Everybody enrolls in culinary academy for their own reasons. Some dream of starting up their very own restaurant, while others would rather hit the road in a food truck. But what all these jobs have in common is a desire to serve, to use food as a means of enriching other people’s lives.
That’s not to say, however, that chefs don’t have a more competitive side. Everyone who steps into the kitchen wants to prove their skills with a knife and chopping board. For many chefs, that means partaking in competitive cooking events, which gives them a chance to show off their skills in a fun and constructive way. Are you craving a little friendly rivalry (not to mention cash prizes)? Here are four tips for the next time you decide to enter the cooking arena:
1. Pick your specialty
When it comes to competitive cooking, there is no shortage of events, according to Contest Cook. Barbecue is especially popular, with events all over the U.S. Other events for culinary students and professional chefs include Italian, peanut butter and jelly, cupcakes, deviled eggs, vegetarian dishes, bacon, desserts, hot wings and much more. But no matter what appeals to you, it’s best to focus on one event or a series of events that emphasize on the same dish. That way, you’re not splitting your limited attention, and you’re giving yourself ample time and opportunity to perfect your signature dish. Plus, you’ve got a better idea of your main competitors, and that means you can find ways to excel amid a similar pool of chefs at each event.
2. Keep it simple
In 2008, chef and writer Jim Webster won $12,000 as part of Mario Batali’s Ultimate Grilling Challenge. In a column for the Tampa Bay Times, he said that part of his winning strategy was making simplicity his No. 1 priority. He used a few basic ingredients to create a dish that was straightforward. Webster said that judges aren’t looking for complexity; they want the freshest ingredients and a meal that is tasty and enjoyable. If anything, he said, using tons of ingredients not only complicates an already stressful cooking experience, but it demonstrates an inability to decide on a few signature items. He said that he used just seven ingredients, choosing items that had three basic flavor profiles.
3. Always do your research
Cooking skills are an important part of being a successful competitive chef. However, as The Penny Hoarder pointed out, all the ability in the world is useless without the proper research beforehand. Never enter a contest blindly, and always make sure to read the rules carefully. Oftentimes, even if you’ve got a perfect dish, one little misstep or one missing piece of information can get you disqualified from an event. It’s also important to understand the specifics of each competition. Are you going to be judged by a panel, or does voting go to the audience? What elements are being judged, like presentation or ease of preparation? Cooking events are also quite big on trends, and if fermented vegetables are popular that year it may be worth it to use them in a dish.
4. Make sure you’re prepared
Before any big game or meet, athletes spend countless hours practicing. The same should apply for chefs before every event, as Orlando Sentinel food writer Heather McPherson pointed out. That means taking the time to cook your dish several times before any competition. Not only are you avoiding possible missteps that might ruin your chances of winning, but you’re finding ways to streamline efforts and save precious minutes. The more cooking you do, the better off you’ll be to handle any mistakes that happen during the competition. Part of this process is having a simple, easy-to-read recipe. Since you’ll have to present this to the judges, you want a recipe with exact temperature, cooking times and yields.