Chefs and Competitions

by Chef Wesley Cameron 

Competition is an absolutely great way to increase your exposure within the hospitality industry. It’s a chance as a chef to showcase your skills and creativity especially for a newcomer, it can open a lot of opportunities in your future career and a little extra spending money doesn’t hurt either, but it can be a very daunting and challenging prospect for inexperienced chefs to consider.
As a lecturer I have mentored students during culinary competitions like the City and Guilds skilled student challenge, The Skillery, Goldcrest Competition, Nestle Golden Chefs Hat as well as competed in a few myself most recently winning the Lucky Star 2018 Chef Innovation Challenge.
Here are a few tips for any chef looking to enter the world of Culinary Competitions. 

1. Patience is a virtue: 
        Success especially in competitions doesn’t happen overnight there is a high possibility that it can take quite a few attempts before you achieve 1st place. This should not deter you as one often learns more from your failures than you do from your success. Keep persevering and pushing yourself harder.

2. Understand the Competition: 
        Choose competitions you enter according to your level of skill and experience. There is a vast amount and variety of competitions to choose from annually that could help you ease into the competitive seen and hone your skills for the big league. Ensure to read and understand the requirements of the competition you are entering paying close attention to deadlines and entry closing dates. It’s always better to ask questions and confirm information to ensure your understanding of what is expected for a successful entry.

3. Know yourself: 
        You must have an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses when determining which competition, you are looking at entering in order to be successful.

4. Sacrifice: 
        Preparation is vital to success for any competition and this requires a lot of self-sacrifice as it cannot interfere with your daily job commitments meaning a lot of personal time and after-hours work is required for practising. You need to have a very understanding support structure in your corner regarding the time you would have to sacrifice.
5. Managing Stress: 
        Good preparation is key and getting intimate with every detail of your dish is not always enough on its own. It is a completely different story having to re-create your dish in front of a crowd of people, and then to be served to well renowned chefs as your judges. In order to help with this amount of pressure and stress it is important to practice your dish in front of your peers and for people who will give you honest and constructive critique.

6. Choose Mentors: 
        Mentors are vital for anything you do in life and it is no different as a chef. Find chefs with lots of experience that will push you in the right direction. Chefs that inspire you and reflect the same style in their cooking as you would like to achieve.

7. Time Management: 
        You are up against the clock here where 2 hours can feel like 20 minutes. Practice under the same conditions that you will experience in the competition adapting your timing and movements in the kitchen. Mise-en-place is the term of the day here as it will serve as your GPS to the finish line.

8. Modesty: 
        Personal attitude is premium, always make sure that you remain modest, simple and always challenge yourself to improve and move forward. Morality and honesty are key here.

9. Balanced Lifestyle: 
        Following a balanced lifestyle ensures that you stay mentally and physically fit throughout the process. Consider elite sports men and woman in their field and the rigorous regime and diets they go through before a big sporting event.

10. Creativity: 
        Think outside of the box in these competitions. Yes, judges are looking for a good solid and classic foundation of knowledge and skill but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it. Make it your own as you are the artist working on one of your masterpieces. That being said, you should never attempt a dish you haven’t made before

11. What the judges are looking for: 
Hygiene and safety are always of utmost importance as this alone can determine whether you have won or lost the competition.
Focus should first and foremost be on the taste and seasoning of the dish. Use flavours that complement or contrast each other
Use different textures in your dish to create and interesting mouth feel that will get the neurons in the brain firing
Showcase different techniques, skills and cooking methods while still keeping your dish and presentation simple and elegant
Hot food = Hot plate

If this is a path you are considering to endeavouring as a Chef, I would strongly recommend that you take part in SACA (South African Chef Association) competition and judging workshops, keep up to date with the current competitions they also post on their website. Follow the South African Culinary Olympic team and participate in their training dinners. This would also be a great opportunity to meet possible mentors that thrive in culinary competitions not only nationally but internationally