Chef David Daniot has spent the past year crafting gourmet meals that no one will eat.
Not that there’s anything wrong with his food. Daniot’s venison loin inlay with roasted red pepper ash and served with a sweetbread roulade and an autumn vegetable composition would please the most discriminating palate at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club, where he is executive chef.
But when he coats his creation in aspic and arranges it cold on a platter, it becomes not a diner’s delight but a showpiece to wow judges at one of the world’s most prestigious culinary competitions.
Daniot’s four-course meal plus four appetizers earned him a silver medal at the Villeroy & Boch Culinary World Cup in Luxembourg, where he and four other Michigan chefs competed last November.
“Making the second-largest international culinary competition my first cold food competition was risky to say the least,” Daniot says. “But through practice and dedication it was a success.
Hot food competitions, popularized on television shows like Hell’s Kitchen and Top Chef, are intimidating enough, but some argue that cold food can be even more intense. Every detail must be perfect. For instance, all six portions of an appetizer must be identical, with even the picks jutting out at the exact same height and angle.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” says Jake Williams, Cooking Matters coordinator at Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan. He brought home bronze at the recent World Cup and also medaled at the big kahuna — the 2012 “Culinary Olympics” in Germany. (Its official name: Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung [IKA] International Culinary Exhibition. The next one will be in 2016.)
“There’s a lot of logistics and a lot of things that could potentially go wrong,” Williams adds.
Artistry is a key ingredient. “It’s all about the presentation and the idea of making [the food] look like you want to pick it up and eat it right then,” says John Piazza, culinary arts program director of Dorsey Culinary Academy in Pontiac and Roseville, who managed the Michigan team that went to the Luxembourg competition.
Sleepless Nights; Changing Menus
Think you plan your holiday meal in advance? The five Michigan chefs began preparing for the World Cup in January 2014, constantly refining their menus and tweaking their dishes to perfection. They entered competitions around the country and held fundraising dinners to offset the $5,000-per-person cost.
Hundreds of hours of practice culminated in a whirlwind 10-day trip to Luxembourg, where the chefs rubbed shoulders with 1,000 competitors from 56 countries.
Despite preparing some ingredients before leaving the U.S., Daniot worked for 22 hours straight leading up to his competition slot. Each day’s competitors were let into the event space at 5 a.m. and had three hours to finish their display plates. After a couple hours’ sleep during judging, they headed back to admire other entries and wait for the evening awards ceremony.
On days they weren’t competing, the chefs assisted their teammates — shopping for produce, ironing tablecloths, polishing plates — or took in the giant Expogast trade show.
“It felt like one long day with a bunch of little naps in it,” says Jeremy Abbey, culinary director at Dorsey Schools’ Waterford-Pontiac campus. When his silver medal was announced, “it was a very emotional moment for me.”
Gaining an Edge, At Home and Abroad
Aside from the U.S. national team sponsored by the American Culinary Federation, the Michigan group formed almost half of the U.S. contingent. Earning two silver and three bronze medals brought a sense of pride — and the chance to sign a few autographs.
“Just to get there [to compete] was awesome,” Abbey says. “The fact that we all did so well was icing on the cake.”
What competitors forfeit in sleep, they gain in culinary prowess, camaraderie, and fresh ideas from around the globe. Some of that knowledge shows up in local kitchens.
“It’s all about honing your craft,” says Williams. “Whether you win or lose, you learn a lot.”
Daniot and some of his teammates are already looking ahead to the next Culinary Olympics in October 2016. And before that, there’s an event called the American Culinary Classic being held July 30–Aug. 2, 2015, in Orlando, Fla.
Until then Daniot is working on what he feels is his “weakest link” — pastry. He’s seeking out the country’s best pastry chefs to help him up his game.
Like their athletic counterparts, Olympic-caliber chefs thrive on pushing themselves to the limit and conquering impossible tasks.
Preparing for the World Cup was “the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my professional career,” says Matt Schellig, culinary instructor and catering manager at Dorsey Schools’ Roseville campus. Faced with discouraging results in his first practice competitions, he had to follow advice he’s given his students and his 8-year-old son: Don’t give up because you’re frustrated or fearful.
Schellig missed a silver medal by one point, but he’s already learned from the experience. “Looking at my food now, I see four or five things I could have changed that easily would have put me in the silver” ranking, he says.
Now that he’s survived one competition, Schellig is ready for a second course. “I was going to walk away from it and never do it again,” he confesses, “But now I want to go back.”