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What it takes to compete in international culinary competitions, according to chefs

Are culinary competitions a case of winning a battle and losing the war?

Photos by Patrick Segovia and courtesy of James Antolin and Josh Boutwood

The expansive banquet hall of Milky Way Café on Arnaiz Avenue—where chef James Antolin has gathered the Filipino representatives competing at the Food & Hotel Asia Singapore Culinary Challenge (FCC) 2016—seems ready-made for reality television. There’s the landmark location with its mix of history, Old World charm, and well-loved Filipino favorites. There are the chefs, all streetwise and disparate yet bound by their peers’ high regards and uncanny kitchen skills. And then there’s the fact that the National Culinary Team Philippines (NCTP) is resurfacing after a four-year hiatus from regional competitions. So it’s no surprise that team manager Antolin, who himself has competed numerous times, is standing in front, running through a list of to-dos and must-haves in his head, clarifying inquiries, and ensuring smooth operations 10 days before the competition.

Competition is, of course, a classic pillar of sports. That it also applies to the food industry is a hallmark of both disciplines’ cutthroat nature. Whether for glory, patriotism or, at times, vindication, competitions drive people to their furthest limits. In the case of chefs, culinary competitions aren’t necessarily a requirement to unlock personal success or validate knife-wielding skills; in certain circumstances, they’re warranted.

“This is not really for recognition because these guys are already winning and doing fantastic locally,” says chef Carlo Miguel, who competed in 2009 and now serves as the current team’s coach. “It’s just a higher level of competition and for them to be exposed to what’s going on.”

If culinary battles aren’t quite a call to arms for personal recognition, they are undeniably about enduring the worst-case scenarios chefs deal with on a daily basis, only this time, in extreme situations and all in the name of a nation’s aspirations. Yet the competition cycle exists long before the war itself. It begins in the Philippine Culinary Cup (PCC), an important World Association of Chefs’ Societies (WACS)-endorsed competition that not only serves as the selection process but also raises the standards of local culinary competitions.

“This is not really for recognition because these guys are already winning and doing fantastic locally,” says chef Carlo Miguel, who competed in 2009 and now serves as the current team’s coach. “It’s just a higher level of competition and for them to be exposed to what’s going on.”

The PCC is a great leap forward from the irreverent and increasingly irrelevant method of simply picking chefs based on recommendations, connections, and biases. Not that issues have been reportedly happening within chef circles. “We’ve been doing that for the Pastry Alliance of the Philippines [since] way back in 2010 when we first organized a competition,” says Antolin, “and then LTB (Les Toques Blanches Philippines Chefs Association) followed suit.”

Gerd Gendrano

One storyline within the NCTP emerges as a prime example of the competition’s fair standards. International School for Culinary Arts and Hotel Management’s director for culinary arts Kenneth Cacho, who has been competing since 1996, was PCC’s 2015 Best Chef. “Its the same everywhere you go. Someone would always say something,” he says. His scene-stealing eight medals last year and bankable experience, however, are enough to warrant his spot on the team.

In addition to doing a live entry and two displays, Cacho serves as the team captain of an ensemble cast of other luminaries handpicked from the 2015 PCC, including Josh Boutwood, Mia Yan, and Sonny Mariano. “We basically help everyone out and eventually try to make sure everyone is at par with what we’re trying to put out,” Cacho says. Progress is measured in months of practices, which in NCTP’s case officially started in January, along with intermittent meetings filled with buzzing anticipation.

When asked if this was enough time, Antolin says matter-of-factly, “You want to train for as long as you can because practice makes it better, but with the caliber of chefs, it’s more than enough for them to reach what we’re trying to do.” A typical training block, Miguel shares, simulates the actual competition each participating chef has to go through. “For the live category, we really try and keep it to the exact time of their competition. If it’s a one-hour session, I give them 10 minutes to set up their station and an hour to present.”

A typical training block, Miguel shares, simulates the actual competition each participating chef has to go through. “For the live category, we really try and keep it to the exact time of their competition. If it’s a one-hour session, I give them 10 minutes to set up their station and an hour to present.”

But training offers more problems than meets the eye. Because a team like NCTP is comprised of chefs from various establishments, Miguel neatly defuses the situation with a noble solution. “I end up going to different hubs. I do my best to just talk to them and see what they are doing.” Figureheads like Miguel, with his WACS-certified resume matched with a genuine critical eye, are beneficial to any team because he has no reason to be anything but honest.

Time and distance aren’t the sole problems teams need to face. Funding—primarily the lack of it—is a key ingredient that either makes or breaks competitors. Whereas culinary schools that participate in such events get financial support from the institution itself, for teams without solid backing, it can be a difficult sell.

“Once, in 2007, we went to the government for financial support. It wasn’t very pretty,” confesses Antolin. “It was an experience you don’t want to do again. We’d rather go to friends, private people, and suppliers who support us 100 percent than get aid from someone who doesn’t know how things will work out.”

“If you went there, you can see that other teams from different countries have funds,” says Nana Nadal, who did PR and logistics for the LTB team that competed from 2007 to 2009. “The containers alone where they put their equipment in are all high-tech.”

Once, in 2007, we went to the government for financial support. It wasn’t very pretty,” confesses James Antolin. “It was an experience you don’t want to do again. We’d rather go to friends, private people, and suppliers who support us 100 percent than get aid from someone who doesn’t know how things will work out.”

Funding, in essence, depends on many factors: the size of the team, the destination, the number and types of categories, and even seemingly trivial influences like the winter season. Most reality TV competitions evoke the romance of winning against the odds, but culinary competitions give us the whole picture: the splendor of experience and knowledge but also the ugliness, vulnerability, and confusion.

“In 2007, we joined the Gourmet Team Challenge of the Hong Kong International Culinary Classic and the competition is a buffet, a selection of 27 dishes,” says Nadal. “Every time you practice, you have to create the buffet. Imagine the cost involved.” It paid off, though, when they won Gold and the Best of the Best title in 2007 and then Silver in 2009. As Antolin concedes, raising funds is labor intensive: “Funding is the hardest. I have to raise P1.5 million just for one team and another million for the pastry team.”

The emotional journey, says Antolin, also hinges on overcoming the hurdles at the event itself. “Logistics is a challenge. We’ve been there before but every year is quite different. How are the judges going to feel about what we’re preparing?”

“The workspace is different,” says Nadal. “Even if you practice, when you get there, the configuration is new and your movements aren’t what they are supposed to be. Even packing is difficult. We also had to test the transporting to see if they are packed well enough to avoid breakage.” Not only do these competitions become a detailed travelogue that follows an intriguing and exciting trajectory, but they also demonstrate the long way Philippine teams still have to go when reality catches up. “Other teams work the whole year just to practice compared to our team who also have their own jobs,” says Nadal.

“In 2007, we joined the Gourmet Team Challenge of the Hong Kong International Culinary Classic and the competition is a buffet, a selection of 27 dishes,” says Nana Nadal. “Every time you practice, you have to create the buffet. Imagine the cost involved.” It paid off, though, when they won Gold and the Best of the Best title in 2007 and then Silver in 2009. As Antolin concedes, raising funds is labor intensive: “Funding is the hardest. I have to raise P1.5 million just for one team and another million for the pastry team.”

Competitions allow chefs to be unguarded and collaborative, but they exist on the edge of a greater goal. Between curiously muted characters, seemingly eye-catching confidence, and the roaring restraint of managers, coaches, and advisers functioning as the anchors of the team, one gets the sense that culinary clashes are forms of semi-masochism. The process of creating and competing feels as structured as it is cloistered, typical when groups of people carry a weight of expectations.

But the chance to put the Philippines on the global culinary map remains a major draw. “Ive been asking myself: why do we keep on doing this?” says Antolin. “Is it really enjoying what were doing? Yes, we do. But at the end of the day, its bringing something back to the country that will make us proud.”

The stories that culinary contests present are engaging and awash in both practicality and artistry. What is often forgotten by outsiders is that competitions are essentially about immersing chefs in elaborate situations, growing as a person, and transferring that knowledge to the next generation—all of which entail some dark experiences.

“Its not like youre going to make money out of this. What it does is it teaches a discipline and it helps you push yourself, find where youre going, and dig a little deeper. That helps you when youre in the real world, when youre out there making money,” says Miguel.

Competing against teams from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, and Malaysia, the team won four golds (Kenneth Cacho, Sonny Mariano, Jireh Rodriguez, and Josh Boutwood) as well as the best culinary establishment.

Cacho echoes a similar sentiment: “The value of this is just because you win awards or medals doesnt mean youre a great chef. Its just that you know where you are in the industry.” That said, chefs do deliver some of their finest food moments such as their epic 2007 win in Hong Kong that completely changed the way international judges looked at Filipino chefs.

Undeniably, culinary competitions are intense, simmering affairs. Every time established chefs unite, it feels like the country’s most brazen artists are declaring their independence, standing on their own feet for nationalisms sake. Yet, on the other end of the spectrum, the number of culinary schools sending their own delegates to the field is a tricky interlocked affair that is something of a revelation. One wonders about the point of it all: is it a campaign to cultivate exemplary students or has it become a marketing scheme to invest in potential brand spokespersons and generate enrollee influx? Or, is it a product of both? Perhaps.

Not only do these competitions become a detailed travelogue that follows an intriguing and exciting trajectory, but they also demonstrate the long way Philippine teams still have to go when reality catches up.

But the glory of such a move that is beneficial to both parties is that it encourages young talents to treat their passion as something they can build upon. The only quandary that’s eating this pretty picture alive is society’s design, where the response to such controversial issues will be sharply divided. Nevertheless, what all competing chefs have in common—regardless of who or what they represent or where they originate from—is an instinctive desire to sustain the international competitiveness of the Philippines. It’s far from being a divisive situation yet it’s worth noting what exactly is being harnessed.

Antolin and the team emerged winners, taking home four golds, seven silvers, and six bronzes to ultimately be named the Best Culinary Establishment in the recent FCC. “Winning in Singapore is big,” he says. “It is the toughest culinary competition in the region so it’s really important to all of us. We made our mark.” The path to their win is an even more impressive one, with logistical problems such as prepping in their hotel rooms with limited space and sourcing out premium ingredients. Antolin says the first day of the competition was hardly a cakewalk. “We had to walk from Hall 1 to Hall 9 carrying our display plates and risers. We were advised to go to the wrong hall.”

Josh Boutwood

For Boutwood, a seasoned competition chef but FCC first-timer who bagged gold in the plated dishes category with four of his Disney-driven signature à la carte courses, it’s the balance of the good and the bad that is exciting about competitions. “Competing is a completely different ball game. It has taught me to push boundaries and strive to become better after each dish,” he says. “I would recommend chefs to experience challenges like this with all my heart yet you have to be strong emotionally and physically to embrace the challenges.”

The team’s win isn’t simply a standout statement: it’s also a concrete example of a broader transformation occurring within the industry. Much of the credit for the resurgence goes to each and every member of the team, but Antolin, fueled by a desire to recapture the Philippines’ former glory, can take some of the praise too. What’s next, though? “Everything is next. It’s up to us.”

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