Team for 1988. His three teammates are Mark Erikson, Daniel Hugelier and Hartmut Handke, executive chef at the Greenbriar, White Sulphur Springs, Virginia. The captain of the regional team is Jeff Gabriel, and his nine teammates are Thomas Catherall, Seigfreid Eisenberger, Ruben Foster, Stacy Radin, Chris Northmore, Carolyn Claycomb, chef at Pates and Things, Columbus, Ohio, Michael Russell, chef de cuisine at Travis Pointe Country Club, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Rudolph Speckamp, chef/owner of Rudy's 2900, Finksburg, Maryland.
|Sifting meal (Metropolitan Museum of Art)|
Those not selected for the team will not be forgotten, however. In culinary competition, there is always tomorrow.
"Yes I'm very disappointed," says Michael Robins, after the results are announced. "I'll still go to Frankfurt in 1988 as an independent competitor. When you come this far, you can't go back."
He says his cold food scores dragged him down. With a strong stable of hot food chefs from previous years, the judges were looking to boost the cold food effort in Frankfurt.
"I'm still very young," says Robins, who is 23. "Just to go to Chicago was a very big honor. You have to be ready to keep your name up there and be a good sportsman. And I can't rule out that in the next two years they'll need a little help. That has happened before. If not, they better watch out in 1990, because I'm going to be on the team."
Editor's note: Michael Robins eventually won three gold medals, with perfect scores, at the World Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt. At 26, he was also the youngest person to attain a "Master Chef" ranking. Today he runs Integrated Culinary Systems, a consulting firm that assists clients in developing and commercializing food products for retail and Foodservice Sales.