“Basically, right now I have very little social life,” laughs James Holehouse, pastry chef for the Canadian Culinary Team, competing at the World Culinary Olympics in Germany this fall. As former gold medal winners, the Canadian team is doing what all Olympic contenders do — practice hard to capture the championship.
The chef’s full-time job as executive pastry chef at the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton — a title he earned in 2007 at age 28 — keeps him busy. Working his techniques into everyday duties allows a certain amount of practice, but spare time is at a premium as the Games draw near.
Competition became second nature to the chef after an apprenticeship with his mentor, Clayton Folkers, a competing member of the Canadian team a decade ago. Folkers encouraged his protégé to get involved with the regional and international teams. There’s been no stopping him since. And, while the time commitment is huge, Holehouse feels the rewards far outweigh the work. “There’s so much professional growth when you compete,” he explains. “You push yourself to come up with new ideas and techniques, but you also see what others are doing around the world.”
The Olympic competition involves hot and cold competitions. For the cold category, the team creates a table of plates, all of which are judged solely on presentation (though his petit fours will be judged on taste). “My strength is the visual wow factor,” Holehouse says. “People often wonder how I did something.”
The hot competition will see the team scurrying to find new flavours presented in unique and creative ways. The team must prepare a three-course meal for 110 people in five hours, and it’s not only presentation, but taste and texture that will come into play. “It’s about pushing your limits,” says Holehouse. “The challenge is to capture the attention of the judges with something new and different, but, they have to see that you respect the food, too.”
Striving to master new techniques has been a hallmark of the chef’s career. Since training at George Brown College and the Northern Alberta School of Technology in the mid-’90s, Holehouse has honed his skills with masters of the industry. In 2009, he spent a month in France, studying in Paris and working in three different pastry shops. And, last year, Holehouse studied at L’Ecole des Arts du Sucre in Belfort, France, with Stéphane Klein, one of the world’s foremost sugar artists. “It was unbelievably intense — 16-hour days for six days with only a break for lunch,” he says. “Even though I don’t speak much French, I learned so much, and it was fun.”
Holehouse’s varied and extensive training will be invaluable in Germany. Typically, he likes to feature three flavours on the plate. “It’s important to respect the ingredients and allow them to speak for themselves,” he says. And, while he loves working with chocolate — “It’s so versatile and has so many complexities” — Holehouse won’t be using it in the hot competition. Instead, he’ll feature several indigenous, uniquely Canadian ingredients; he won’t say which ones, but he hints: “I’ve been on an interesting journey, meeting with farmers about the food they grow.” Interestingly, wholesome, homegrown food is what the chef grew up eating, as his mom served healthy meals without sugar. Perhaps his career choice is a small rebellion.
photo courtesy of Eugene Uhuad/3Ten