By Jody Shee
Chefs and culinary students alike find one certain common truth: Life is a competition. You compete every day for your piece of industry share, says Chef Randy Torres, CEC, AAC, who is executive director of the Oregon Coast Culinary Institute at Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay, an ACF Culinary Team USA assistant manager and chair of ACF’s Culinary Competition Committee.
Chefs compete for customers not only with nearby restaurants but also with grocery store prepared foods, food trucks, delivery from hither and yon and more. Students and chefs also compete for jobs with resumes pitted against each other.
Yet some culinarians choose to make competition a more formal affair to hone confidence-building skills. And a bonus is that those competition skills are transferable, Chef Torres tells people considering whether to compete. If a job interview requires cooking for a would-be employer, your competition chops kick in and you cook with confidence as if you’re competing. Here, Chef Torres and others share the benefits of competing that they have enjoyed over the years.
Chef Randy Torres
Chef Randy Torres, CEC, AAC, is executive director of the Oregon Coast Culinary Institute at Southwestern Oregon Community College, Coos Bay, as well as ACF Culinary Team USA assistant manager. He has participated in numerous culinary competitions and regularly coaches students for competition. He currently serves as chair of the ACF National Culinary Competition Committee.
Simply attending such culinary competitions as ACF Culinary Team USA and IKA, informally known as the Culinary Olympics, gives a glimpse into the making of culinary trends. “A lot of R&D is done for you in that world,” Chef Torres says. Observing new dishes, he finds inspiration to implement them in his own way.
All the exposure to others’ takes on dishes and techniques helps one evolve as a chef. “The chef I was 10 years ago isn’t the chef I am now,” he says. “Food is saying different things to me now than it did before.”
Team competition preparation leads to analyzing dishes at length from every angle. “We’ll talk about one plate for hours on end, asking all kinds of questions,” Chef Torres says. “For example, would another country recognize this as American cuisine? Are we respecting classical cuisine enough to do something like this? This process provides food-development training second to none.”
Additionally, the friendships and camaraderie you develop in the competition process and the opportunity to visit different facilities makes you a richer person. For Chef Torres, “Going after a job was never difficult. I had a special in,” he says.
As the current chair of the ACF National Culinary Competition Committee, Chef Torres has heard many reasons why chefs choose not to enter the sphere of competitions. “I’m not good enough. I work full time. I have kids,” are just a few. He reminds chefs that those who compete have all those same challenges and then some. Competitors have learned to put aspects of their lives in their own places. “You have to go through it to realize you can do it. You just have to be to the point where you want to,” he says.
Chef Geoffrey Lanez
Chef Geoffrey (Geo) Lanez, CEC, is executive chef at The Patterson Club, Fairfield, Connecticut, and has competed in more than 25 competitions. In 2017, he was one of six chefs selected to be on the ACF Culinary Team USA, which represented the U.S. in the World Cup in Villeroy, France, in 2017 and the Boch Culinary World Cup in Luxembourg, Germany, in 2019 — earning two silver medals. The team then went on to compete in the 2020 IKA/Culinary Olympics in Stuttgart, Germany, where the team received a silver and a bronze medal. Chef Lanez recently competed in the 2022 Le Best Chef competition in New York, where he placed second.
Honing techniques may be one of the biggest benefits of all that is involved in competing on a high level, Chef Lanez says. Critical thinking, time management, knife cuts, fabrication, sauteing, braising, roasting, poaching, blanching and all the rest were already in his wheelhouse. But through competitions, mentors and coaches guided him in the best ways to do those techniques consistently.
“When you do all those in competition, you’re under a magnifying glass,” he says. “If you’re inefficient, someone will critique you and tell you your approach wasn’t the best or show you how they did the technique for the CMC exam.”
Correct portioning was one area Chef Lanez honed through competing. “I’d eyeball a lot of things as a sous chef,” he says. But in competitions, he sharpened measurements with the calculator to determine exact weights per dish, which is necessary to replicate and multiply recipes for specific portion counts.
Chef Lanez doesn’t let the critiques fall to the ground. Realizing he has learned technique perfection from the best, he brings the intel with him back to the kitchen, where he mentors and coaches his staff.
Chef Ted Polfelt
Chef Ted Polfelt, CEC, CEPC, CCA, AAC, is corporate chef for Jefferson Street Management Group, Inc., Roanoke, Virginia, as well as a culinary instructor for Virginia Western Community College, Roanoke. He has participated in about 30 competitions; he competed for ACF Chef of the Year in 2016 and won the Southeast Chef of the Year at Regionals. He won Best in Show at MCI ACF Culinary Salon, Cincinnati, in 2017 and won Chef Best in Show at the 2018 Hotel, Motel & Restaurant Supply Show of the Southeast, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He competed at the tryouts for ACF Team USA in 2017 and 2020 and was selected as a member of ACF Culinary Team USA 2024.
Long ago, Chef Polfelt identified identified competition as his passion and says he owes a large portion of his development as a professional chef to competitions. “I look at all the competitions I’ve participated in as my higher level of learning after culinary school and after running kitchens for a few years,” he says.
For example, from watching others and participating in competitions, he learned how to set up stations more efficiently and how to work more flavor into dishes. “It informs how I teach at the community college and how I build my menu and work the dishes,” he says.
The travel involved in the competition circuit has taken Chef Polfelt to cities he would never have visited otherwise, where he meets chefs, tries new foods and meets students along the way. “We’re a family and a camaraderie. I know I can reach out to those resources any time,” he says.
Chef Rich Rosendale
Chef Rich Rosendale, CMC, is chief vision officer for Leesburg, Virginia-based Rosendale Collective, the umbrella organization for Roots 657 restaurant and the various classes and events offered at the restaurant’s culinary lab. He has competed in more than 50 culinary competitions and spent many years competing in Bocuse d’Or. He also led the 2004 and 2008 U.S. Culinary Olympic Teams. In 2005, he received two gold medals in the World Master’s Basel in Switzerland — his first international competition — and in 2006, he received a rare perfect score and two gold medals at the EXPOGAST Culinary World Cup international culinary competition in Luxembourg.
In the beginning, Chef Rosendale only expected culinary competitions to hone his skills, allow him to travel, expand his education and help him get better. But later into it, he discovered that the organizational skills he developed in the process — along with attention to detail, planning and logistics — were transferable into other projects, and ultimately to what he does now.
For example, in early April 2022, Chef Rosendale was tapped to prepare food for a two-night Las Vegas show featuring the popular South Korean boy band BTS. “Cooking in another state takes a lot of organization and planning,” he says. “My culinary competition sharpened the saw for that kind of planning.”
Achieving success in competitions, Chef Rosendale says, is only possible with teamwork and when you are surrounded by talented people who help carry the load. “At [my restaurant] Root 657, I believe and I tell my employees [the restaurant] is successful because of them,” he says. “I created the menu and the recipes, but [my employees] have the direct relationships with the customers.” In other words, any positive reviews come from the hard work of the team as a whole. Chef Rosendale is keenly attuned to the importance of putting the right people in the right position and delegating jobs and duties so that employees are poised for success.
Additionally, “Aside from ego, there’s not a lot to lose in a competition,” Chef Rosendale says. “You can fail in a competition, and you’ll be fine. But if you fail out in the real world, and your restaurant fails and you’re not meeting expectations of the membership or the guests, there are consequences.” Bottom line is that in competitions, you earn those gold medals and awards by the failures you’ve worked through. “You fail in order to succeed,” he says.
Chef George Castaneda
Chef George Castaneda, CEC, is executive chef and founder of GC KITCHENSTUDIO, Nashville, Tennessee. He has participated in more than 50 culinary competitions. In 2014, he won the Villeroy & Boch Culinary World Cup in individual cooking in Luxembourg. In 2016, he was part of ACF Culinary National Team USA, which competed at IKA in Erfurt, Germany, and finished fourth in the world overall. He currently is head coach for the National Olympic team of Spain.
Through culinary competitions, organization is etched into the life of Chef Castaneda. Mise en place applies not only to cooking, but to all areas of life, he says.
Additionally, competing helps to develop a sense of humility with patience. You may have ingredients, ideas and menus in your head for three months before they culminate on a plate in front of the judges. “And then, you might be told that’s not good enough,” he says. “Only if you have humility and patience to receive that feedback can you evolve.”
All of his competition experience has developed him into a caring mentor for those passionate about the craft who want to compete but are less experienced. “You have a better understanding of what they are going through,” he says. “I can care and offer feedback to one in my position a few years ago.”
After participating in more than 50 competitions himself, Chef Castaneda still learns as he observes how younger participants imagine food. “They are excited about developing new ways to do things,” he says. “There are a lot of classics being reinvented by young minds of chefs putting their creativity into it. You never stop learning.” For example, although there is a specific technique to making a classic beef Wellington, he observes that younger chefs are more apt to log in to cooking platforms online or turn to social media for variations and other sources of inspiration.
Chef Angus McIntosh Jr
Chef Angus McIntosh Jr., CEC, is a private chef for a family in Palo Alto, California. He has competed in about a dozen competitions, earning many medals, including gold in ACF’s regional Chef of the Year competition in Chicago in 2017. In 2015, he received the bronze medal at the Bocuse d’Or American Finals competition in Las Vegas.
Pitting yourself against the best in the industry in a competition reveals how your skills stack up compared to others during the development stage of your career — especially when you’re a younger chef, Chef Angus McIntosh Jr. says. “You find out if you’re lacking in certain areas or if you are excelling. It’s a great tool for learning.”
Over time, your perspective begins to change, and you see others less as competitors and more as friends from whom you are able to learn. “You may see skills in those competitions you weren’t aware of,” he says. “Suddenly you see things you’d never have been exposed to and you start to think that maybe you can learn some new skills. You become more three-dimensional in your cooking.”
In Chef McIntosh’s case, when preparing for the Bocuse d’Or, he was keenly aware that his well-rounded teammates were pulling from their own food experiences and recipes to create competition menus, demonstrating they already had the necessary skills. “I had to start from scratch, creating something from nothing,” he says. This challenged his career path, and by leveraging his relationships, he went on to stage at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, which led to employment there and eventually led to his current career as a private chef.
Like others, Chef McIntosh boils down the essence of competing to mise en place — proper preparation. “It’s not just about food, but how you outline your daily life,” he says. Competing helps you develop and translate those career skills to life skills.
Chef Timothy Recher, 2021 ACF Chef Professionalism Award Winner
“When I first joined the ACF, I entered my first competition for fun, having no idea what it was about. I was fortunate enough to earn a silver medal and ended up winning the show I was a part of. I was instantly hooked. At that first one, I met Certified Master Chef Rudy Speckamp, who really became someone I looked up to and admired. His advice and encouragement led me to compete more and more, driving halfway across the country to cook and meet so many people. They became not only friends but also the mentors that really helped me build a professional career. Competing was truly a turning point in my professional life and drove me to where I am today. Many of those chefs were a part of Team USA over the years. To have been offered a chance to try out and subsequently make the team is beyond humbling to me. To be able to participate at the same level as my mentors is an honor and one I do not take lightly. It’s a chance for me to be a part of U.S. culinary history, legacy — and hopefully offer an opportunity to those that follow us, just as I followed those before me.”
Not everyone has what it takes to actually win competitions. Six winning chefs share the qualities they think are necessary to pass muster.
“Don’t be afraid to fail or to be uncomfortable. Yet know your limits.” – Chef Randy Torres, CEC, AAC
“Develop and display a good attitude when you lose. Smile and summarize that you showed up, did your best, showcased what you’re about and did everything you were told.” – Chef Geo Lanez, CEC
“Develop the ability to take criticism from a judge, learn from it and move that dish forward.” – Chef Ted Polfelt, CEC, CEPC, CCA, AAC
Commitment with balance
“Commit the necessary time to develop menus, recipes, style and skills and be 100% in it to win it. Meanwhile, develop balance between work, family and being mentally/physically fit.” – Chef George Castaneda, CEC
“Learn to maintain composure in a crisis. When you can’t control what happens around you, hold it together so that you don’t lose your head during competition. Additionally, be humble so that you project an attitude that encourages and welcomes feedback.” – Chef Rich Rosendale, CMC
Understand the audience
“Know the audience for which you are cooking. Tailor your dishes and presentation for that particular competition and those judges’ expectations. Then be prepared and consistent.” – Chef Angus McIntosh Jr., CEC