February 22, 2013 7:28 pm

Whipping ’em up

Stadium cookery contests can seem brutal – but they’re also about public enthusiasm for food
An illustration of a chef at an arena food competition©Richard Allen

A few weeks ago I was asked to join the press jury in the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie in Lyon. I was thrilled. I imagined a little agreeable rumination over a few bowls as I plied the spoon and flexed the critical faculties. I could not have been more wrong.

It’s difficult to describe adequately how it feels, when one is merely expecting dessert, to be faced with video crews, a phalanx of press and about 3,000 Frenchmen in a packed stadium, faces painted and baying for blood and chocolate. I’ve dreamed it, I think, but in the dream I’m usually naked and wake up in a screaming sweat. This was real. A biannual competition in which teams of pâtissiers from all over the world compete in front of a sports-style audience.

Each team has 10 hours to complete a plated dessert, a frozen dessert, a chocolate entremet or side dish (what I was judging) and three large sculptural pieces: one in chocolate, one in spun sugar and one in ice. Each of these is a stupendous 2m erection, fancifully designed to a theme. The objects created are, by most ordinary culinary standards, absurd. They might have had a place on an Edwardian wedding table if they had not featured engine parts, dancing clowns, naked women, bicycles, a Native American warrior and a shark. The chef shaping the spun sugar uses heat lamps and flame guns, blowing and stretching the material with all the aplomb of a Murano glassblower, while his teammate carves a half-ton block of ice with a chainsaw.

In the middle of this madness, four members of the international press attempt to judge 11 sublime and all-but-identical chocolate desserts.

What is it for, this surreal circus? Well it takes place alongside the Bocuse d’Or, a similarly hard-fought competition for chefs, during Sirha, a biannual trade show for the restaurant industry of vast scale. It attracts sponsorship from all over the food world – the pâtissiers wore “Valrohna” on their whites with all the pride that Lewis Hamilton wears “Santander” on his helmet – and they practise their performance, in their own time, week in, week out, for the two years between each contest.

People who know chefs will tell you that they fall into a couple of categories. There are the flamboyant types that TV loves – and the intense perfectionists. Visiting the British team the day before their performance was like meeting the Saturn V crew in the dressing room. A kind of insane Right Stuff intensity you only see in the most dedicated of athletes, total focus which wipes away any cheap gag you had up your sleeve about the lunacy of making your dessert into a gladiatorial competition. (In the end they placed ninth; the French came first … )

During a brief break in the proceedings I met Raymond Blanc, who supports the UK team avidly – one of them is his pastry chef at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons. As the crowd roared over his head, he tried to explain: “Ours is an extraordinary industry. It’s not just about food, it’s about design, teamwork, about training young people to be confident professionals …

“Years ago, if you wanted to be a chef in Britain you had to have a frontal lobotomy, you had to be a social outcast, you had to be an academic failure … not any more. There’s a tremendous number of opportunities for young people who want to do well, who want to find a great craft in which they can express themselves. We want to create an environment in which these people can be nurtured and cared for.”

There is something ludicrous about a World Cup of Desserts, but it’s also inspiring to watch thousands of people loudly appreciating the craft skills that are disappearing from our industry. Arena food competitions like this are springing up all over the world, from the established ramen battles of Japan through the deranged Iron Chef contests on US cable TV to dozens of specialist competitions throughout Europe. In the UK we may lack the public enthusiasm for food to attend live events like this and might prefer to watch our food Olympics on the television, but that’s no reason our young chefs shouldn’t proudly show off their undoubted talents where they can find an audience happy to cheer them on.

Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer; tim.hayward@ft.com; Twitter @TimHayward

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