Years ago as a young editor I had the opportunity to travel to West Germany to cover the World Culinary Olympics. Interestingly, when I shared with family and friends, and even industry associates, that I’d be covering the Games — an important event — their reaction was one of surprise. They were amused such an event even existed. Most had never heard of it and some thought it was a little offbeat. Others just couldn’t fathom how food could be judged in a similar fashion to sports.
Of course, that was back in the late ’80s, years before the debut of the Food Network and the myriad “Iron Chef” competitions it spawned, which have now made food competitions de rigueur, and, as a result, perhaps less impactful. Barely a day goes by that we don’t hear about chefs competing against each other for one title or another. But even in this new food-obsessed milieu, there are still some who are not aware the Culinary Olympics exist.
When I covered the Games in West Germany, the culinary competition was held in the mammoth Messe Hall in Frankfurt, a venue that over the years has hosted thousands of trade shows and events. Like its sports counterpart, the Culinary Olympics take place every four years, but today the Olympics are held in Erfurt, Germany and have been since the late ’90s. More than two decades after attending my first competition, the foodservice world has changed. In fact, since then a slew of new culinary competitions have surfaced, including, for example, the Bocuse d’Or, held in Lyon, France, every two years. But despite this plethora of events, the World Culinary Olympics reign supreme in the eyes of many chefs and food aficionados.
Just like the sports Olympics, there are detractors who are dismissive about culinary competitions. There are some in the foodservice industry who question the purpose of the Olympics; others debate the validity of competing in a cold display category, judged solely for its visual impact. But competitions allow professional growth and the Games are the perfect opportunity for participants to learn and cultivate new skills. By participating in the Culinary Olympics, cooks from all corners of the world have a chance to dialogue, share and learn from like-minded individuals, and demonstrate their culinary prowess. In the process, they’ll improve their abilities and hone their organizational skills. More importantly, competitors will learn first-hand about emerging global trends, and adapt them to their respective kitchens and countries.
As with any competition, we’d be naïve to believe politics doesn’t enter into the equation, and competitors who don’t garner medals or receive top standing will always point an accusatory finger to judges who they claim are partial. But that aside, we can’t forget that competitions allow the cream to rise to the top. By placing themselves in pressure-cooker situations, where talent, skills and intestinal fortitude are forced to shine, not only will Canadian cooks hopefully walk away with gold, but they’ll also come away with a parade of wonderful moments etched in their memories. And they come home better and stronger chefs, ready to pass the culinary torch to the next generation. Everyone wins from that. F&H wishes all our chefs the best of luck in Germany.