Culinary Olympians aim faster, higher, tastier

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      Bruno Marti still remembers the sound. At an international cooking competition in Germany a decade ago, his team was transporting five stands made of chocolate from the hotel prep area to the competition site 20 kilometres away. The four-legged stands, carefully crafted to showcase the petits fours made by the B.C. team, were so delicate that Marti asked each passenger to hold one so that it wouldn’t break during the ride.

      “I was driving the truck very carefully,” he tells the Straight by phone, recalling the unfamiliar cobblestone streets. “All of a sudden, I hear crack”¦ crack.” It wasn’t a pothole but a temperature change from the hotel to the cool October air that did it. “Three of those legs just broke off, purely because the van was too cold.” Despite having only about an hour to assemble their display, Marti had to send somebody back to the hotel to get more chocolate legs.

      That mishap illustrates the fact that at the International Culinary Olympics—just as at the Olympic Games—anything can happen.

      Marti, who owns La Belle Auberge Restaurant in Ladner, is a veteran of the Culinary Olympics. Officially called the Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung, the competition is held every four years in Erfurt, Germany. Marti was a member of Culinary Team Canada when it won the top prize for the first time in 1984, and has participated in the Olympics and other international competitions many times since then as a manager, coach, and judge.

      This year, he’ll be wearing two hats at the Olympics, taking place from October 19 to 22. He’s a coach for Culinary Team Canada, which will compete against over 30 national teams, and a manager for Team B.C., which is up against more than 50 regional teams.

      For Team Canada, there will be two parts to the competition, each worth an equal number of points. In the hot component, the team has five hours to prepare a three-course lunch for 110 people under the judges’ scrutiny. In the cold component, they will present over 30 items on a display table to be judged on innovation and presentation, among other criteria. (The regional competition is judged solely on a cold table.)

      Marti’s experience will help guide the Canadian teams. He knows that points are deducted for Gordon Ramsay–type behaviour. Teams caught wasting food are also marked down, as true restaurant professionals maximize their raw materials. Menus must be innovative. “Show me something that I’ve never seen, and you will impress me,” Marti says. But over-the-top cooking can displease conservative judges, and newfangled methods mean little if they sacrifice taste.

      This year, both teams are heavily weighted with local chefs. Seven of the 10 B.C. team members hail from the Lower Mainland. Three of Team Canada’s five members are from B.C.—team captain Tobias MacDonald from La Belle Auberge, Scott Jaeger from the Pear Tree Restaurant in Burnaby, and Hamid Salimian from the Westin Bear Mountain Victoria Golf Resort & Spa.

      “We’re extremely pumped,” says John-Carlo Felicella, Team Canada’s manager. On the line from Vancouver Community College, where he heads the culinary arts program, Felicella says the Olympics are a huge commitment. Members were selected five years ago based on talent and ability to work as a team. Felicella estimates that each of the core members has put in 140 hours a month for the past year—on top of their regular jobs.

      That’s an incredible devotion to the team, and nobody gets paid, including myriad coaches and support staff. Funds must be raised and sponsors found to cover the $300,000 cost of food, equipment, and travel. “You’ve got to really, truly love doing it,” Felicella says with passion. “We love the pressure, love the competition.”

      He’s most confident about the team’s performance in the hot competition, where its dishes will include an innovative lobster globe starter and truffle-larded beef tenderloin. He says that as professional chefs, “We know that we cook very, very well.” But perfection is paramount. Because the team prepares 110 meals but isn’t told which plates are served to the judges, “Every plate has to be perfect.”

      Mistakes happen. At the 2006 Culinary World Cup in Luxembourg, the team prepared a foie gras and scallop terrine that was listed on the menu as containing side-striped shrimp. The first three plates that were sent out were missing the shrimp. Unfortunately, those happened to be the plates that were delivered to the judges. “We paid for that one,” Felicella says. The team placed fourth out of 28. “Fourth place is still good, but you don’t spend all that energy and money to come in fourth. You want to come in first.”¦We put so much of our lives into this that we have to come in first.”

      “When Canada walks into the Culinary Olympics, we’re looked at as a major contender,” explains Jaeger at the team’s final cold-table practice at VCC on September 7. When the Straight chats with him, it’s 7:30 a.m. The team has worked from the previous morning through the night. Now, everyone’s scrutinizing a stunning display, noting what needs to be tweaked.

      The cold table poses the greatest challenge since most of it is judged visually and not tasted. That might seem odd, but as Marti explains, chefs have an “encyclopedic knowledge” of which ingredients go well together and what makes a balanced dish. “When we see something, just looking at it, we think, ”˜That would work.’ ”

      “The cold competition is really about being innovative, pushing those limits,” Jaeger says, standing next to a collection of exquisitely detailed petits fours. He likens it to a figure-skating competition: there are certain technical elements the team must incorporate (a tapas display, a vegetarian plate), but if they nail those, artistic style will set them apart.

      Ben Pernosky, another Team Canada coach and chef at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, agrees. “It’s the artistic element of the craft you’re expressing,” says Pernosky, who competed in the 2004 Culinary Olympics. To him, the competition is like “the meshing of top artists and athletes”. Teams must exhibit not just creativity but stamina and rigorous training.

      “It’s not as easy as a 100-metre dash,” says Marti by phone in August, just after watching the Beijing Olympics on TV at home. “It’s not a clock that determines who is the winner. It’s people, and food is subjective.”

      Marti points out that like the athletic Olympics, “There is a tremendous amount of pressure,” and sometimes, despite all the competitors’ preparations, things happen—like when the U.S. relay teams dropped the baton. But he’s confident in his teams’ skill and ability to learn from experience. “Every mishap you have will eventually turn into an advantage. We will not transport chocolate again in a cold truck.”

      In the end, the chefs can only do their best. “Sixty percent is our job,” says Marti, emphasizing that his teams’ members are determined to earn every point within their control. “Twenty percent is the judges’ job.”¦The rest is a little bit of destiny.”