American Culinary Federation Competition, February 15, 2009

On Sunday, February 15, 2009, I competed in my first solo culinary competition as a member of the American Culinary Federation (“ACF”). I’ve been a member of the ACF for a while now, but have not competed. You may remember that I participated in the International Culinary Olympics in Erfurt Germany in 2008 (as documented on this site), but that was as an assistant not a competitor. That experience opened my eyes to the competition world and firmly “set the hook” of my interest.

The ACF provides lots of different categories for competitors, everything from Pastry to food-prepared-hot-but-presented-cold to hot food competitions to centerpiece displays. And more. A curious fact is that for many of these categories, the food is not consumed during judging. “Hot food” typically means that the food will be consumed — actually tasted and evaluated by the judges.

I decided to compete in Contemporary Cuisine Category K… K1 to be specific, which is the hot food category for poultry items. Competitors are provided a workstation but must bring everything else — “bring everything but the stove,” my mentor advised me – including food products, spices, herbs, knives, cutting boards, containers, plates, pots, pans, tongs, towels, etc. Participants are evaluated not only on the taste & appearance of the finished products, but also on their efficiency, butchery skills, cleanliness & sanitation, and how much product they waste. Chefs compete only against themselves — there can be multiple winners at each level, depending on the day.

Schedules were sent out via email… I saw that I was to begin at 10:45am and the instructions indicated that we should arrive 30 minutes early. Wendy, who decided to join me for the day, and I arrived at the competition by 10:00am. Upon checking in, I was informed that the schedule was wrong and that I would actually start at 11:30, which gave me plenty of time to sit around. I stowed my equipment and food (all of which I’d put on a speed rack) in the cooler and walked around to see what else was going on in the building.

There were beautiful pastry displays, pulled & poured sugar work, and cold food items (cold food is food that is “prepared hot but presented cold”, and is what my team took to Germany. This food is not tasted.) and lots of nervous chefs at various points in their competitions.

Finally, my time rolled around and I retrieved my cart and set up my station. Competitors are given 10-15 minutes to get set up, then the time begins. Dutifully, I set up my carefully-thought-out station and was ready to go in plenty of time.

My menu, which I was to prepare in one hour, was:

  • The tenderloins of a chicken removed and made into a farce with rosemary, then stuffed under the skin of the breasts, which are pan roasted.
  • Thighs boned out & trussed, braised with the legs (from which I removed the tendons)
  • Braised batonnet of winter vegetables (carrot, onion, parsnip, and turnip)
  • Potato puree
  • Sauce made from reduced braising liquid that was fortified with some veal glace. This went with the braised items.
  • A sauce made from reduced stock, cream, and rosemary to go with the breasts. This was garnished with a brunoise of carrot.

The challenge I encountered through my run-throughs in preparation for the competition was the sequencing of steps. As complex as the menu sounds, it’s actually quite manageable within an hour — provided one has carefully thought out their procedure (“order of the day,” as I call it). After several run-throughs both at home and at school, I had my order down very well.

Things were going according to schedule until approximately 20 minutes into my time. I’d butchered my chicken, preheated my pans, and turned to place my chicken pieces in the pan to begin searing off. Instead of the angry SIZZLE that normally accompanys this move, I heard a weakening SIzz-le… I thought I’d forgotten to turn the pans on, and when I checked, the knobs were in their full-open position. I hadn’t forgotten. I glanced under the pan just in time to see my flames — all of them — go out. We’d lost gas to the building because of a gas line break somewhere in the system. The competition ground to a halt and we were given the options of waiting it out, continuing on (the chef right next to me was moments away from finishing, so he finished up), or aborting. After deliberation, I decided to press on and finish my run. I was the only chef in my room to make this decision. I was provided with four butane-powered “camp stoves”, and I completed my competition.

My dishes turned out well, and I left the room feeling confident that I’d represented myself well. After the tasting, I received a few minutes of one-on-one evaluation from one of the judges, which was extremely helpful for future competitions. I took copious notes!

After a lunch break, we attended the medal ceremony, where I won a bronze medal. My mentor told me that this was significant because he’d competed several times before medaling. He said he was proud of me for medaling my first time out.

The item on the left side of the plate is either the braised boneless chicken thigh or a braised chicken leg. The vegetables (parsnips, carrots, onions, and turnips) are cut batonnet and braised with the legs & thighs.

The darker sauce is a reduction of the braising liquid, fortified with some veal glace. In the center is a potato puree with some cream and butter mixed in — very smooth.

On the right side of the plate is an airline chicken breast, stuffed under the skin with a farce made from the chicken tenderloins, cream, and salt & pepper. The chicken breasts are pan-roasted.

The lighter sauce is a stock reduction with cream and rosemary and it is garnished with a brunoise of carrot (brunoise is a square cut, 1/8 inch cubed).

Now the hook is firmly set — I love competing. I spent the next several days thinking of things I will do differently next time I compete. And there WILL be a next time!

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