Podcast Episode 49

How Culinary Olympics Gold Medalist Travis Smith Developed a Winning “Chef’s Intuition”

Travis Smith | 40 Minutes | July 5, 2022

In today’s episode, we speak with Travis Smith, the winner of six gold medals and three silver medals in the Culinary Olympics and World Cup competitions. Travis Smith is a Certified Executive Chef, Certified Executive Sommelier, Level 3 Pro Chef, and a fellow in the American Academy of Chefs.

Listen as Travis talks about what it’s like to compete in top culinary competitions, his experience cooking at country clubs, and how competition can sharpen a chef’s intuition.

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Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Chef Travis Smith, winner of six gold medals and three silver medals in the Culinary Olympics and World Cup competitions. He is a Certified Executive Chef, Certified Executive Sommelier, Level 3 Pro Chef, and a fellow in the American Academy of Chefs. Travis has been the executive chef, sommelier, and consultant for many top U.S. resorts and other private establishments, including Bistro Colorado, which he founded in 2012. He is also an accomplished educator who has appeared on CBS This Morning, the NBC Today Show, and the Food Network.

Join us today as we chat with Chef Travis about winning gold, his role in culinary leadership, and what he’s got planned for the future.

There he is. Good morning, Chef! I’m exhausted after that intro. Are you kidding me?

Travis Smith: That’s a lot. It’s a mouthful. Good morning, how are you?

Kirk Bachmann: I’m really good. I’m really good. I’m super, super excited about this conversation today. What people will know almost immediately is that we’re neighbors, right up the road.

Travis Smith: Yeah. I’m down here in Denver, which is really my stomping grounds. I grew up in this area. Just down the road from Boulder, where you’re at.

Kirk Bachmann: I was just going to ask. Were you born and raised in Colorado then?

Travis Smith: Born in San Francisco, and then raised in the Denver area. My parents moved out to Denver when I was only about two years old.

Kirk Bachmann: Lots of changes in the last couple of decades.

Travis Smith: Oh yeah. There’s a lot of things have happened here. Housing market is exploded. A lot of things have exploded as a result of, I think, the marijuana industry being legalized here in Colorado. Then, it’s a great place to live. Don’t tell anyone.

Kirk Bachmann: It is a great. Don’t tell. I think they already know. I agree. I enjoy my drive in, looking at the Flatirons every morning.

How’s the, we’ll call it, spring? Good start to the summer season for you, the golf season?

Travis Smith: Absolutely. We just had another member event over the weekend. Very successful. Highly successful. The weather cooperated with us. Everything here at Cherry Creek Country Club, where I’m at right now, is really golf-driven. It’s been a great start. People are loving the course. The members are very excited about menu changes that we’ve made, and some upcoming things that we’re getting ready to do. It’s a great start.

Kirk Bachmann: Do you get a chance to get onto the fairway at all?

Travis Smith: I do have that open invitation there for me. I haven’t been yet. Actually, believe it or not, I have not even done a golf ride around the course yet. Very unusual. [inaudible [00:03:08] when I got in here. Just happened that hasn’t been my focus quite yet.

Finding the Path to the Kitchen

Kirk Bachmann: Well, you’re busy. You’re busy getting acclimated. You are quite the active chef. It’s an incredible career. Such a powerful resume. You’ve done it all. I like to use the term culinary leader. You’ve got your hands in all these different projects. We got to know each other through the American Culinary Federation, which is just one piece of your body of work. So from consulting for country clubs, to running country clubs, beverage directing, business development strategist.

My biggest question, because a lot of students – future culinarians – that hope to be in your seat one day, a big question is how do you prioritize? You’re at a place in your career where the priority is probably the club and the members, but your education is at the top tier. Your certification levels are all-encompassing. The competitions around the world. Your mentoring, the consulting. What’s the game plan look like every day, and how do you prioritize? What’s important?

Travis Smith: Well, really honestly, the daily game plan, and maybe the vision of what type of chef do you see yourself as? I guess they correspond. My daily routine is, honestly, come in and make sure the walk-ins are running. Do my checks. Check on folks. Make sure they’ve got everything they need. All the base level leadership type activities. Then check the BEOs (Banquet Event Orders) make sure nothing has changed and all that kind of stuff.

But for myself starting out back in the ‘80s, I don’t think I really had a plan necessarily. I was excited about cooking in high school. I liked cooking as a kid. I did the career technology route when I was in high school for my final semester at a school in the Lakewood, Colorado area close by called Warren Occupational Technical Center. That school is still there. A career tech, a vo-tech, if you will, that’s what we used to refer to them as.

Then I was doing my apprenticeship in the Sheraton Hotel in Lakewood, which was right down the street from the school. Then when my chef, who was an ACF Certified Executive Chef, Michael Campe went off to take a bigger job at the Radisson at downtown Denver – that is now a Sheraton. It’s been an Adam’s Mark. At one time it was a Hilton Hotel. It’s on the 16th Street mall, very big, close to where the Brown Palace is located. I was in the middle of my apprenticeship. I saw how hard he was working, the hours. It was kind of daunting, and I thought, “Man, maybe I should consider where I’m going to be, what I’m going to be looking back on when I’m later in my career. What’s it going to look like? What’s it going to feel like?”

I really started exploring other options and looked at the military. That’s when I decided to join the Army upon graduation of my apprenticeship program. Joined the Army. It was a good decision for me. It was great. Life-changing. That kind of got me off the other track and onto a better track of, “Where do I see myself 20 or 30 years down the road?”

It was during that time that I had already been competing in ACF-sanctioned competitions before I went into the military, so I was experienced with that. Staying up all night, doing aspic overnight. It’s amazing how the human mind is. We remember way back to when our first food memories were, or our first throwing rocks at something, cars, making stars on windshields, things that we never should have been doing. How vivid our memories are! My vivid memory of standing in the kitchen at the once Radisson Hotel being the only one there through the night glazing food with aspic for presentation. I can even smell the aspic as we talk about it now. It’s amazing.

Because of my decision and placing myself in a positive environment where I was able to meet some people. I didn’t know anything really about the ACF’s career options growth-wise as far as certification process and how one can grow through that, honestly, until I started to compete at the higher levels and got a lot of exposure to some of the best chefs who had been very successful in the field. Found some other mentors. Always looking to mentors to see how they’ve been doing it.

Smelling the Memories

Kirk Bachmann: I’ve been there with you, the all night. It’s really quiet. It seems like the evening takes forever. I love how you started with the mise en place. You’re walking through. All too often, I think we get caught up in, You go to work, you go right to your desk, your office or whatever, and you just start off where you left off. But I love the idea of when you’re in a live, vibrant spot – I think that’s what always kept me motivated – whether it’s a hotel, a restaurant, a club, where it’s just always something going on. Somebody’s prepping. Somebody’s cleaning. It’s a really, really good lesson for students. Check in on your people. Make sure everyone has what they need. Make sure that the mise en place is there.

Let’s go just a little bit before. Thank you for your time in the military, serving our country. Obviously so grateful for that. Take us before that. Even before your vocational training in high school. Of course, that’s a lot of the profile of our students. Was there someone or some thing special growing up? Was there a grandma, a dad, a mom? Did the family love food? Did you cook around the table, sit around the table, cook together, that kind of thing?

Travis Smith: Oh yes. Some of my most vivid food memories are reaching back to my childhood summer vacations out in Kansas. Very, very small town called Ellis, Kansas, near Hays. People know Hays, usually. Just about fifteen miles west of Hayes is where Ellis, Kansas is at, and that’s where my dad grew up.

My grandparents, they had big, big backyard gardens. We had a farm that my great-grandparents had. Horses, chickens, pigs, fresh eggs, fresh cream, fresh milk. I can remember pouring milk onto our cereal, and it was like, “Wait a minute! What’s all this thick stuff coming off the top?” It was cream, and it was so good.

Grandpa was a big cook. Norman Smith. He was an engineer on the Union Pacific Railroad by trade, but on the weekends he was a big cook, a huge fan. Would make things like galuskies and this delicious cabbage stuff with beef and rice. So, so good. The bread that would accompany it, and the fresh zucchini out of the garden, things like that. The cellar. The stairway going down to the basement just stacked with home-canned vegetables and things like that. I can smell that as well as we talk about it. The smell of the cellar going down the stairs there in that home in Kansas.

Starting the Culinary Education

Kirk Bachmann: Gosh. I love that. There’s so many memories that impact us. Sometimes we forget about those, but boy, they’re coming right back to you as we chat. I love that.

You’re also, Chef, really big on education. Graduate of Culinary Institute of America. You hold an EMBA, as well as countless certifications, which I really want to emphasize, takes a lot of work. there’s a lot of work involved, not just cooking, but also studying and continuing education over the years to keep your certifications current. I believe you’ve been involved in the Art Institute in Denver when that was still here. Metro State, probably working with Jackson Lamb over there. Such a great network.

Obviously, as a culinary school, we believe it’s a critical step in advancing someone’s career. If you could take us back. You started to frame that out a little bit, but fill in the gap of vo-cat, vocational school, before you went to military. Were you working at the Sheraton then? I’d love to know what the catalyst was to, “Hey, this is going to be my career?” Was it Campe leaving or is it even before that?

Travis Smith: No, it’s before that. I started out as a dishwasher in one small restaurant. My cousin hooked me up with a job. I wasn’t even sixteen yet. That was after the paper routes and collecting of cans – anything to make some money so you could go and buy a Snickers. Dish-washing and then I got into a country club here in the Lakewood, Colorado area called Pinehurst Country Club. I was a busboy there for a little while.

But then I got into another opportunity, family-owned business called McCarty’s Restaurant. It was in Lakewood. It was going in as dishwasher with the potential of moving up and working into the kitchen there, which is kind of what I wanted to do. So I started off as a dishwasher, and then the busboy route, and eventually they needed some help on the line. So I worked my way into that and started doing that. While there, I was still in high school, my home ec teachers back when we called it home ec – now they call it something else. I don’t know what they call it.

Kirk Bachmann: Culinary arts.

Travis Smith: It’s your class in high school where you can learn how to cook and sew, things like that – and manage a checkbook. One of my teachers told me about the Warren Tech program. And it was at the Warren Tech program, the career technology center in Lakewood that I had some instructors – Dennis Gombs, Ron Greenberg, and Sharon Murphy were my instructors down there. They were CIA grads, the chef instructors. Dennis Gombs, more so, was the one who gave me the guidance or suggestion that I might want to look at an apprenticeship program through the American Culinary Federation. He told me about Mike Campe just down the road, so they knew each other.

But because I didn’t honestly know what the Culinary Institute of America was at the time, but I did as my boss at the restaurant where I was at. I said, “I would like to go to culinary school. Will you pay for it, and I’ll come back here and work for you?” That didn’t go over very well, but that’s when I started looking at the Warren Tech program.

Kirk Bachmann: Kudos to ask for that, though, at such a young age. Hey, I’ll go to this school, come back. That’s brilliant.

Travis Smith: I hadn’t even graduated high school yet. Obviously what college or upper level learning after high school, it’s really just opening our eyes to everything you can learn. Because who would know who Escoffier was, for example, without really digging into it, and what his impact was. Or Marco Pierre White, there off your right shoulder.

Going Where the Need Is

Kirk Bachmann: All my favorite chefs notice it. Marco always comes up.

I love you taking us on that journey because we have those conversations with our students all the time. Whether it was 20 years ago or today, there are a lot of choices. There’s lots of decisions to make. I love the common denominator here, the fact that you remember the names of your instructors back in high school, these mentors that helped guide you. Try to – not necessarily keep you in your own lane – but get you going into some lane. That’s what’s so important today for young people who want to pursue a career in our industry.

Was there a time, whether just getting started, going into the military, you started competing, was there a time when you stepped back and thought, “Wow! This is where I can make an impact. Or I want to make an impact in the industry here”? Was there a defining moment at some point where it just…”This is it. This is it”?

Travis Smith: One of those that comes to mind immediately for me when you ask that question, it was about mid-way through my military career. I was at the 10th Mountain Division in Fort Drum, New York as a brand new warrant officer out of Fort Rucker, Alabama. I had moved from basically an executive sous chef level, if you will, in civilian terminology, to food and beverage advisor or director. I skipped over the executive chef role there.

I did really well with it, but once I completed my tour with the 10th Mountain Division, which was a very critical time in my development for me. I grew tremendously as a culinarian during that time frame. But also, since I did well with it, I was offered a couple of different really fantastic opportunities. One of them was to take over the food operations at West Point, and the second one…actually the West Point job was the second one that I was offered. The first one I was offered was to manage the culinary arts training program for the Army at Fort Lee, Virginia. For me, it was like, “Okay, why are you giving me these two great choices at the same time?”

I went down to check out the West Point opportunity. I had already been to Fort Lee, Virginia many times as a competitor and for schooling and things like that. I decided, “Well, that’s definitely where the Army needs me. They need me at Fort Lee to head up the craft skills training.” So that’s what I decided on.

Leaving that job was the hardest job that I’ve had to leave. It was really tough. It was emotional, because I just felt like I belonged there and I didn’t want to go anywhere. But I had to. I had to go back to South Korea. But I made my time there impactful. As you asked, what was moment in your career. That was it for me. To be able to take on the updating of the Army’s culinary competition, the whole vision of it. Where was it, where had it been? Where was it now and where did it need to go? I had the opportunity to make those changes.

This was on the heels of a lot of the things that another gentleman who you know, Chef Ed Leonard was working diligently. I think he was probably at the same time the president of the American Culinary Federation. He had done a great job with the team of revitalizing the culinary competition guidelines for the American Culinary Federation. I kind of took what had already been done and updated the Army’s culinary competition curriculum to match, and also to correspond with more what the military was doing on a day-to-day basis.

In addition to that, there were other things that I was looking at. Development of curriculum and trying to match. Bring our middle and senior level culinarians in the Army up to speed on what we wanted to train for the junior culinarians. It was a huge undertaking. We had a huge team of really dedicated people working on that. That was definitely a big moment in my career.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s brilliant. I appreciate you sharing. It brings back memories for me as well. I visited Fort Lee just the one time. I was amazed. You may have moved on. I was with the certification committee of the ACF back when Karl Guggenmos and Ron DeSantis were putting that together. Oh gosh, it’s over a decade ago. We’re aging ourselves, Chef. I could not believe how well run that organization is. It was a really, really good experience for me.

You’ve been a chef, an executive chef. You are an executive chef. Culinary directory, private club consultant. You’ve come up with concepts. You’ve been an associate professor. General manager of your own restaurant. What I find most interesting, and I believe our students would as well, is your ascension into culinary leadership. That’s the key. Not simply serving as the chef. To go back to what you said this morning – you come in, you check on the people, make sure that the refrigerators are work. My father is a certified master pastry chef by the German standards. He always wanted me to make sure there was ice in the ice machine. I never knew why. We never went without ice. So let me say that. I think it was more of that whole idea of making sure that everything is operating.

So to come back to you then, beyond simply serving as a chef, which is important, but to be a member of whether it is the executive team or just the leadership team that is overseeing the work of others at a very macro level is incredibly impressive to me. I spoke with a wonderful human being, a great chef from Tennessee the other day. His name is Erick Niel. He’s got a couple of restaurants in the Chattanooga area.

Travis Smith: That’s where my mom’s from.

Kirk Bachmann: Beautiful part of the country. Great, great food. He said something that was really interesting on the show. He said that, “if you only want to cook, don’t own your own restaurant. It will get in the way.” Is that pretty darn accurate?

Travis Smith: For sure.

Kirk Bachmann: Payroll. Ordering. Purchasing. HR. It’s hard to cook everyday.

Travis Smith: it really is. There was a time when I felt as though I needed to touch every single plate going out of my own restaurant. If it wasn’t me cooking, then it wasn’t going to be served, which was the wrong attitude for me to have. It took me a little while to get over that. I had a great leader counterpart when we first opened, who also cooked hot with me at the Art Institute. It was a really nice way to segue from that.

But I learned a tremendous amount from that. Carl Anderson was his name. He was just fantastic. A lot of people will know the name. He brought me out from behind the stoves more, I would say.

Honestly, at the end of the day, you have to step out from behind the stoves when you have your own restaurant. “You can’t make soup all the time.” That’s what another one of our colleagues, Brad Barnes, would say. I remember him saying that a couple of times in a couple of different seminars with the ACF. Yeah. Figuring out the bookkeeping part, keeping track of your spending and all that kind of thing. It’s rough, but there’s a lot more to owning your own restaurant than making eggs Benedict and so on.

Kirk Bachmann: I was at a Star Chef’s conference years ago in New York City. The guests were Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud, they were up on stage. They were just talking about they’re experience coming over from France. Someone asked the question, “Chefs, who cooks in the restaurant when you’re not there?” They both kind of giggled, and Ripert responded by saying, “Well, I assume the same people that cook when I am there.”

Travis Smith: I hope so.

The Difference Between Country Club and Restaurant

Kirk Bachmann: Of course. There’s so much else to do.

I’m really curious about that, specifically in the country club business. It’s a completely different animal. Many, many moons ago I was the executive chef of a private club in Oregon, and it was really unique. You mentioned at the beginning of the show, “We had a really good event this weekend,” which tells me immediately what you did all weekend. Putting on an extraordinary event with your people.

Could you share with your listeners – you’ve done it all. You’ve been in a restaurant, your own restaurant, hotel, Sheraton, so on and so forth, and country clubs. It’s got to be good food. It’s got to be tremendous customer service. It’s got to be engaging work with your employees, thoughtful work with your employees. What are some of the really big differences between being a country club chef versus, let’s say, a freestanding restaurant?

Travis Smith: Cash flow is one of the most tremendous differences, because with the country club business, it’s truly a business of membership dues, driving membership, making it worthwhile for people to join the country club. That keeps cash flow moving. Food service and hospitality is really an amenity in the country club world. You have to do it very well. You have to do it extremely well. The food cost flexibility is much greater. In some places, 50 percent food cost is fine. It’s just fine. Planning for a loss. Country clubs plan for a loss in food and beverage, in the a la carte world. They also plan for a gain in the banquet and catering world. Knowing in January, Okay, by next December if we’re on budget, we’re going to overspend by $200,000 or $300,000 or whatever.

Like I said in the start, it’s a numbers game where membership dues and initiation fees and that kind of stuff, that’s what really keeps a country club profitable. Golf is also big revenue. It’s an amenity world.

Kirk Bachmann: That is so consistent with my experience as well. I was a younger chef back then. I was obsessed with maintaining food cost and hitting budgets. Often times back then, bonuses were tied into that. I could always remember going in front of the board or the general manager, and they used to always say the same thing: “Don’t worry about the food budget. Don’t worry about it. Just give them what they want. Give them what they want.”

I think it’s a tremendous experience for anyone who has never experienced the ability to just really focus on an incredible food quality ingredients, and a tremendous experience for your members, your guests.

Travis Smith: They say in the country club world, it’s really no different than owning your own restaurant in some regards because you want to have the very best cheeseburger if you have your own restaurant. It’s got to be the very best. “Hey, this is the best cheeseburger. I’m very proud of it.”

Same thing goes over for a country club, just having the very best of everything. The very best bolognese and the very best hamburger, along with the finest filet mignon, and on the higher end as well.

But it is a different world. It’s very interesting. It’s seasonal as well. A lot of clubs are very seasonal. Knowing that you’re working 70 or hours or more during the peak season, knowing that it slows down when the snow starts falling, we’ll get a break.

Pushing toward Perfection

Kirk Bachmann: It’s the same in the big resort world, too. Brad Nelson, global chef for Marriott world wide, told me once the three most important things at Marriott are a great cheeseburger, a tremendous Caesar salad, and a perfect club sandwich. Period. Number one sellers. They had to be perfect.

Speaking of being perfect, as close as possible, you’ve won several gold medals. You’ve been to the Culinary Olympics. It’s a whole different world. Many World Cup events. There are so many up and coming cooks who maybe don’t really understand how competition can help develop culinary acumen. There are lots of different schools of thought. You have some of the folks that are going down the Bocuse d’Or. I’m just going to focus on the Bocuse d’Or. Nothing else. For me that’s number one. Versus the variety of competitions and challenges that come along with typical ACF competitions.

What is it about competition in general that inspires you, Chef?

Travis Smith: I guess because of my experience with competition, I’m able to think about what is that best cheeseburger, club sandwich, or Caesar salad, like you alluded to. What makes that possible? How does that go together?

It’s putting together that perfect dish with that perfectly cooked main entree protein, and the side dishes and the sauces that go along with it. How do you create the perfect bite, where you have a little bit of everything from the plate, and you taste it all together at one time? What’s that like?

Not only that, but if you’re in team competition, we have a common goal to win, to be the very best. To be our very best, to be better than we’ve ever been before as a team, and how do we do that? We do that by practicing to our highest level that we believe, “This is our highest level. We’re going to practice to this extreme high standard and we’re going to get critiques. We’re going to bring in highly qualified judges who have also competed at the highest levels and we’re going to ask them to give us critiques.”

Kirk Bachmann: Who sometimes are your peers? Very, very difficult.

Travis Smith: Peers, mentors. Taking that feedback and turning around and saying, “Okay, let’s tweak this here. Let’s tweak this. Let’s get better.” Everything is looked at, from sanitation and personal hygiene, to the way that the team communicates with one another, and the motivation. The energy in the kitchen is important. The ultimate service of the food or the presentation of the food, and then the final taste, the textures, the consistency, the sauces, the temperatures of the food. If it’s mashed potatoes of some time, it’s got to be piping hot. It can’t be lukewarm.

The whole thing. Everything goes into it. It’s like doing what restaurants strive to do every single day, but asking the best experts to give you critique and see where you land.

A Memory of a Mentor

Kirk Bachmann: Any memories of particularly difficult situations or how you overcome it? Or perhaps those are memories we don’t want to revisit.

Travis Smith: Overcoming challenges is always the name of the game. You know you’re going to face challenges of some kind. I remember, I think it was in the 2000 Olympics in Erfurt, Germany. We had a 24-hour time window to produce our entire cold program almost from start to finish. You could come in with basic mise en place done.

Like it was yesterday, I can feel the anxiousness that we all shared standing there in the kitchen, two of us were on appetizers, two on main entrees, and two on pastry. In a 24-hour time window, and we’ve got to get everything prepared, glazed, cleaned, and then presented on platters and plates, and delivered and set up within that 24-hour time window.

It turned out very, very well for us. That’s the year that we won the triple gold, the high gold in hot food, the high gold in cold food, and then the overall for the military. It turned out very well for us. Ed Leonard greeted me as we were coming off the stage, Chef Ed Leonard did. He said, “You’ve come a long way.”

I took Ed Leonard on as one of my mentors in about 1997 when I competed at a culinary competition in Manchester, New Hampshire. I was stationed with the 10th Mountain Division at that time. I was still active duty in the Army. I had done some kind of a duck dish. I had called it a Korean duck dish. I had spent time in Korea, so I thought, “I know a little bit about Korean food.” But there were some Chinese components to it and some other things. He’s like, “If you’re going to make a dish and you’re going to call it Korean, make sure you know what you’re talking about.” Things like that.

Fromm ‘97 to 2000, he we greeting me as we got off the stage. That was a job well done. Proud of you. You’ve come a long ways type of thing. It was a good feeling.

Why Compete?

Kirk Bachmann: I can imagine. In the same sort of context, Chef, what advice would you give to aspiring – not just chefs or cooks – but someone who would want to follow in your footsteps and compete?

Travis Smith: I think their why is important. To identify what your why is: why you want to do it. I think that’s pretty critical to know on the outset. And maybe they don’t know their why. Maybe they just say, “Oh, I want to win a gold medal. I want to have the accolade of being on the US Culinary Olympic team.”

But I think it’s really a tremendous learning opportunity. It’s a growth opportunity for aspiring culinarians to be at the top of their game. If that’s the why, then I say Go for it. 100 percent.

At the end of the day, the culinary competition world is about making all of us strive to make the best food possible, I think. Marco Pierre White might disagree. Gordon Ramsey might disagree. Those sincerely top chefs. they’re amazing.

I worked with another chef that was equally as amazing. He actually retired from the Culinary Institute of America recently. He followed Gordon Ramsey two years later and won the Chef of the Year for the United Kingdom. He was our team captain with the 1992 Culinary Olympics with the military. Getting exposure to working with someone like him, who we went to the Chicago NRA show one year. We were competing. For me to be in the same kitchen and observe the way that he just did it. He just did it. He was a great chef on both sides of the house, pastry and the savory side. To be in the presence of greatness like that is so inspiring and so wonderful.

You make a lot of good friends in the culinary competition world. There’s a lot of positives. I have no regrets.

Kirk Bachmann: Those are great stories. Great memories. What’s next for you, Chef? Anymore competitions in the future? Going to stick with here in Colorado?

Travis Smith: Most likely. My family is here. I don’t honestly know. You’ve got to leave the door open for opportunity. If you have a great opportunity that’s worth considering, absolutely. I think that’s important to do. Because there are some fantastic places that this career can take us. Sometimes those places are tropical where the family doesn’t mind coming to visit, for example. You never know. You never know.

Chef Travis’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: Speaking of family and great memories and thoughts. The name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. We’re getting towards the end here. In your mind, whether it is a memory or a specific menu, what’s the ultimate dish, Chef?

Travis Smith: That is a great question. I think that I could take this back to 1997. I was creating a dish. The category was chicken. It was for the one-hour culinary competition at the ACF, contemporary category for chicken. This was right after I had my experience competing in Manchester, New Hampshire, where Ed Leonard was influential on my trajectory.

I created a dish; it was called a New York Autumn-Roasted Chicken. With that dish, I decided I needed to break this chicken down to where I was getting total utilization out of the chicken. I am exhibiting a number of skills: making sausage, making a forcemeat stuffing it into the chicken breast, and then maybe smoking the sausage to provide that component and flavor profile. I was using pumpkin as my starch, so I got a duchesse-style pumpkin with diced apple and walnuts as the filling. I did a brandy-glaze apple tournee maple-glazed autumn vegetables, and a wild mushroom sauce.

All of it together, it screamed autumn. It screamed New York. The skills were very refined. I had rehearsed that dish a number of times. It was probably the closest to perfect that I have ever prepared a dish for myself. On a scale of 40, I got a 39.5, which for me was just fabulous.

I think if we shoot for perfection and we settle for excellence, we’re on to something. That was a good day in the kitchen.

Kirk Bachmann: What a great memory! And an amazing memory! You’re a storyteller, Chef, and I love it. Thanks so much. Congratulations! 39.5. I would have fought for that point-five, by the way.

Travis Smith: I probably could have got it. It was Dale Miller.

Kirk Bachmann: No way! Mr. Miller.

Travis Smith: Dale Miller and Anton Flory were the two judges. Fritz Sonnenschmidt was also supposed to be there, but it was a snowy day and he wasn’t able to make it in, unfortunately.

Kirk Bachmann: Two super quick stories: Chef Miller judged me once at a competition in Wisconsin. Maybe he mellowed out a little bit. He was incredibly helpful and thoughtful. And my super quick Fritz story: I think I was in Orlando for an ACF conference, and I was about to do a demonstration. I was behind the scenes, in the hallway. It was at that big Marriott center. I was a little nervous. I think Metz was in the audience and I was doing a German dish. Here’s Sonnenschmidt. He’s sitting on a bucket eating a bunch of lamb chops with his hands. He’s like, “What are you nervous about? It’s just food!” It’s just food.

Travis Smith: That’s right.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, Gosh. I love it. Thank you so much for the memories, Chef.

Travis Smith: You’re welcome.

Kirk Bachmann: I know that you have a super busy day. Thanks for kicking off the morning with us. Come on down to the school anytime. I’ll do the same. I’ll come up to see you at the club. I’ll probably wait until it’s not too busy. This is your busy season. You’re welcome any time, my friend.

Travis Smith: Thank you, Chef. All the best. Have a good day.

Kirk Bachmann: You as well. You, too, Chef.

And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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