This past weekend, at AUI headquarters in Gaithersburg, MD, eleven talented chefs competed head-to-head in a three round, elimination style contest. On the line was $5,000 dollars, $500 in AUI product, a feature in the gold standard of pastry publications So Good… Magazine and of course, the AUI Pastry Cup.
I was honored to be part of the jury along with Chef Ewald Notter, Chef Orlando Santos and Chef Cher Harris. Together, we watched the competitors work and tried everything they made in order to determine who showed the greatest skill, creativity and organization and ultimately who earned the win.
Today at DFK I’m sharing my account of the events during the competition (or at least part one of my account), and to go a bit further I’m including what I was looking for in the competitors as they worked and what I wanted in the product they made. The inside judge’s perspective! It goes without saying this is just my perspective, to be taken with a grain of salt like any other opinions out there. Young, hopeful competitors reading right now shouldn’t consider this a guaranteed guide to winning a competition, unless maybe I’m the sole judge, in which case this is solid gold info.
AUI, or Albert Uster Imports, is a well-known and respected pastry ingredient distributor. Two years ago they made their vision for the pastry cup a reality and I have to say, I’m glad they did. For one thing, I’m always a fan of a pastry competition held in the U.S. It helps the industry and gives opportunities to young chefs to grow their skill set, both in the competitive arena and as professionals. I also really like the unique structure of the AUI competition. Most competitions feature a group of finalists who compete within a single trial to determine a winner. The AUI Pastry Cup is constructed over two days and three rounds, with finalists being eliminated after each round. Yeah, it could mean a lot of prep for nothing for a competitor who doesn’t get past round one (some might call that incentive), but AUI provides so much logistical support that I think it’s still well worth the effort to participate.
The first round of competition centered around the creation of a pre-dessert. The Chefs began their work in staggered timing, and before long the kitchen was popping with competitors, judges, AUI staff and camera crew (who did a great job recording and broadcasting the event on Facebook live. Nice job Othello and crew!). It was clear all of the competitors were nervous, especially in the opening minutes of their start, but before long everyone fell into the groove that they all know – cooking food in a kitchen.
As a judge I remain as objective as I can while the competition is under way, but I have to say I really liked the entire group of competitors. Everyone had a great attitude, which makes the experience more enjoyable for everyone. The competitors were:
Curtis Cameron Executive Pastry Chef, Las Alcobas Napa Valley
Steven Cheung Executive Pastry Chef, Global Gourmet Catering
Kevin Clemenceau Chocolatier & Pastry Sous Chef, Pitchoun Bakery Café
Benjamin Copeland Pastry Chef, The Gasparilla Inn and Club
*Chef Benjamin wasn’t able to attend the competition due to Hurricane Irma. I’m wishing him and his family well being and a swift recovery!
Leen Kim Executive Pastry Chef, The Omni Homestead Resort
Heather Lakey Pastry Chef de Partie, Four Seasons Resort Westlake Village
Guillermo Magana Pastry Chef, The Country Club at DC Ranch
Brianne Maggiore Pastry Chef de Partie, Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale
Katie Mitchell Chocolatier & Pastry Cook, Gotham Bar and Grill
Alina Muratova Pastry Chef, Washington State Convention Center
Erin Reed Executive Pastry Chef, Park Hyatt & Blue Duck Tavern
Ryan Westover Chocolatier & Baking/Pastry Chef Instructor, Bluprint Chocolatiers & Stratford University
what I was looking for during round 1
While the chefs were working in round 1 (and while they setup during their kitchen load-in period the night before) I was looking first and foremost for organization. I’m going to repeat myself a lot with that one. Organization. I can’t understate how important that is to compete successfully. I wanted to see how they brought their equipment and ingredients to the event. How did they label their product? How smooth was their unpacking and load-in? How did they organize their tools on their station?
During the round itself I was watching how smoothly they worked. Did they already know the next step in their process or did they have to stop and think for a split second about what to do next? What was on their table while they worked? Did it have to be there? How a chef organizes themselves and how methodically they work during a competition can all but guarantee what quality work they’ll have in the end. It is ALL about preparation.
Please forgive my terrible on-the-fly photography and inability to apply white balance in any meaningful way. I do not do these dishes nearly enough justice.
Once we got the pre-desserts, my attention focused solely on the product. First and foremost, did the dish served to me meet the criteria of the category definition? In my mind, a pre-dessert is something between an intermezzo (a small interim course during a meal that cleanses the palate for the next dish or dishes) and an amuse bouche (a one or two bite item that helps get the appetite going and maybe gives some insight into the meal to follow). Basically, I wanted a few bites that were light, bright in flavor, clean on the palate and finish, and gave me some creative insight into what the Chef might present in the next round. I wanted there to be a good balance between acid and sweetness, and I wanted clear outlines of the main flavor(s) and the flavors that supported them. Beyond flavor I was considering the quality of technique in all of the elements; were the textures and temperatures correct and if they were was it a pleasing combination for the dish?
Obviously the artistic quality of the dish was important as well. How cleanly was everything presented? I wanted to see a dish that was modern, sleek and well thought-out.
While creativity is always an important factor in the work of a competitor, I’ve always felt that it is too often abused. A simple dish that is perfectly executed will always win out over a wildly creative dish that falls short on the basics of flavor, balance or execution. That being said, I’ve always been interested first in creativity of technique, followed by creativity of flavor combination and finally creativity of presentation (the most abused category of them all).
After tallying the scores from round 1, 6 semi-finalists moved on to the next round. Being the soft marshmallow that I am, I genuinely felt for the 5 competitors who didn’t make it through. Like I said before, they all had a great attitude and were really open to feedback about what they could improve on for next time.
This was the plated dessert round. The six semi-finalists were to make a signature plated dessert. Pretty straightforward! The semi-finalists were:
what I was looking for during round 2
Just like in round 1, I was looking for cleanliness and organization. A plated dessert gives a lot of opportunity for creative techniques, so I was on the lookout for that as well. If you show me something I’ve never seen before (and do it well), as a judge that’s always impressive. Timing was a big factor I kept an eye on during this round. Many of the competitors were done early and didn’t do much more than stand around for the remaining time waiting for their time to plate and serve their work. This is a bad deal for a couple reasons. First, having so much time left in the round tells me you didn’t practice your timing before hand, or worse, you did and didn’t make any adjustments in your timing or pace. Secondly, if you do happen to have any down time during the competition, the worst thing you can do is nothing. Clean. Clean your table. Clean it again. Do dishes, yours or the other competitors. Organize. Do anything! Just don’t stand there.
the plated desserts
The plated dessert category shares many of the same judging points as the pre-dessert. I want to be served something that reads as a plated dessert. To me that means several textures, flavors and techniques and an a la minute component (something that must be done at the last minute and has a very short shelf life). Usually this is ice cream or sorbet. A variance in temperature is always a good thing too. Personally, I love contrasting textures and almost always want something crunchy. A warm component is also a plus in my eyes because it requires a further level of organization to time the plate up just right. Warm contrast with an ice cream or cold component is almost always more pleasing on the palate than a single temperature, too.
A plated dessert doesn’t have to be light or bright in flavor, but it still must be balanced and not overly sweet. Given the nature of this competition, I was also looking for some type of continuum of theme from the pre-dessert to the plated dessert. I wanted to feel like they’d come off of the same menu. Flavor is a category that many chefs go too far with. The flavor profiles of your work do not have to be unique or experimental. In fact, mostly they shouldn’t be. Instead, the flavors should be well defined and complimentary. I always prefer one or maybe two main flavors with any other flavor elements supporting those. That’s not an easy feet with the most tested combos (like strawberry and vanilla) so to complicate things further with out there flavors that a judge might not be familiar with is a risky move. If you can pull it off, though, it’s great.
In terms of look I wanted something that was dynamic and appealing visually. This is supposed to be the last impression you give a diner, so a memorable plating style (that doesn’t mean complicated or gimmicky! Serve me a gimmick, and it’s usually a death-stroke in terms of my judgment) is always a plus.
All of the competitors in both rounds did a great job. They worked to the best of their abilities under stressful conditions. No one gave up or made excuses. Everyone showed passion and enthusiasm. Those that made it to the final round showed a higher level of balance of flavor and technique in their work and in some cases worked in a more organized manner or with better time management.
Stay tuned for our exiting conclusion where I reveal the finalists and what they created!
Cheers – Chef Scott