Every four years in Germany, they return. Chefs of all ages and nationalities descend upon the country, bearing crisp, white toques and perfectly pressed jackets while quietly, quickly and meticulously slicing, chopping carving and plating. What appear after hours of hard work and toil are some of the most elaborate platters of cold and hot dishes ever seen, putting those iconic images of “The Last Supper” to total shame.
You won’t see any baton passing or high dives here, but the “Culinary Olympics” is as heart-pounding a demonstration of sheer skill and artistry as any one might see on the world stage. The Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung (IKA) “Culinary Olympics” is one of the oldest, largest and most diverse international culinary art exhibitions in the world, dating back to 1900 and taking place every four years. Hosted by the German Chefs’ Association, IKA 2020 will take place in Stuttgart, Germany on February 14-19, the 25th edition of the highly anticipated competition.
Roughly 2,000 chefs and pastry chefs from more than 60 nations compete — against themselves and each other — in the week-long competition drawing crowds of fellow chefs and supporters.
The “Culinary Olympics” often fails to get press and attention it should. It’s important to note, therefore, that ACF Culinary Team USA has a lengthy history in the “Culinary Olympics” with teams participating as far back as 1956.
In 1960, only six years after American chefs first competed on the world stage, the “U.S. Culinary Team” (as it was then known) captured its first World Championship title at IKA. They returned in 1964 to rack up eight gold medals.
“Many visitors stood around our table and admired our display. ‘So big, so American, so rich, so bold… They brought all this in their own jet,'” wrote Culinary Team USA 1964 team member Hubert Schmieder, AAC, in a piece titled “ACF Before the 1970s.” “We did not place first, but… We set a style, we made an impact.”
Perhaps it was partly that bold confidence that allowed Culinary Team USA to keep up a streak of medal wins throughout the next several decades. The fact that they’re the best of the best — with something to prove — didn’t hurt either. In 1988, ACF Culinary Team USA would earn the World Championship title in hot food cooking, establishing a new world record for the most consecutive gold-medal wins.
In 1992, the team broke from European tradition and prepared American food using American techniques, ingredients and style — a torch today’s team still carries.
“Our country is a melting pot of various ethnic influences. Our organization is about chefs; it’s about culinarians,” says 2020 Culinary Team USA Manager Reimund Pitz, CEC, CCE, AAC, himself an IKA gold medalist many times over. “The Team is a great marketing tool for the American Culinary Federation to share American cuisine with the rest of the world.”
Jesus Olmedo, assistant banquet chef at The Country Club in Chestnut Hill, Ma., chose to apply for ACF Culinary Team USA at the encouragement of mentor and former ACF Culinary Team USA Captain Joseph Leonardi, CMC. Olmedo first led the ACF 2016 Culinary Youth Team as captain before earning a spot on the national team at just 23 years old.
“Chef Leonardi [was] always involved with Olympics and competitions and showed me what’s possible and how much it can progress your career and advance skill levels and professionalism in the kitchen,” Olmedo says. “Being on the youth team helped prepare me for the national team, but it’s still a constant evolution and growth process.”
Indeed, competing in the “Culinary Olympics” involves a true flexing of culinary muscle, with all the necessary experience, expertise, creativity, drive and dedication required to succeed, so it’s no surprise that many Culinary Team USA participants go on to become true leaders in their field. This year’s team is comprised of six professional chefs — many of whom have certifications and significant competition experience — as well as one alternate. Each team member typically puts in hours of his or her own time to research and test recipes, and that’s not even mentioning the hours of travel and practice together in the kitchen. Oh, and everyone still has fulltime jobs to maintain.
“The Culinary Olympics really is a huge investment of time and energy and a big commitment, but it’s worth it for our professional development and our careers,” says Gerald Ford, CMC, executive chef at The Ford Plantation in Richmond Hill, Ga., and 2020 ACF Culinary Team USA captain.
All of the work and success doesn’t come without a tremendous outpouring of support, however, Ford notes. Through ACF, Culinary Team USA participants receive the support of full-time managers and a long roster of advisors and mentors, many of whom have competed in multiple IKAs.
“We have a very young team with almost no international competing experience,” says Pitz. “We took advantage of advisers like Keith Keogh, Ferdinand Metz and Steve Jilleba — they’ve been at our practices helping us out.”
Teams are also assigned qualified sous chefs for assistance during practice and competition, and they receive sponsorship and donations in order to fund travel for practice. Many industry companies donate ingredients for the chefs to use during practice and competition; it’s a big help, as Ford notes that the cold platter alone can cost up to $15,000 to produce.
As each member has jobs and lives in different parts of the country, the team travels as often as once a month to Florida to cook together and review individual research and refinement they have all performed on their own time.
As one can imagine, competition is fierce, with ACF Culinary Team USA going up against more teams from around the world than ever before, many of which have participants who are able to make competing their full-time job. “[American] country clubs and hotels are no longer willing to free up their chefs for such long periods of time for practices,” Pitz says.
Culinary Team USA also faces understood pressure due to previous performance. At IKA 2016, held in October in Erfurt, Germany, ACF Culinary Team USA ranked fourth in the world overall and earned the top score and overall gold medal in culinary art in the cold food competition. ACF Culinary Youth Team, comprised of chefs 25 years or younger, placed seventh out of 19 competing countries, while the ACF U.S. military team won four gold medals and two bronze medals.
To ensure success at next year’s IKA, Ford says he’s learning from some of the pitfalls and mistakes at the Culinary World Cup held in Luxembourg last year — mostly working on coordination and organization in the kitchen. He’s focused on streamlining the various cooking processes in order to enhance efficiencies in the kitchen.
This streamlining is important this year, especially as the format for IKA 2020 has changed. Since the very first edition of the IKA in 1900, the exhibition of cold platters has always been one of the major attractions of the event. Starting in 2020, the exhibition of cold platters will now be replaced by a Chef ’s Table.
“The new category is for 12 people. We do two hot hors d’oeuvres, two cold hors d’oeuvres, two spreads that go along with a bread, we’re doing a salad, a seafood platter, and we’re doing four different types of petit fours,” says Pitz. “It must be 100% edible, and team captains must explain each item on that platter.”
This change was not made lightly. “The waste of food is an important issue. This is something we want to actively reduce,” explains Hans-Peter Tuschla, Vice President of the German Chefs’ Association. In addition, the organization hopes to increase transparency during the preparation phase. “The entire cooking process for the Chef ’s Table takes place in the cooking boxes under supervision of the jury and the inquisitive glances of the guests — which is quite unlike the cold platters which the teams used to bring to the competition already plated.” The hot food portion of the event, including Restaurant of the Nations and Live Carving, will remain the same and test teams to produce a multi-course restaurant and banquet meal demonstrating the highest levels of precision and creativity.
“We will be the first U.S. team in history that will produce two categories that are both edible,” says Pitz. “That is a tremendous honor and a tremendous challenge.”
Even though the teams march in to music with their flags held high (ACF Culinary Team USA has chosen Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”), it’s important to note, Ford says, that judging for the “Culinary Olympics” differs from the sports version.
Whereas sport Olympic athletes directly compete against each other for only one gold, silver and bronze medal in each category, in the culinary version, the different medals are awarded to teams for their individual scores on a 100-point ranking. At the end of the competition, those scores are combined to determine the overall winners, but there could be multiple gold-medal winners.
“Essentially, we are competing against ourselves first, and then we can be ranked among other teams,” says Ford. “You could have a score of 97.2 and win a gold medal, and another team could have a 97.2 score, which might also earn a gold medal, but the team with the highest overall score wins the top honors.”
As one would imagine, brainstorming and collaboration begin as soon as the team comes together. In 1977, NCR, (then called Culinary Review) published recipes from that year’s competition, featuring dishes like Breast of Chicken Neptune with oysters, spinach and bacon; Roquefort cream dressing; fondue Neuchateloise; sea scallops en brochette “Hawaiian” with sweet and sour sauce, and fillet of walleye pike “Veronique” with classic fish velouté.
Today’s team still eschews the heavily French-influenced menus of “Culinary Olympics” of the past; since that fateful 1992 IKA, the team has rarely wavered from using decidedly American ingredients and dishes. The dishes are still being finalized, so Ford offered only a general description.
“We have been spending hours look at classic, regional American dishes, like chowder or even Apple pie, and figuring out how to showcase American ingredients, but in a very refined manner,” he says. “We are not going to use Gruyere because cheddar is more widely produced in this country. We don’t want to look like we’re from another country or trying to ‘fit in.’ We want to showcase a menu that you wouldn’t find anywhere but in America.”
ACF Culinary Team USA followed this theme at 2018’s World Cup, where they served seared American sturgeon and Alaskan King crab mousseline; organic duck breast wrapped in a savory crumble crust with duck-cherry sauce; autumn potato sponge cake filled with duck leg ragout; braised foraged root vegetables and orange hazelnut crumble for dessert — to name a few.
Fundamentals and precision lay at the heart of Culinary Team USA’s efforts. “We’re really trying to produce the most ideal version of something,” says Ford. “If we are working on roasting a piece of meat, we need to determine what is the ideal way to roast, slice and serve this particular meat? We do a lot of research on our own and will put the food in front of our advisors, who are some of the most incredibly experienced chefs in this country, for guidance.”
Aside from those strong skill sets and experience, Ford notes another strength of his team members: a passion for the work.
“The R&D process is really grueling and time-consuming process, so you really have to love it,” Olmedo says. “For me, I’m always trying to improve myself and learn different techniques, so being involved with this group of chefs has been life-changing. Already, I have learned great leadership skills and have really pushed myself to go above and beyond and help set new trends in the food industry while sticking to the fundamentals of good cooking. I am excited to see what I become after this experience.”
ACF Culinary Team USA 2020 is made up of Gerald Ford, CMC; Paul Kampff; Geoffrey Lanez, CEC; Vanessa Marquis, CEC; Kelsee Newman, CEPC; Jesus Olmedo; Scott Craig and Sharon Lin. To read more about the team, visit acfchefs.org/team.