Great Triumphs and Crushing Disappointments
The Summer Olympics are behind us and the Culinary Olympics beckon. London fades into a memory and Erfurt looms ever larger.
Faster, Higher, Stronger is the Athletes credo. Conversely, for the Chef it is Gentle, Easy There, Got It. It would seem that these two attitudes underscore a difference in objectivity. Far from it. Both groups have a laser like focus and a skill level that have been honed by years of practice and driven by a singular purpose. They both share one objective: to win a place on the Podium.
I would like to share a story that I read recently. This story was written by Elizabeth Renzetti in the Globe and Mail newspaper:
"At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Japanese gymnast Shun Fujimoto fractured his kneecap during a tumbling run in the floor competition. Most of us would be screaming for morphine but Mr. Fujimoto did something incredible: He knew that his team had no chance of winning gold without him, so he gritted his teeth and performed the next two events, the pommel horse and rings, in terrible pain.
During his dismount from the rings, his knee essential exploded. He did so well on the rings scoring 9.5 that the Japanese team won the gold medal. For an Olympic athlete, that's all that matters. So what if his knee 'pops out,' as Mr. Fujimoto puts it to this day? He got to stand on the highest box, with the eyes of the world upon him, knowing that he had done something lesser mortals could never achieve."
I was privileged to be manager of four Canadian National Teams:
- 1986 Singapore, 'Fédération Mondiale des Societes de Cuisiniers, International Coup. Canada tied for 1st Place with Team America;
- 1987 Vancouver, Expo World Festival. Canada took 2nd Place to Team Singapore;
- 1991 Chicago, American Culinary Classic. Canada took 2nd Place to Team Germany;.
- 1992 Frankfurt. Finally the Prize. Team Canada Crowned Olympic Champions. Silver was never this Team's favorite color.
I hear from time to time on the radio, the Beatles hit song 'The long and winding road'. I have frequently thought that it could be the marching song for chefs teams as they ready themselves for competitions. When a team comes together for the first time they plan and set timelines. Rarely during these early days will the planning include contingencies to prepare and ready the team to cope with the unexpected or even disasters. I have travelled this road and never once have all the lights been set on green. I have talked with colleagues and listened as they reencountered their experiences. Here are a few of these stories.
The competition is always demanding but getting there can be a battle unto itself.
Lessons learned ... Normally these observations would come at the conclusion of the story, however, if I must single out one lesson of the greatest value it would be to emphasize the importance of the sixth man on the team: the alternate member. He will sit on the sidelines until the team is faced with the unexpected; an injury or a sickness, whatever. Then he must step forward. He is expected to know the program of each category and have the skills to execute the entry. We are not the NFL where there is a shadow team standing on the sidelines with a backup ready for each position as needed. Value your alternate. He is your insurance!
No Fly Zone ... There are situations where fate deals you a hand and there can be no salvation. Recall the April 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull ,Iceland's volcano This eruption disrupted air travel for 10 days. The Welsh National Team was prepared to travel to Singapore to compete in the Food & Hotel Asia Salon. They never left the ground. High hopes unfulfilled.
Unfinished Symphony ... The first Canada National Team that I managed competed in Singapore in 1986. I was blessed with good fortune. My captain was Marcel Kretz. He was previously manger of the Canada National Team that won The 1982 European Cup, now known as the World Cup.
Four of the team members were from Alberta and Marcel was from Quebec as was the team's pastry chef Juerg Johner. We arranged one practice session in Calgary. We were just a few weeks from departure. On a day to remember, I received a phone call from Marcel saying that our pastry chef had died.
It would seem that we could no longer travel to Singapore. Wait: phone calls from Hans Bueschkens (World President) and many faxes from Singapore. Okay, we will give it a try. The pastiage showpiece had been completed . We could share the deserts between ourselves. We needed petite fours. Hans Warner, a veteran of Frankfurt had his bakery & pastry business in Calgary. 'Can you join us in Singapore', asked Marcel. He said he would try and Marcel asked him to get on with the petit fours.
We arrived in Singapore. Hans could not make it but had sent us the petit fours. We had a further lucky break. Team Ontario was also competing as a Regional Team in the Salon. Their pastry chef, Steve Wemyss, offered to take on our desert category. We were in business: 'Let's set-up the Cold Buffet'. Our table looked good and we were very proud. The pastiage showpiece was a complex structure. We decided not to assemble it, choosing to lay it out in its component parts with an inscription: 'Unfinished Symphony.'
We looked at the other team entries. God, Singapore is great and team America's display is awesome. But wait. In those days the petite four entry required eight varieties times eight pieces of each. Team America showed only seven varieties. What had happened? To this day I do not know why the eighth variety was missing, but on the Awards evening, Team Canada and Team America tied for 1st place with Singapore 3rd.
If you want the prize, you must be relentless in the pursuit.
Head over heels! ... Otto Weibel was manager of the Singapore National Team for the 1988 Culinary Olympics. As for many teams, travel arrangement were always a potential problem. It is a long way from Singapore to Frankfurt.
The centerpiece for the team's table was a very large butter sculpture. A wooden platform was designed, the sculpture was secured to it and a wooden box built around this. The box was clearly marked 'this side up'. Surprise when the freight company delivered the crate it was upside down!
The team was flummoxed and discouraged. The head and both arms were squashed beyond recognition. The team recovered their composure and set the artist to work. The sculpture was reborn anew. 'What was the lesson', asked Otto: 'Never give up – there is always a way out of a dark tunnel'.
Pebbles on the Road ... After the 1980 Frankfurt IKA the U.S. National Team published a 'Culinary Olympics Cookbook'. Team Manager Ferdinand Metz recounted some problems that that team encountered.
"As is customary the team hosted a party for fellow competitors. After the party, it was back to the business at hand, winning the Olympic gold in the hot-food competition. One would have thought that after two years of preparation, at least Lady Luck would shine. Well, when the dumb waiter that transferred supplies to the kitchen broke down in the middle of the night and when black sea bass never arrived, the team might think that luck had deserted them; they might become just a bit harried. In actuality, these setbacks, proved nothing more than irritating pebbles on the road to gold."
Anything to Declare? ... "African Chefs got buffaloed" - that was the headline in a Vancouver daily newspaper when a team of South African Chefs competing in the 1987 World Culinary Arts Festival had all their carefully prepared South African delicacies confiscated by the Canadian Customs. The team was told by a representative of their freight forwarding company that their food had been 'condemned for political reasons'.
They hastily had to substitute Canadian buffalo meat for Kudu, and Canadian Halibut for their prized Kingklip. The chefs received a boost to their morale when they presented their hot kitchen lunch to 150 epicurean tasters. They accepted a standing ovation from the sympathetic crowds and other competing teams. The Team gained 2 silver medals.
The troubled days of apartheid influenced many aspects of normal life. The South African Chefs were themselves fortunate. As the team captain Heinz Brunner said: 'had they been South African rugby players they would not have been permitted onto the pitch'. Oops!... into the kitchen.
In addition to their silver medals, the team also received a unique award from the Swiss Chefs Association. This award recognized their efforts and declared them: 'The most Unlucky Team in the Salon'.
Snug as a Bug ... The American Culinary Classic was once one of the preeminent Salons on the international circuit. In 1991, in Chicago, the usual 1st flight National Teams were in contention: America, the home town favorite, along with Switzerland, Germany, Canada and Singapore. The competition in both hot kitchen and cold buffet was neck and neck. The final placements would be determined by mere fractions of a point.
Team America's cold buffet was outstanding. Could this effort give them an edge? But wait. What was that moving on the table? Goodness look at the bugs! Little black creatures were enjoying their moment in the spotlight and crawling most everywhere.
A closely cropped bush resplendent with its greenery served as a centerpiece. It was perhaps three feet high and unbeknown to the American team is was home to this multitude of insects. Did this unwelcome presence turn the judges off? We do not know for sure but the home town favorites did not make it to the podium. Team Germany took top honors followed by Canada and then Switzerland.
How Sweet it is ... In 1992, I was in Singapore for Food & Hotel Asia, this time as a spectator. The judging was in progress prior to the Hall opening to the public. I was viewing the entries when I heard a muffled explosion. All present gathered at the source of the noise, which was at the American table. A sugar showpiece had exploded. There were shards across the table. This was caused by display lights overheating. They were placed on the table to enhance the presentation. So was this the end of the road for Team America? Not at all. The judges had visited the table earlier in the morning and had already made their score. Lady Luck did smile on Team America.
Them's the Breaks ... Georges Knecht was manager of the Swiss National Team for the 1988 IKA. The team had made the decision to do all of the work for the Cold Buffet program at home in Bern. A refrigerated truck was loaded and thereafter the team boarded their bus for the seven-hour drive to Frankfurt. The chocolate Showpiece was firmly wrapped and placed beside Regina, the Pastry Chef. All of the team were tired and most were asleep. One weary member needed to move. He stumbled and fell against the showpiece. Squashed! Consternation! What to do?
Once in Frankfurt, Regina and colleagues set to work. As if playing with a crossword, they gathered the damaged parts and rebuilt the showpiece to its original splendor. Moreover, what was the final outcome ... Team Switzerland took 1st place and was declared Olympic Champions.
What was the name of the chef who stumbled and fell? This information will not be disclosed. His identity is secure – safely locked up in a Swiss Bank vault in Berne!
Ship Shape ... Our colleagues, members of the German Chefs Association, certainly have a home field advantage when they participate in the Culinary Olympics, as do their neighbors in Luxembourg when they host the World Cup. Other teams that compete must face many and varied logistical challenges. The Singapore National Team set off for Luxembourg in 1998. All of their nonperishables and props were dispatched ahead. This entailed a sea journey of six weeks.
On the night of the cold buffet set- up, they discovered that during the time at sea, the table linen for the buffet table had got damp and was stained. In addition, it gave off a very moldy odor.
What to do? Rudy Muller the team Manager had the answer. None of the team members had been to bed the night before so they borrowed the bed linen from the hotel. After this quick remedy, the table was resplendent. Team Singapore took 1st Place in the Cold Buffet and topped this by taking 1st place overall and were declared World Champions.
Down but not out ... In 1987 the World Culinary Arts Festival was held in Vancouver. The makeup of this Canada National Team differed greatly from the team that I managed the previous year in Singapore; Ernst Dorfler was the only continuing member. Fred Zimmerman of the Calgary Westin was Team Captain. Again a thunderbolt struck. Fred owned a ranch on the outskirts of Calgary. One of his trusted horses gave him a vicious kick. His leg was so badly injured that he spent weeks in hospital. There was fear that gangrene would set in.
We had no alternate team member. History was repeating itself. I had not learned the lesson from the death of our pastry chef that occurred prior to last year's Singapore Salon. Ernst took over as Captain. We called upon Ian Neilson, a chef instructor at NAIT, and hastily brought him up to speed with his program.
Day 1 saw Canada in the hot kitchen. It went well. The team members dispersed to rest prior to gathering again for dinner. Prior to retiring to his room our colleague, Saburo Shibanuma was taking in the accompanying trade show. He collapsed and was rushed to hospital. I found him in emergency. His chef's jacket was bloodied and his head bandaged. I spoke with a doctor: 'how could he collapse for no reason?', I asked. 'There is always a reason', replied the doctor: 'it is possible that he has had a minor stroke- we must do tests.'
I told Saburo goodbye and promised to see him after the Cold Buffet competition, which was on day 3. Saburo sat up and swung his legs out of bed and said 'Chef, I have a job to do. I must glaze my hors d'oeuvres. I will report to the kitchen in two hours'. I told him to stay put or I would tie him to the bed. Once again I found the doctor and explained to him that I feared Saburo would come to harm if he was not permitted to rejoin the team.
We had a quandary. We made a decision. Saburo would discharge himself and retire to his hotel room and remain there until 3.00 a.m. of the morning that we were to display. Ernst rescheduled the prep program and the hors d'oeuvres were glazed along with the buffet and restaurant platters. At 3.00 a.m., precisely, Saburo strode into the kitchen his head neatly taped and wearing a wide smile. He went to work and set up his hors d'oeuvre platter. It looked awesome.
When I recently read the story of the Japanese gymnast Shun Fujimoto at the Montreal Olympics I smiled and recalled our incident in Vancouver. Shun and Saburo are two very special people.
On the final evening, the Awards were presented. The Singapore National Team took 1st Place, followed by Canada in 2nd place and Team America in 3rd Place. Team Canada took 1st place with their Cold Buffet Display.
Wrapping Up ... In a few short weeks the 'White Hats' of the world will descend upon Erfurt primed and ready to join in the contest where the victors will stand tall on the podium. Will Norway retain its Olympic Laurels? Perhaps we will see Singapore on the top step, buoyed on by their victory at the World Cup. Past Champions Switzerland and Canada will be determined to regain past glories and America is still thirsting for its 1st big win at the IKA.
On October 9 there will be joyous celebrations for those who triumphed. This day will also see teams bowed under crushing disappointments. This is what waits at the end of 'The Long and Winding Road'. No one ever promised that it would be easy.