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Amateur Cooking Competitions: Strategies for Success
Instructor: Andy Lynes
In this course, I will share my personal experiences of cookery competitions and suggest a method of producing dishes, menus and recipes that will catch the judge's eye and make you a winner.
On completion of the this course you will :
• Be able to identify opportunities for entering cooking competitions (both recipe only or recipe and cooking).
• Know where to look for ideas
• Learn some strategies for passing a paper sift/interview round
• Learn a method for developing winning recipes/menus.
• Have learnt to balance flavours and methods of cooking in a dish and over a number of courses in order to produce a winning entry,
• Plan the production of a dish/menu under competition conditions
• Be aware of some the obstacles and barriers to success in cooking competitions
Before we begin…
An important note about this course: I am an amateur cook based in the UK and the material included in this course is aimed soley at my fellow amateur cooks. All the competitions I have taken part in have been in the UK or Europe and have involved writing recipes, creating menus, cooking, or all three. This course excludes competitions which are knowledge-based i.e. that require only the answering of questions.
I have no personal knowledge or experience of the world of professional competition, but from what I have read, I know there is a big gap in terms of degree of difficulty, pressure and levels of expected performance from that of the amateur arena. It may be interesting to discuss those difference with any professionals who have experienced professional culinary competition first-hand in the Q&A that accompanies the course .
Cooking is not a competitive sport
It could be argued that cooking is not suited to the competitive arena. Cooking is about providing nourishment for oneself and ones family and friends. It's an act of creation, something verging on the sacred, and should therefore not be devalued by being reduced to a mere spectator sport. The amount of love and care someone has taken to provide food for others is not something that should be judged.
On the other hand, cooking is a craft, and the results of its application can be compared one against another to determine who in a group of people has the greater mastery. In addition, recipe writing and menu creation are measurable skills and can therefore be subjected to evaluation. Given such measureable criteria, it is therefore possible to say who within that group is the best cook or writer of recipes. Whether that actually means anything outside of the confines of the competition is another matter entirely, and something I will leave for readers to decide for themselves.
Then Why Compete?
I have derived a great deal of personal satisfaction from my participation in cookery competitions. They have provided me with the opportunity to travel, to appear on television, to have my recipes published in magazines and books, but also to learn more about the craft of cooking. The prizes have been nice, but have never been my main reason for entering. First and foremost competitions provide an impetus to create, to refine an idea further than I normally might and then to formally document that idea.
Too many times I have thrown something together in the kitchen, stumbled on the beginnings of a successful dish, only to let it slip away, half forgotten. Competitions have afforded me the time and reason to retrieve some of those ideas and also create new ones.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to do this. It is simply a matter of keeping your eyes open and being aware of where opportunities to compete might arise. In-house supermarket magazines may have recipe-based competitions, perhaps linked to the promotion or launch of a single product or range of products. These will require that you write a recipe that includes the product, or utilize products from a particular range. This type of competition will often appear in what are colloquially known as "woman's magazines" such as "Woman's Own" or "The Family Circle".
Specialist food magazines such as the BBC's "Good Food" magazine may also be the source of similar competitions. In addition, they may from time to time organize those that involve the submission of a recipe for an initial paper sift, then the actual cooking of the recipe under competition conditions, often in a catering college or cookery school. These rounds are called "cook offs".
Specialist interest cable TV channels such as UK Food TV have in the past organised competitions to find the next celebrity TV chef, and of course BBC TV had until recently its "Masterchef" format which also had a brief American incarnation.
It is worth scanning the internet food and drink sites for announcements of competitions, although this really is something of a lottery. However, I did spot the invitation to enter the Sofitel Amateur Cook of the Year when it appeared on www.dineonline.co.uk, so it may bear fruit.
Where to look for ideas
Although most competitions will demand that your recipes and menus are "original", it is difficult to define what that might mean when it comes to cooking. What we do know is that you must not plagiarize the actual wording of any published recipe. Beyond that, who can say that your interpretation of wild mushroom risotto is not all your own? Therefore, the source of recipes and menus is wide open to the prospective competitor.
It may be stating the obvious, but every time you open a cookery book, every time you read an article about food or a restaurant review, every time you eat out, you have an opportunity to gather ideas and inspirations for new dishes to add to your repertoire. You should not be looking to copy, but rather to draw inspiration from combinations of ingredients, the use of flavour, texture and temperature, the way food is presented on a plate and the language used to describe food.
The internet is of course an essential tool for tracking down ideas. If nothing else, you have access to thousands of restaurant menus from all over the world which can be a wonderful starting point for triggering the creative process. We will expand on this and look at specific examples to illustrate as we progress through the course.
Getting Over the First Hurdle
In any competition, the way to succeed is to ensure you are not discounted, and that means having your act together at every stage. For some competitions, there will be only one stage, the submission of a recipe or several recipes to make a full menu. Others however will involve an intitial paper sift and/or an interview stage.
For the BBC's Masterchef competition (now sadly discontinued), thousands of applicants were whittled down to the 144 invited to take part in 9 non-televised regional cook offs by means of a paper sift. This required the applicant to answer general culinary knowledge questions, say what their favorite cook book was, state why they would make a good contestant and describe what they would cook for a three-course dinner party menu for two people.
In order to convince the programme makers I was a serious contender , I ensured I had the correct answers to the food quiz, told them I loved Marco Pierre White's books, and simply restated the rules of the competition and said I would meet them. So I reiterated that I will cook a three course meal in 2 1/2 hours. It will contrast flavour, texture, colour, etc. I also said that I loved to talk about food and that I could demonstrate skill in its preparation, attributes I imagined would be desirable for a TV show.
I took particular care in composing the menu to ensure first that I could actually cook it, and secondly that it was well balanced—an absolutely crucial factor in cooking competitions. A poorly conceived dish or a menu that ignores the basic rules of balancing flavour, texture and cooking methods will mean certain failure. We will return to this point and expand upon it a little later on.
The Sofitel Amateur Chef of the Year required a face-to-face interview with representatives of the competition organizers and with the mentor chef that would accompany the successful candidate to the cook-off in France. In this instance, it was necessary to convince the panel that the proposed dish met the stated competition criteria, and that it could be successfully prepared within the time allowed.
As it happened I had little time to prepare for the interview and had only cooked the dish I had submitted once, which showed me that the dish was overly complex and required far too much last minute fiddling around. During the interview, I therefore had to think on my feet in order to answer the many technical questions posed by the chef who had spotted the deficiencies in my thinking just by reading the printed recipe. I relied heavily on my previous Masterchef experience and many hours spent cooking at home to essentially bluff my way through and suggest alternative ways of creating the dish that would be less risky to execute under pressure.
So again, there is no easy, simple method to ensure 100% success, but that old standby, thorough preparation and a rigorous and unflinching critique of your ideas by you and, whenever possible, a friend whose opinions you respect, will help enormously.
Developing Recipes and Menus
Regardless of whether the competition you enter requires only the submission of a single recipe, recipes for a 3 course menu, or requires that you then cook those dishes, you must endeavour to maintain a balance between the elements of the dish and between the dishes within a menu.
The general principles of menu planning are covered brilliantly in Janet A Zimmerman's eGCI course of that name which you can find here and which I would strongly suggest you read if you have not already done so. As the principles outlined can also be applied to creating a single dish, I won't cover those in general terms here, but rather take an example of a menu and its composite dishes and talk specifically about how I developed them for competition.
The following menu won me the title of Masterchef of the South East 1997 :
• Wild Mushroom Risotto with Salad of Herbs and Parmesan Crisp
• Smoked Haddock with Grain Mustard Sauce, Deep Fried Leeks, Warm Potato Salad and Spinach.
• Plum and Almond tart with Spiced Plum Sauce and Clotted cream
Reading this now, it seems to a certain extent a meal of its time, certainly influenced by the likes of Marco Pierre White with its deep fried leeks and "salad of herbs", a dead give away! However, it embodies the sort of classic approach I was after, and avoided any ill-advised fusing of cuisines or ingredients that so very few people, professional chefs included, can pull off with any conviction.
First, the menu reads well, like something you might enjoy eating. It also has a pleasing progression: from the simple but robust flavours of the risotto, a little extra textural interest being provided by the parmesan crisp and a little explosion of taste from the herbs; to the more complex construction of the main course with the smokey, tart notes of the fish and mustard balanced by the cream and starch with the refreshing green of the spinach to cut the richness, all topped off by the crunchy leeks which, formed into a loose ball and perched on top of the whole create an additional visual feature; finally the clean and classic frangipan and fruit tart, a treat without being overly sweet or heavy.
The menu also provides the opportunity to demonstrate a variety of skills: stock and sauce making, cooking with grains, deep-frying, poaching and pastry work and thereby avoids any obvious duplication of ingredients or methods that might appear dull or unbalanced to the judges.
The menu deliberately follows a seasonal theme, using ingredients associated with autumn in the UK e.g., mushrooms, leeks and plums.
Here's how I remember the creation and development of the dish for the Sofitel competition. The criteria was to create a recipe using cod, new potatoes and another vegetable that reflected your region:
I could think of a hundred and one ideas for cod and new potatoes, but nothing that seemed to reflect my own region's cuisine. Was this, I fretted, due to a fundamental lack of culinary knowledge or an ignorance of the rich gourmet history of Sussex? The answer, I realised was that there simply is no such thing as South of England cooking—except for fish and chips of course. And cockles and mussels. Or maybe that staple of the nursing home from Eastbourne to Bournemouth--boiled cod and parsley sauce with boiled potatoes.
I began to brainstorm ideas. What about cod and mussels with a lemon and parsley broth served with new potatoes. Why not roast the potatoes with garlic and rosemary in some olive oil? Not sure about two such strong herbs together. Forget the broth but keep the potatoes, and instead braise the cod in some mirepoix and wine that has also been used to steam some shellfish. That would give the fish a lovely soft texture and should pick up some flavour from the cooking process.
Why not take the cooked cockles and mussels from their shells and deep fry them in batter? A nice contrast of textures both within itself and with the fish, and a twist on the classic cod in batter. So we have our cod, batter, and "chips" in the form of the roasted potatoes.
Why not go the whole hog and have some mushy peas and tomato sauce? Just whizz up some frozen peas with some butter and seasoning for the puree and how about baking some tomatoes slowly in the oven for a couple of hours, pureeing the pulp and adding it to some home-made mayonnaise. You could then thin it with some of the strained cooking liquor from the seafood to add some punch and bring the dish together.
I cooked the dish for chef/mentor for the competition, Bruce Poole, at his restaurant in London, and got his feedback:
"Cod perfectly cooked, if a bit on the large side. The batter is no good, we have a much better recipe, you can use that. There's a lot of oil coming off those potatoes, try using fondants instead. Pea puree is good, some mint might be nice".
Preparations underway with Bruce in the Sofitel kitchen.
Bruce and I with the completed dish.
I cooked the dish again and talked over the results with Bruce on the phone. We agreed further simplifications and refinements:
"Why cook the fish with mirepoix? Just a splash of wine will be fine, it will still be "braised". Don't bother combining the mayo and shellfish liquor. Make a buerre blanc with it, and pour over the mayo separately. Don't deep fry the cockles, the're too small and will over cook. Just reheat them in the butter sauce, and add some tomato concasse for a bit of extra color. The cod on a bed of spinach would really enhance the dish."
Planning for the Competition
If the competiton involves a timed cook-off, the most important consideration when planning your dish or menu is—will you actually be able to cook the food in the time allowed? If you only have to submit written recipes then you are, of course, free to create a variation on the braised lamb shank theme. However, if you have just 2.5 hours to cook 3 courses, then "braised lamb shanks" will be undercooked when it comes time to present to the judges.
To take an actual example: The non-televised cook-off of the eventually abandoned Taste Cook of the Year competition required a chicken pie and chocolate dessert for 2 people to be cooked in 90 minutes. It seemed to me unlikely that I would be able to make a shortcrust pastry, rest it sufficiently so that it could be rolled out, and then bake it within the time allowed. I toyed with the idea of a pie topped with mashed potato, but decided that it lacked the visual appeal and depth of flavour to grab the judge's palate at first bite.
Eventually it was my wife who found the solution and came up with the brilliant idea of using a suet crust, which is easy to make, requires no resting, rolls out like a dream and produces a crisp and tasty finish. To cut down further on preparation time, I simply wrapped a chicken breast in a mushroom duxelle and parma ham and enclosed it in the pastry and served it with fondant potatos, asparagus and a verjus sauce—simple-to-prepare but stunning. Warm chocolate cake, based on the Vongerichten recipe, finished what turned out to be the winning menu.
You must never give yourself too much to do. It is worth bearing in mind that you are not feeding the judges, they are simply tasting your food, so there is no requirement to provide a lot of food. If you are tempted to add a little garnish here or a side dish there that you think might impress, don't. Simplicity and restraint will demonstrate your confidence and impress far more.
I remember arriving at the TV studios for my first Masterchef heat with all my ingredients in one bag, whilst the other contestants ferried what appeared to be the entire contents of their local farmers market on palettes. I was horrified and thought I must have miscalculated badly. My food would be unimpressive compared to the wonderful creations these people would magic up. The truth was that the relatively simple and inexpensive menu I prepared was more to the taste of the judges than the complex and unbalanced menus of the other finalists.
Cooking during the Masterchef competition. Shaun Hill, guest chef, is on the the left and the show's presenter, Loyd Grossman is on the right.
Barriers to Success
If you follow the advice contained within this course, I believe you will have every chance of succeeding in amateur cookery competitions. The biggest barrier between you and the prize is trying too hard. Cook what you know, what you love to eat, not what you might imagine to be competition food. The judges do not want to know how clever you are, but how much you understand food and how to prepare it. Most often, they want to be assured that you can identify the best seasonal ingredients and cook them in the most appropriate manner.
Make sure you fully understand the criteria of the competition and that you are in a position to meet them. You must also be prepared to practice your recipes and menus as many times as is necessary to ensure you can complete them in the time allowed without incident. Eventually you will be sick of the sight of your own food. But only by trying out the recipes over and over will you become familiar enough with them to eradicate the logistical shortcomings of your method and be able to execute them without reference to recipes.
Referencing your recipes may be disallowed by the rules anyway. But you will need to be confident enough to reproduce your menu in an unfamiliar kitchen, with other people cooking around you, perhaps even in front of an audience or TV cameras. The need to refer to recipes will help you with none of this.
Here is the recipe for main course entry in the the Masterchef competition.
Smoked Haddock with Grainy Mustard Sauce, Potato Salad and Deep Fried Leeks
For the fish
• 4 x 175g fillets of smoked haddock
• 600ml milk
• 1 bay leaf
• A few black peppercorns
For the sauce
• 50g butter
• 2 shallots, finely diced
• 250ml white wine
• 250ml dry vermouth
• 300ml vegetable stock
• 150ml heavy cream
• 1 tablespoon chopped chives
• 1-2 teaspoons of wholegrain mustard
For the salad
• 225g waxy salad potatoes
• 10ml olive oil
• 5ml white wine vinegar
• 1 teaspoon of chopped chives
For the leeks
• 2 leeks, trimmed
• groundnut (peanut) oil for deep frying
For the spinach
• 225g spinach leaves, stalks removed
• freshly grated nutmeg
Trim the fish and remove any bones using tweezers. Sweat the shallots in 25g of the butter, add the wine to the pan and reduce to a syrup, repeat with the vermouth. Add the stock and reduce by half. Add the cream and reduce to a coating consistency. Add the chives and mustard at the last moment before serving and season with salt and pepper.
Boil the potatoes in their skins until tender, then slice and toss with the oil and vinegar whilst still warm. Add the chives when cooled slightly.
Split the leeks in half along their length and take the outer 4 layers or so and roll up. Slice along the roll to produce a fine julienne. Heat the oil to around 180 degrees C (360 F) and deep fry the leeks until crisp, then drain on kitchen paper. You must watch the leeks very carefully as they will quickly burn. It is worth testing a small batch first in order to properly judge the time required to crisp the vegetable.
Heat the milk in a pan with the bay leaf and peppercorns until simmering, then poach the fish until just tender. You can add a little of the poaching liquid to the mustard sauce to enhance the flavour if you wish.
Cook the spinach in the remaining butter, heated in a pan, until only just wilted. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
To serve, arrange a pile of the potato in the centre of a large white plate, and place 5 small piles of spinach around it. Place a fillet of the fish on top of the potatoes then pour around some of the sauce. Make a ball from a quarter of the leeks, seasoned with salt, by rolling them very gently between your hands (you will find that they tangle together quite naturally), and place on top of the fish.
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Amateur Cooking Competitions
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