Pastry competitions have been a significant part of my career as a chef. I was involved in my first competition just a year out of pastry school, and participated in no less than six more before unofficially hanging up my hat as a competition chef after the 2015 Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie. Far from being done with competitions though, I’ve simply transitioned into the next chapter – life as a competition judge.
Not too long ago I shared some of my experiences as a competition chef; what goes on behind the scenes to prepare to compete and the traits I believe make a successful competitor. Today I want to speak directly to any of you chefs and cooks that are thinking of competing yourselves, and tell you what I’m looking for as a judge. Obviously some of this is purely my opinion and preference – every judge has their own idea of what’s most important – but I’ve done this long enough to feel that what I highlight today is pretty universal in setting you up for success.
This year I am honored to be one of the judges for the AUI Pastry Cup, a two day competition that is built around an interesting format. Submissions are initially open to all professionals and from those submissions, the panel of judges (myself included) independently and anonymously rate them all (we don’t know who the chef submitting is or what the other judges have given as scores). The highest scoring submissions make it through to the final – the live competition. Each day is a round of competition seeing some chefs eliminated until a champion is crowned.
It was during the process of scoring submissions that I realized that what I was looking for (and what I’ve always looked for from a competition chef) follow some universal guidelines.
1. Everything counts. From the moment you enter a competition, every decision you make will affect how the judges view you and your work. I really mean every decision. How you address competition staff in correspondence, how you present yourself before, during, and after the competition, how you interact with the other competitors. These are the details that you may think no one is watching, but trust me, someone is.
2. No typos. Virtually every culinary competition ever will involve a submission of written recipes and this is often the first glimpse a judge gets of a competitor. In the case of the AUI Pastry Cup, it is literally the sole deciding factor in making it to the finals. So to piggy back off of point number one, how you present your work, including your recipes, is immensely important. Everything counts. If I am going through a submission that doesn’t follow the outlined format, has typos, is confusing or sloppy in method description, is inconsistent in measuring units or features an image of the recipe that looks like it was hastily taken with an iphone, I am going to have serious doubts about the competitor no matter how good the product sounds or is. That recipe is a reflection of how the competitor thinks, works and organizes themselves. If a simple recipe isn’t shown the proper care and respect it deserves, how could I expect any of the work in the kitchen to be different?
3. Know the rules. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many chefs aren’t thoroughly aware of their competition rules, even in very high level events. It’s not enough to just read through the rules, you must know them by heart. There’s the very real possibility that you may have to defend a recipe or part of your work during the competition and back it up with the rules you are following.
4. There is a time and place for innovation. This point will likely have the most contention from other judges and chefs. Competitions have long been lauded as an outlet for innovative thinking and pushing the limits and boundaries of our craft. I absolutely agree that innovative recipes and techniques is part of what makes competitions and competing so valuable, but in my opinion trying to be innovative simply for the sake of itself is a mistake. If innovation is the means to a solution in creating your product, that’s fantastic, but I don’t think it’s worth searching for something groundbreaking in the hopes or expectation that a judge will mark it off a checklist and give you an edge. I have seen many, if not most, chefs win competitions with work that is clean, organized and solid in execution…and not innovative at all. Let it be a happy accident that you create something in the course of your preparation that may change the industry!
5. Keep it simple….seriously. I’ve saved this one for last because to me it is the most important. Easily the most common mistake I see from chefs in the competition arena is trying to do too much with their food. Too many elements, too many flavors, choosing the wrong time and place to experiment with those flavors (see point #4). It’s so disappointing to see a promising dessert ruined because of that one extra element or flavor that should have been edited out. As a judge I want to see work that before anything else is clean, properly executed, artistic, thoughtful and DELICIOUS. If you want to go above and beyond that so be it, but you better be damn certain that you absolutely knock it out of the park. There are no points awarded for risk taking in my book if that risk isn’t executed well. What you present is what is judged, and although difficulty of technique is usually an element that is assessed for points, the risk/reward of being too out there with your product just isn’t worth it. If you were to go back in time and look at the flavor profiles of all the winning entries of all the competitions held, whether it’s a chocolate bonbon or plated dessert or cake, you might be surprised to see just how simple and classic most of the flavor combinations are. You should always push yourself when working on your product for a competition, but you have to work within your limits of what is possible to deliver flawlessly.
Well, I think that’s it for now. For those of you that have read this and intend to compete (amateur and professional alike), I applaud you! Entering a competition is an amazing way to learn about who you are as a person and a chef, and an incredible experience no matter the outcome. I hope that you take some of this advice to heart and apply it in your next competition submission! Good luck!
Cheers – Chef Scott