You challenge yourself every day in the kitchen, but have you considered taking that pressure to the next level by participating in a culinary competition?
Maybe you haven’t thought much about the benefits of showing off your skills in a competitive setting, or maybe you’ve considered it but you’re not sure if the experience is for you.
To give you a look at what you can expect, and how you can prepare, we spoke to six chefs about their experiences and advice on how to take the heat in a competitive kitchen.
“Enjoy the experience.”
Mike Castaneda is a freelance chef who has participated in a wide variety of cooking competitions, from regional contests to national online recipe contests to World Food Championships. In addition to being named one of the top ten cooks in America by the Food Network, he’s won a barbecue recipe contest and placed sixth in a dessert competition. For Castaneda, competing has been a great experience that has allowed him to cook against a diverse set of talented chefs in amazing venues—which can at times, also be intimidating.
He suggests that if you’re interested in being in a competition, you have to remember that everyone in the room is also highly-skilled and there to win. But that shouldn’t discourage you in any way.
“For me, one thing I had to always keep in my mind is the fact that I’m not competing against people who don’t know what they’re doing. These people are out here to win and wouldn’t be there if they didn’t think they could,” he says. “Take the World Food Championships, for example. I get a little down on myself sometimes, but then have to remind myself there are celebrity chefs here. There are some of the best chefs in the world here. There’s no shame in even taking last, be happy that you made it to the fight! Enjoy the experience.”
“Get a good night’s sleep.”
Kevin Templeton, Executive Chef of San Diego-based barleymash, appeared on the Food Network’s “Chopped,” which he won, and “Beat Bobby Flay,” where he made it to the final round and got the chance to compete against the celebrity chef himself. These experiences were a way for Templeton to introduce barleymash to a larger audience and prove that it is more than just a local watering hole that happens to serve delicious food.
In addition, being on these shows helped to strengthen his culinary abilities and push him to his limits. Although you may spend a lot of late nights preparing for a competition, Templeton suggests that you make sure to get enough rest the night before.
“As a chef performing in these competitions, I would highly recommend a great night’s sleep,” he says. “The filming process is crazy. Expect about a 12- to 15-hour day of filming. Get a good night’s sleep and eat a healthy meal the night before. Try not to get in your own head about the competition. Be yourself and kick butt.”
“Remember the fundamentals.”
Executive Chef Colten Lemmer of San Diego’s Union Kitchen & Tap Gaslamp also appeared on “Chopped,” which was a culinary challenge that he always wanted in order to learn different approaches to his craft.
“What I learned from doing this competition was to constantly have a back-up plan ready in case something went sideways. I would save ingredients, rather than using the entire amount given just in case,” he says. “This is something that I have continued into my career since then. I think that training my brain to always be prepared was the greatest benefit I gained from this experience.”
In order to expect the unexpected in this way during a competition, Lemmer suggests that you remember the fundamentals no matter what gets thrown your way.
“The biggest piece of advice I can give is going to sound weird. Slow down and focus on your basics. I got dinged for not following through on things that I literally do every single day of my life — not toasting buns, a couple of inconsistent knife cuts,” Lemmer says. “Those are things I let slip by me by rushing through and not thinking in terms of my fundamental knowledge. When you decide to go, you need to realize that if you are there, you know how to cook. Focus on that and showcase your abilities as a chef. Don’t forget what you already know — cutting corners is not the answer. Another great piece of advice is don’t use any equipment you aren’t familiar with. This can take away precious seconds, and in the ‘Chopped’ kitchen, every second counts!”
“Let the pressure fuel you.”
Chris Royster, Executive Chef and Partner of Flagstaff House Restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, appeared on two episodes of “Chopped,” winning one. He’s also regularly competed in local culinary competitions for years in order to refine and hone his skills and ability to think on his feet.
Although you will feel a lot of pressure during competitions, Royster believes that in order to perform well, you need to use that adrenaline rush to your advantage.
“Let the pressure fuel you. Something I see in young cooks so often is the inability to use stress as a motivator. My mentor used to tell me all the time that stress is one of the most powerful motivators if channeled and utilized properly. I drill this into the cooks that train under me: Keep your focus no matter how daunting the task is. Once your focus is lost, it’s almost impossible to regain control,” he says. “I have learned to successfully channel my stress and the pressure that comes along with it. It drives me to be better.
“For example, on my first episode of ‘Chopped,’ I was literally shaking behind my station right before we started. But the second we heard ‘go,’ I ignored the fear, channeled that adrenaline, was fueled by the pressure, and was focused on one thing, cook.”
“Cook what you know.”
Sepi Naficy, a Dallas-based chef who does cooking demonstrations and parties in her community, won HMSHost’s innovative multi-phase cooking contest, “Channel Your Inner Chef,” in 2016 and went back to the contest as a mentor a few years later. Participating in the competition has given her a sense of confidence in her cooking and helped her to truly pursue her passion. And when she acted as a mentor, she told the contestant she worked with — who won Channel Your Inner Chef that year — to do the same.
“Be yourself and cook from your heart,” Naficy says. “Don’t try to pull off something new and trendy. Just cook what you would cook for your favorite person and focus.”
“Focus on technique, not fancy ingredients.”
When Michael Feker, owner of Milwaukee-based restaurants IL MITO and Zesti, decided to begin participating in competitions, he wanted the chance to challenge himself.
After competing in the Food Network’s “Barbecue Brawl,” “Guy’s Grocery Games” and “Cutthroat Kitchen,” one of the lessons that he learned is to use ingredients wisely.
“Know why you use or look for certain ingredients. Remember that your judges are flavor junkies just like you. Feed their flavor addiction with intense flavors by using cooking techniques,” Feker says. “You will see that a dish with a long list of ingredients will not necessarily win you the competition. However, a sophisticated, well-executed and technique-driven dish will win every time.”
Applications to compete in 2020 ACF National Competitions are open until January 15! Sign up here and you may find yourself on our awards stage in Dallas.