In recent years the kitchen has become a battleground rather than a sanctuary, a place where chefs meet to fight over whose food is better and cook for fame and acclaim. In the new kitchen, strategy is nearly as important as flavor profiles and searing techniques, and TV competitions like Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen pit chefs against each other in an attempt to name a culinary champion. In Japanese import Iron Chef the kitchen set used on the show is referred to as “Kitchen Stadium,” a clear declaration of the burners and fry zone as both a competitive forum and a place to watch the heated action of culinary war.
However, most of the furor and fire of the kitchen were missing from the International Restaurant Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center earlier this week. There were soup stock purveyors giving samples of their products, linen companies showcasing tablecloths and napkins and plenty of other back of the house tools and accessories, but there were very few chefs. Where were the white-coated Knights of Risotto, the culinary warriors who make all the dishtowels and cutlery work together to produce a steaming, saucy work of delectable art?
Right as I was about to blow off the Restaurant Show, I bumped into one: Rene J. Marquis, a judge for the 10th Annual Las Vegas Culinary Challenge complete with culinary certifications embroidered on a long white coat. The Culinary Challenge is a two-day multi-course cooking competition that pits culinary school students and up and coming chefs against each other to craft things like the best wedding cake, decorative cake, chicken dish or fish option. Marquis and his fellow judges came from all over the country to rate the plates and assign them point values all the way up to 40 points – a gold medal.
“(For gold) it’s got to be a dish that you can put in front of a guest and they have nothing to say,” explained Marquis. “It’s like a culinary dream.”
While the dishes are less complex and criticism less witty and pointed than at a Top Chef judges' table, the Culinary Challenge is an important way for students to try their hand at competitive cooking and producing high quality plates under intense scrutiny. For Marquis, every day involves high-pressure work in the kitchen. An enlisted aide in the army, Marquis lives in Tampa, Fla. where he cooks for a general.
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“My boss is like a competition. Everything I put out has to be on a competition level.”
Beyond judging the dishes presented in each category, Marquis said being a judge for the Culinary Challenge also means offering detailed critiques of the competitors’ plates.
“The judges said ‘How would I cut it?’ So, that’s where I got points off,” explained competitor Cristina Beltran of her bronze medal-winning cake modeled after a Zen garden.
Last year, Beltran’s cake depicting a Navajo village scene won a gold medal, but this year, she said, two new judges were a lot harder on the competitors.
Beltran’s intricate pastry, made almost entirely out of sculptural fondant, took her nearly eight weeks to make including research, sketching and actually creating the pieces that were assembled to form a flowering tree and small building along a stone path.
“I went to several Zen gardens to make sure I got everything right,” Beltran said.
Accuracy aside – and certainly beauty, too – the judges were correct. Any cut into the lovely cake would destroy the tranquil scene Beltran had created.
The bubbly Los Angeles Mission College student didn’t seem upset, though. She said the award would go into her portfolio and she would take home the judges’ critiques to use on next year’s entry. In fact, Beltran already has an ambitious subject picked out for the 11th Annual Las Vegas Culinary Challenge: She’s going to model her cake after Vincent van Gogh’s painting The Yellow House.