While our country's top athletes swooshed down the slopes and danced across the ice in Vancouver the other weekend, Rudy Smith spent 17 hours slicing, dicing, peeling, poaching, glazing and plating at an Olympic venue of another sort: a kitchen.
Smith, corporate chef at Unilever Food Solutions in Lisle, went up against 26 other chefs from across the country for one of five spots on the team that will compete in the 2012 International Culinary Arts Exhibition, commonly called the Culinary Olympics, in Erfurt, Germany. The first of two elimination tryouts took place Feb. 20 and 21 at the Culinary Arts Center at Elgin Community College.
Just as athletes spend hours each day practicing their sport, Smith lived, ate and slept food in the days, weeks and months leading up to the competition.
"It's been keeping me up at night," Smith said a few days before the contest in which he was to present an array of finger foods, a three-course dinner and an elaborate seafood platter to a panel of judges, most of them former culinary Olympians.
"I've been developing the specific dishes, consulting with other chefs I work with; it's a tremendous amount of time before you ever pick up a knife and go into the kitchen," Smith said.
The competition isn't like what you've seen on "Iron Chef" or "Top Chef." The chefs vying for the Olympic team are members of the American Culinary Federation working within a strict list of ingredients and criteria. There's no room for on-site improvisation. A tuxedoed host doesn't unveil a basket of mystery ingredients. The chefs don't have to cook with items from a vending machine. A sexy hostess walk through the kitchen counting down the minutes.
"It's different from what people see on TV; that's for entertainment," Smith said. "This is a different caliber of chefs."
The chefs in the competition work for corporations, culinary schools, country clubs, hotels or caterers - food industry jobs with generally a more classical approach to cooking than that of restaurant chefs.
Over the two days of competition each chef worked with an apprentice (a co-worker or, in some cases, a student in ECC's culinary program) in a self-contained kitchen pod. They had to bring all their own ingredients and equipment - from paring knifes and tooth picks to saute pans and china platters - with them.
For 12 hours the first day the chefs prepped the ingredients; the second day they had five hours to complete and plate their presentations. All of the food - from smoked scallops, to carrot curls to individual lettuce leaves - gets preserved in aspic, a clear gelatin that must be artfully applied in layers to protect the food from spoiling while it awaits the judging.
The final hour the kitchen was eerily quiet as each chef and his apprentice moved in sync to peel and carve tiny tomatoes for garnishes, spoon pearl-sized dollops of sour cream onto 10-layer, bite-sized terrines of crepes and salmon, and painstakingly pour crystal-clear consomme into bowls without stirring up any bubbles.
"This is the strongest talent pool we've had in the last two or three tryouts," said judge and chef Charles Carroll of River Oaks Country Club in Houston as he studied the competitors.
"We want to see how they communicate with their apprentice, how they handle themselves in the heat of the moment," Carroll said. "We're looking for people who can work as a team; we're looking for creative talent.
"We're not looking for Olympic Gold now, we're looking for people who have it in them," he said.
Many of the competitors, including Smith, have been on past Olympic teams, and former team members were on hand to mentor younger hopefuls.
While a handful of chefs lingered at their stations placing capers and beet batons onto hors d'oeuvres and piping carrot coulis onto pristine plates Smith and his apprentice and co-worker Matt Burton, had finished laying out their creations on their designated banquet table. The Spartan Terrace dining room looked ready for a black-tie gala with all the glistening food on display.
A few chefs went over the noon deadline but were still able to set up their tables. Culinary team manager Steve Jilleba, also a chef with Unilever Food Solutions, said those chefs still would be judged, but would be docked points. Each of the chefs was rated on a 40-point scale that gave weight to creativity, technique, menu development and taste.
At the end of the nearly three-hour judging session 15 chefs were selected to advance to the next round of tryouts in April. Gold medals (scores of 36 and up) went to five chefs including Timothy Bucci, associate professor at Joliet Junior College, silver (32 to 35) went to one chef and bronze medals (28 to 31) went to nine chef, including Smith and John Reed of Customized Culinary Solutions in Skokie.
"I was a little disappointed with myself that I didn't get silver or gold, but on the other hand it was my first competition in 10 years." Smith said.
He anticipates a few more sleepless nights between now and the April 10 competition back in the ECC kitchens.
"I think what kept me from scoring higher was menu development and color; those are details I'll be working on."