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Getting Ready for Competitions

Getting Ready for Competitions

28 March 2022

Practical tips on coaching, preparing and presenting for medal-winning culinary competitors.

By Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE
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Over the years, I have had the amazing opportunity to coach high school and college students in culinary competitions hosted by various entities. I am pleased that all the people I have coached (both regional and statewide) won medals. I also have been honored to judge many regional and state competitions in several categories from middle school through college. I am taking this opportunity to pass on tips I have learned.

Get a coach from the culinary industry
Coaches from the culinary industry will bring a fresh perspective to you, your students and the competition. Since most competitions are judged on an industry-standard basis, having someone who is either in or very acquainted with the industry would be the most helpful. And, as we know as teachers, our students pay far more attention to an industry coach than they do to their instructor - even if both say the same thing.

To get coaches, reach out to local restaurants, chefs’ organizations or contact providers of corporate dining services in your area. Don’t forget to talk to hospitals, country clubs and the local colleges or other culinary programs. Also, check with your sales representative if you buy product from a foodservice provider. Not only do they have many connections, but they may also have a local in-house chef who can work with you. (Also, check with the sales representative about sponsorship of your teams either with money and/or donating product. Many provide that but teachers need to ask.)

For the safety of you, your school, your students, and the coaches, I very strongly recommend the coach is never alone with one student. There should always be at least two students but preferably another adult. This applies to in-person instruction, video conferencing, phone calls, etc.

Read the rules, score sheets, judges’ instructions, rubrics, etc.
It is always amazing to me how many participants don’t read the rules or judging criteria. For example, in a recent competition I judged the student was surprised by the extreme penalty for not having a hair restraint. This easily corrected issue knocked the person from first place to next to last.

Be extremely particular with what can, and more importantly, cannot be done ahead of time. I have seen disqualifications way too frequently because of this.

Practice, practice, practice. And then time practice sessions
Most (but certainly not all) students are good at practicing the technical part of their competition. However (and speaking from the perspective of someone who performs) you can not practice those skills enough.

I have noticed very few students thoroughly practice the oral part of their presentations. They mumble, slouch, read the entire thing, fumble over questions, speak too softly or lean against or rest their arms on the workbench. Coaches come in handy for helping with this presentation aspect. Students don’t even need an industry coach for this part. If the competition judges will ask questions, then have students practice answering questions. (Assume questions will be asked if you are unsure about what the judges will do.) Also, make sure students know the ingredients as judges usually ask questions about this.       

When practicing, students should do so within the time constraints mandated by the rules. If they only have 50 minutes to set up and cook, they should practice everything with a timer set to 45 minutes or less. Note, they only need to work on a 50-minute timer if the final presentation is served hot. Also, keep in mind any time for oral presentations at the end should be accounted for. It is awkward for the students and judges if the oral presentation lasts less than one minute. Finally, if your students finish way before the time deadline then they probably have not done something right.

Follow industry standards
Unless the rules or score sheets specify otherwise, you must assume the judges (who are probably from the industry) will follow industry standards. They will do this for food safety, cleanliness, personal safety (like appropriate knife handling), as well as for the technical and display aspects.

I cannot stress enough that images and instructions found on social media are not necessarily industry standard unless they are posted on a website of a known chef, restaurant, cooking program, etc. I once judged a competition for charcuterie boards. When I asked one of the competitors why there was no meat, cheese, crackers, or condiments on her “industry standard board,” she showed me a picture from a major search engine that was posted by a fashion magazine.

Direct your students to start their research by checking out the book “Food Lover’s Companion” instead of searching the Internet for words and phrases starting with their favorite search engine.

Presentation matters
The importance of presentation cannot be stressed enough. We all know the phrase “we eat first with our eyes.” Judges will primarily be judging with their eyes. For many categories, if not most, the judges are not allowed to taste the food. (Read my first 50 Minute Classroom article from January 2009 “Teaching Presentation in 50 Minutes.” Presentation is so important it was the first topic I wrote about.)

Note from my first article, that presentation is created from height, color, contrast and the different effects of the non-food items. For example, I recently worked with a person who was competing in a bread category. This person decided on using a burnt-yellow tablecloth, tan bread baskets, tan paper display sign with brown letters and of course brown bread. All the items were laid flat on the board. I changed the basket colors, used risers under part of the tablecloth to get some height, and put bunched-up napkins in the bottom of the baskets so the bread stuck out higher. The presentation was much better.

One bite might be it
If you watch shows like “Beat Bobby Flay” or “Chopped” or watch chef personalities like Gordon Ramsey, you will notice judges basically never eat more than one or two bites. They are out to taste and not have lunch. (See my most recent article, “Taste Like A Chef.”) As the article states, eating one bite is done for a variety of reasons. But, let me give you one other example: Suppose you were judging an eggs benedict competition with 30 entries. Can you imagine eating 30 complete orders of eggs benedict?

If the judge does taste your competition piece, remember to make it easy for him or her to get a cross-section sampling of the dish in just one or two bites. For example, let’s say the theme ingredient is asparagus. You want to pair the asparagus with spicy chicken and caramelized mushroom. Presenting a plate with whole fried chicken pieces, a whole caramelized mushroom alongside the asparagus will make it extremely difficult for the judge to taste all the flavors in a few bites. However, doing a stir fry with bite-size pieces of chicken, sliced mushrooms and asparagus will allow the judge in one or two bites to completely taste your dish.

Competitors are on display every moment they are at the competition site
Young competitors forget they are seen and heard even when they are not actively competing. Although judges should only judge on items produced for the competition, it is very difficult not to subconsciously or even consciously be affected by what you have seen and heard outside the competition. Judges realize the competitors are students and will act like students outside the competition, but students need to realize a judge can’t turn off judging. I have seen and heard awkward things from competitors but here are just three:

  • Competitors sitting or lying on the gym floor as I walked by with their hands all over the floor. A few minutes later the same people were setting up appetizer displays in front of me without having washed their hands.
  • I was staying in the same hotel as the competitors and the night before the event I was riding in the elevator and a student told someone else about shortcuts taken because a person forgot to pack everything needed. Guess who was the judge for the person the next day?
  • A wedding cake competitor, after winning a medal, decided it would be fun to stomp on the cake in front of friends. The judges saw this complete lack of professionalism. The next year the same person competed with many of the same judges, who made comments about the prior year and the poor stomped-on, defenseless cake.

Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE, has been a culinary instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 17 years.