DeRushaEats: Cooking Competitions

Cooking competitions are everywhere: Top Chef is still a popular TV show (although a recent episode of Top Chef Seattle outraged many of my @DeRushaEats Twitter friends), and the Local Chef Challenge that Minnesota Monthly started five years ago has often been imitated.

Recently, Stewart Woodman, chef/owner of Heidi’s and Birdhouse, wrote a thought-provoking piece on “Competitions” on his Shefzilla blog.

A guy looking to raise money for a charity asked him to do a cooking competition. Stewart wrote:

“Do we ask sculptors to have a… sculpt off, do we ask painters to have a paint off, did any one say, Hey, Bob Marley, lets have a sing off against John Lennon. The thought of it is offensive, ‘Voltaire was a great writer, but man he could have worked quicker.’ WTF? What kind of chefs does that create in the long run? Folks that are not considerate and deliberate, folks that are not informed by a dialogue with their guests?”

I’ve judged the local chef challenge since its first incarnation, and that experience is what led to me writing about food here. Obviously I have my own biases about the issue. I respect and like Stewart a lot, but I think he’s wrong.

Chefs do all sorts of things that have nothing to do with quality food and quality work in the kitchen. They go on television and do cooking demonstrations to try to drum up business (Stewart did a story with me at WCCO awhile ago). They allow themselves to be auctioned off as private chefs in charity auctions. Taking part in a cooking competition, as one of his commenters suggested, is no different than Kevin Love taking part in a slam dunk contest.

Who are the chefs who won our Minnesota Monthly challenge? Jon Radle (the late chef of the Grand Cafe), Jack Riebel, Vincent Francoual, and Doug Flicker. Hard to argue with that group. The finalists over the years also included J.D. Fratzke twice. What does that prove? I’m not sure. It proves that really talented chefs are able to apply their skill in the construct of a silly competition.

I think cooking competitions expose a lot of chefs to new audiences. Winning doesn’t mean you’re the best chef—it means you’re the best at that particular competition, on that day. But everyone watching gets to meet all of these chefs, and see the skill and talent it takes to come up with a dish quickly, execute it with ingredients on hand, and plate it in a beautiful way.

That said, the idea that there’s a Top Chef generation of cooks out there is interesting. The show perpetuates the idea that if you excel at these timed, crazy, silly cooking competitions, there’s fame and fortune ahead of you in the restaurant world. Generally, that’s not the case. For most chefs, working hard, working over a long period of time, perfecting your craft, broadening your culinary world—that’s the recipe for success.

Is there a better way to devise a competition that would be fun for people to watch and demonstrate talent in the kitchen? I’m open to suggestions.