Spirit of Chef Competitions

asparagus foie

Reading an article in a Los Angles newspaper online this morning has given me a little food for thought. It stated that many considered The Bocuse d’Or the Culinary Olympics, rather than the Culinary Olympics held in Germany every 4 years.

I must stress that I enormously support and am in great admiration of both competitions, as I am of all culinary competitions around the globe that promote excellence in the chef profession. But, it must be known that many of these competitions are well beyond the grasp of the majority of chefs. Yes, I do know that there are inroads into promoting and training across the globe and the drive to help those in deprived areas across the spectrum.

As an African, I have been privileged to be in a position to receive help and training as a youngster and went on to win Medals at various International Competitions and therefore have an insight into the mechanics of these events.

I find myself in the position where I question the money, time and effort that goes into winning this prestigious award. It is a known fact that some of these chefs practise their dishes over two years and even get given time off work for up to six months prior to the competition to practise their dishes full-time. It seems to me then that this is an unfair playing field or that there is an element of elitism, as most chefs do not have these possibilities at their disposal. I personally would not expect anything other than pure perfection from someone who has been practising a dish for two years; it would be a clinical procedure of producing a dish that has been taken apart and perfected each time over and over, with input and scrutiny from many quarters in the setup involved and sponsoring the contestant.

In reflection, I believe that the ‘Chef or Team Grand Prix’ is still the ultimate chef competition test. This is where a chef or team is presented with a mystery box of ingredients shortly before cooking commences. It is without any debate that this form of competing shows all the skills required from a good chef, being;

  • Creativity
  • Knowledge of tastes and use of ingredients
  • Skills
  • Organisation and planning
  • Timing
  • The ability to work under pressure
  • Hygiene

Just to mention a few.

I fully appreciate the Static and display work, but it is not the ultimate skill challenge. The sugar work, chocolate work and showpiece are magnificent, however, I personally would like to see more of the ‘Grand Prix’ style competitions placed in Lyon, Basel, Luxembourg, and London and around the globe where these competitions should be promoted and open to all with the most basic of Chef credentials.

A final thought is that I was amazed at the lack of attention paid to the season and the ingredients used  to reflect this important fact. When doing consultancy work, I am always amazed at the fact that so many chefs are not fully aware of when the season is for the product they are cooking, which indicates that they have little knowledge of where the ingredients originates from or how fresh it is.

Some Thoughts from our L’Ecole Culinaire Students St Louis Missouri USA

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With the students returning to St Louis Missouri USA, Alison and I are once again in Awe at how small our culinary world has become. Whats even more pleasing is the fact that it has become easy for all cooks, professional and amateur to share the knowledge and love of cooking via the modern communication available to us all?

Here is a few words left behind by our students from L’Ecole Culinare St Louis

  • Experiencing France makes me realize how little I know and how much I still have to learn in the culinary world, but it excites me and will inspire me even more to become a good chef. Thank you Alison and Sidney, I will never forget you.
  • This place is amazing. The passion that everyone has about what they cook and make is awesome. Loved the winery, goats cheese farm and lifestyle, I want to come back with my family.

Angela Berry.

  • Truly a great experience. France is an amazing place for food lovers to come and enjoy all the country has to offer.

Lee Thomas

Wish we had more time to explore the beauties of France, but this has been an unforgettable experience.

Terrence House

  • France is a beautiful country, the food, wine and whole experience is wonderful. The Bonds have shown us the passion we need to become good chefs.

Carol Haynes

  • France is a wonderful country and the food is some of the best I have ever tasted.

Bianca Chiapelas

  • Enjoyed the Croque Madame, favourite brunch item to date. The Goats cheese is simply the best.

Josh Feist

  • The food is the freshest I have ever tasted in my life, and I have been converted to goat’s cheese and good wine.

Jamie Hugge

  • France is a beautiful country, Tours and the Chateaux are wonderful, the passion for food infectious, Alison and Sidney are ambassadors of good food.

Bryon Hohlt

  • Chef Sid and Ali are amazing, I love them like family, they are the best ever, very passionate about food
  • Really had a great time, want to come back for more.
  • Being able to come here and experience inner life, as well as the joy of the French people has been truly humbling. I have been blessed to experience true passion in France.

Brittany Pachlhofer

  • I have found myself missing a place I have never been to as if I was expected to be here years ago. This was a lovely experience and I am honoured to have shared it with Alison and Sidney, I will be back.

Ronnie Reese xxx

  • I have had an incredible experience in France with inspirational chefs with such passion for what they do.

Sam McGill

  • Awesome place and Experience.

Meghan Walker

Michelin Stars, food can be Excellent without them

Lamb Chops

I was in London on Sunday 26th February as I was visiting the UK to buy all my Asian and Indian ingredients for the 2012 season, as there is nowhere in Europe like the UK to buy these spices and herbs.

I bought the Sunday Times and it had an article by Kate Mansey ‘Michelin Star Wars.’

I found it rather amusing, yet, I felt it was as always out of touch and without any depth into what is really important in the Restaurant Industry, worldwide.

I however found Marcus Wareing’s statement, ‘If you can’t cope-get out of the kitchen’ extremely annoying as it was made in the context of Michelin Stars.

Kate Mansey’s opinion that Michelin Stars are the highest accolade in cooking, is so shallow and without substance, as in my humble opinion, the highest accolade any for any chef who runs his own business, is a happy and returning customer.

So many of my clients have asked me what is the best meal you have ever experienced, and I know they are expecting my answer to be a meal in a Michelin Starred property.

No, it was in fact a small family run restaurant in a little village called Villa St Maria where I was served a Potato Gnocchi  with a Ragù alla Bolognese and Tiramisu with Banana Ice Cream, it was superb, and I love would love to challenge Marcus Wareing to duplicate the meal, as my last two meals in his restaurants left much to be desired and I will definitely not be a returning customer.

I find it extremely sad that chefs are haunted by Michelin Reviewers and even more alarming lose track of why they have a restaurant, to make a living.

Right here in ruralFrancewe had a 1 Michelin Star Restaurant close last month, after losing a small fortune by a young chef.

I am not prepared to call him talented, as I only went there once and would not return. He was a young family man who needed to run a profitable business to support his family. The area had more than enough of a customer base, but he was overpriced and out of touch.

As is the case with so many Michelin Star chefs, it is a fact that they can not readapt to the economical changes and downgrade. In essence, they are not all the superstars they are made out to be.

I without any reservations state that the best meals I have experienced in my life, have never been in an award winning restaurant, but rather in the Yemanite Quarter just outside Jerusalem, Villa St Maria, in Italy, with a wine maker friend at his home in Cape Town, a little Indian Restaurant outside Durban and without any doubt, my Zulu Nanny’s Wild Spinach, Tomato and Chilli Stew with Pap which will always be the most memorable meal I have had in this life.

Why in heavens name have we not come up with a real food guide that caters for the general public. I would be surprised if more than 2% of the worlds population can afford to eat in a Michelin Starred Restaurant, it is outdated and in my opinion not what true chefing is all about.

As Raymond Blanc stated in the article, ‘Food can be Excellent without a Star.

I am not a big AA Gill fan, but for once I agree with his statement in the article;

‘The only thing that keeps them going is that chefs cleave to them as if they were the industry’s Oscars,’ he said ‘ What other bit of your life would you entrust to a tyre company? Apart from your tyres.

‘There’s a bigger problem with guides. It makes the experience worse because chefs work not for you but for some invisible bloke who will give them another star’

Mama Africa

A  Blended Spice Recipe Handed Down to Sidney

By his Zulu Nanny ‘Edith’ 

This spice rub is ideal when moistened with lemon juice, lime juice, olive oil or a little white wine, massage into butter flied tiger prawn, spatchcock chicken, chicken wings, monkfish, tuna, scallops before grilling or barbecuing.

I love it with freshly pan braised large leaf spinach with lots of butter, as my nanny used to make it with ‘Maroggo’  a wild spinach found in Southern Africa which she used to go out and pick in the ‘ Veld’

Ingredients

  • 3 heaped tablespoons dried ‘piri piri’ chillies
  • 1 tablespoon soft brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon dried coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon dried onion flakes
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon  chopped garlic / fresh
  • ½ teaspoon cumin
  • 2 tablespoon lemon juice / fresh
  • 1 teaspoon chopped ginger / fresh
  • ½ teaspoon paprika

Method

  1. Place all dry ingredients in mortar and pestle  and grind roughly then briefly grind in wet ingredients with lemon juice
  2. Place in container and refrigerate for a day before using, can be stored in refrigerator for two weeks.

Take a Walk on the Wild Side at Le Calabash

His accent is familiar, distinctly South African, a definite tie to his roots on the plains of Zululand, and yet there is something unique about it. At moments you start to sense some interesting fusion that has taken place… British, maybe, through the influence of his wife and his time spent in culinary school and working professionally in the UK. Or French, possibly, from his time spent in France since relocating to the Loire Valley where he and his wife decided to raise their family and where, in 2006, they began offering cooking lessons at Le Calabash.

Sidney and Alison, herself a pastry chef, chose to settle down in the French countryside, and not a major tourist center, because they appreciated the quality of life, natural beauty and traditional lifestyle that it facilitated. Surrounded by river on one side and forest on the other, their small village and surrounding region is home to artisan cheese producers and winemakers who’s families have been practicing their craft for centuries. Yet traditional is precisely how Sidney would not describe the style of his cooking or the types of cooking classes that they offer.

Like his accent, Sidney’s culinary focus could be described as some sort of exotic fusion. In fact, the whole philosophy behind Le Calabash is “Balade Gormande sans Frontière”… or Cooking without boundaries. Sidney feels that this phrase encapsulates so much of what sets Le Calabash apart from other cooking schools in France. “You can go just about anywhere in France to learn how to prepare Tarte tatin” he says. Instead, it is their unique focus on combining traditional French cuisine with flavours from around the world that brings people to Le Calabash. Even some French restaurants have sent their chefs to Le Calabash to learn a few exotic tricks from India, Asia or the Middle East.

When asked if being outside of the major tourist zone of Paris was a problem for business, Sidney responded that his clientele was quite different from the average tourist who attends a half day cooking class in Paris. Those who visit the Loire Valley and spend one or more days following an intensive cooking course are those who are serious about cooking and who choose to make cooking a central component of their holiday. He enjoys teaching a clientele who bring real and diverse passion for cooking. Today, his clients tend to come from the US, UK, Holland, Belgium & Australia. Their ages typically range from 27 through 65. He’s been impressed with the number of young professionals who visit and attend his courses. In the future, he’s also considering adding mulit-day or multi-week courses that would appeal to those training to be professional chefs.

But unlike other cooking schools where the focus might often be on maximizing the number of students taught, Sidney and Alison are happy to focus on providing a highly personalized and attentive experience for each of their guests. “Were scaling our class size back from an average of 6 down to 4 per class” he tells me and explains that they felt they were not able to provide enough personalized attention and coaching to each of their students when there were 6 per class. Sidney and Alison teach every class themselves & they tend to form long lasting friendships with many of their students. At nearly 50%, the mix of their students who come from repeat or word-of-mouth business is extremely high. Sidney claims that a big chunk of his time online is simply spent corresponding with past clients who check-in with questions or general correspondence to keep in touch with the instructors whom they have befriended.

When asked for his thoughts about the future of the cooking tourism industry, Sidney has questions about what role France will play going forward. He sees the demand in Europe moving towards places like Spain that embrace innovation and can capture the imaginations and shifting tastes of a tourist base always looking for new exciting experiences. He also anticipates great things ahead for developing regions such as China, where chefs are beginning to emerge with distinctive styles and where there is a blank slate and amazing opportunity to offer tourists something completely new.

On the plus side, he hopes the developing world will open up a whole new market of potential students, for whom France will always have the cache of being one of the world’s great culinary capitals. In any case, Sidney isn’t obsessed with doubling or tripling his business. He says he is perfectly satisfied with the business he and his wife have built over the past 4 years. Because their cooking facilities on their own property, he feels fortunate not to worry about excessive overhead or paying rent in low season. He feels lucky to be doing something he loves, surrounded by his family in a beautiful part of the world. He genuinely enjoys cooking and interacting with people from around the world who come for training. At Le Calabash, the number one priority seems to be providing an exceptional (but un-traditional) experience to those serious about cooking and those lucky enough to spend a cooking holiday in this tranquil part of France.