How Chef Competitions are Bettering the Restaurant Industry
"We’ve been here before,” says Aaron Gregory Smith, executive director of the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG), which puts on about 10 competitions annually. Instead of calling the rise in competitions in the food and beverage industries a “boom,” Smith calls it “more of a roller coaster.”
The number of competitions hosted around the country goes up, then people get burned out on them. Then they come back into fashion. “From my personal experience being in hospitality for 20 years, I think this is probably my third or fourth upswing in the number of competitions,” Smith says. And, while he doesn’t think competitions are necessary for the success of the industry—“I think that the hospitality industry is competitive enough on its own,” Smith says—he does consider competitions helpful in supporting chefs and bartenders on an individual basis, acting as a tool for professional development.
The industry, it seems, shares Smith’s sentiment. Beyond the drive to win, participants are flocking to food and beverage competitions as a way to build their networks, skill sets, and profiles. Many view their experience inside the ring as so integral to their development as professionals that they are now shepherding younger chefs and mixologists into arena. Organizers and sponsors, too, are benefiting from the action in the opportunity it provides to buddy up with these driven professionals.
The rise of competitions is certainly shining a spotlight on the hospitality industry, and, in doing so, hopefully propelling the industry forward.
Since the vast majority of hospitality employers aren’t able to focus on professional development in the day-to-day, USBG’s competitions hope to fill the participants’ need by offering competitors thorough feedback from the judges. Each bartender receives a detailed breakdown of where they fell at different stages of the competition, as well as written feedback on their strengths and where to consider improvement.
“I hear from competitors year after year, since we started that process, that that is one of the most valuable experiences that they gain from participating in competitions. The hospitality industry managers don’t always have time to give thoughtful, comprehensive evaluations to their employees,” Smith says. “We see people returning to programs year after year to demonstrate their improvement and learn more about what they can do to get better.”
Chef Lance Nitahara, a lecturing instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, shares Smith’s sentiment. As a frequent competitor in American Culinary Federation (ACF) competitions over the last decade—as well as a mentor for students preparing for competitions through organizations like ProStart and SkillsUSA—Nitahara sees competitions as vital to a young chef’s education.
“I believe that everyone should compete at least once,” he says. “It wasn’t an experience that I necessarily wanted to have until I actually had it, but it really opened things up for me.”
His experience as a competitor has kept him organized and his technical skills sharp, Nitahara says. “When I work with students who compete, oftentimes there is only one gold and only one silver. [When] they aren’t successful, I see them really beat themselves up about it. I tell them that the competitions that I’ve learned the most from are the ones that I didn’t win.” Reflection in those instances, he argues, helps chefs grow and learn.
Chef Philip Tessier, who won the silver medal at the international Bocuse d’Or competition in 2015 and coached Team USA to gold in 2017, appreciates his competition experience for the chance it was to build a diverse network of professionals in his field, as well as push him to enhance his skills. “When you’re in a professional restaurant, you’re working at the stove, you’re constantly refining your skills and you’re working, ideally, amongst a great team, but it’s one team, one chef, that you’re working under. With the Bocuse d’Or, I saw the opportunity to work with multiple chefs across the country. Why would I not want to be in the center of this opportunity?” he says.
To inspire other young chefs to embark on such a unique opportunity as representing the USA on a national stage at Bocuse d’Or, Tessier has written a book, Chasing Bocuse: America’s Journey to the Culinary World Stage, about his experiences with the competition as a chef and coach. “Competing in this competition has been life-changing and eye-opening in so many ways,” Tessier says. “The more that young chefs begin to understand the opportunity that competitions have to enrich and focus their training and create opportunity and exposure to other chefs in different realms across the world, [the better it is for the industry.]”
On top of personal growth opportunities, participants also enjoy the notoriety that competitions can bring. “From my perspective now, having done the competitions and having my own businesses, it certainly has given me a boost of credibility throughout the industry, but it has also given me a boost economically because people want you to come and speak about these things,” says Gavin Kaysen, chef and owner of Minneapolis restaurants Spoon and Stable and Bellecour, who has competed in national and international contests, including Bocuse d’Or, where he has served as coach for Team USA and now serves as VP of the board of directors for ment’or, formerly The Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation.
“Absolutely, being involved in barbecue contests has helped our restaurants,” says Melissa Cookston of Memphis Barbecue Co. in Mississippi, Georgia, and North Carolina and STEAK in Mississippi. She has competed in hundreds of barbecue competitions for more than 20 years. “The acclaim you can generate by winning a ‘major’ is something you physically can’t buy. It’s not something you can plan on, but if you can make it happen it’s an awesome thing,” Cookston says. She would know; she’s been the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest’s grand champion two times and the whole-hog champion five times. What drives her to compete? Beyond the thrill of the fight, Cookston notes that it is the memories made while cooking a hog for 24 hours that keep her coming back for more. “We sit around, we talk. It’s about the experience, and so much more than the food and the win,” she says.
Getting to the winner’s circle, however, does not come without sacrifice. “Nothing good is ever easy. You have to be humble, willing to learn from your mistakes, and always keep a focus on improving,” Cookston says.
Nitahara—whose mentor told him, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect,”—dedicates somewhere between 90 and 140 hours of practice before an ACF competition, mimicking every step of the competition from kitchen organization to cleanup. “I don’t really want to go into it unless I have a chance at winning the gold,” he says of his prep motivation.
Bocuse d’Or participants dedicate an entire year to preparing for the event, with coaches dedicating almost two. “There’s a lot of sacrifice and time that it takes to do it right,” says Tessier, who has served in both roles.
Motivations aside, participants overwhelmingly say competitions are good for the industry. “I think competition is always good, whether you’re in a cooking arena or [your competition] is across the street,” Kaysen says.
Competitions, though, are not just for the betterment of the competitors. To fund such massive events, organizers need sponsors. And sponsors, in return, get a sweet deal: access to hospitality professionals in an authentic way during meaningful moments in their careers. The stakes are high, and if a certain can of tomatoes helps a chef succeed in a national food competition, then that chef might be more likely to lean on that product in the future.
“Competitions allow us to create an experience with a chef that’s unique,” says Becca Yeagy, who is the territory sales manager for Red Gold and works with the tomato product company’s corporate sponsorships. 2018 will be the company’s third year as a sponsor at the World Food Championships (wfc) in Alabama. Previously, Red Gold has sponsored WFC categories, like the World Sandwich Championship, which requires competitors use one of the brand’s products in the judged dish. Red Gold also has placement in each competitor’s pantry, as well as a booth at the Tasting Village to connect with customers coming to watch the showdowns.
“[Chefs are at the WFC] and they’re experiencing our products while attempting to win $10,000–$100,000. If they perform well and rely on our product to do so, they’re more likely to take that product home with them to their businesses,” Yeagy says. The format works so well, in fact, that Yeagy and her team have entered a multi-year agreement with the WFC and are looking to get involved with more competitions on the regional level.
Similarly, Lucid Absinthe Supérieure sponsors the Lucid Cocktail Classique competition with the USBG to connect with leaders in the bartending world. “The goal of the Cocktail Classique is to educate bartenders about the use of authentic absinthes in contemporary mixology,” says Keri Meuret, marketing brand manager at Hood River Distillers. Once a core ingredient, absinthe lost traction in the U.S. after being banned for 95 years; the ban was only recently repealed in 2007.
“The Cocktail Classique is a way to excite working bartenders about authentic absinthes and to encourage them to experiment and find innovative ways to accent the botanicals at the heart of this wildly versatile spirit,” Meuret says. “Over the years, the competition has enabled us to build a cadre of bartenders in key markets with whom we have established a personal relationship.” In those relationships, Lucid acts to break down the taboo surrounding its product and, hopefully, gain loyal customers along the way.
Competitions offer participants personal feedback to enhance their skills, as well as opportunity to expand their networks and bask in the fame of glory—if they are so lucky. Sponsors get to buddy up with their target audiences, teaching them about their products and forming meaningful memories with them. And organizers, too—like the USBG, ACF, ment’or, and WFC—fulfill their missions to support their networks of professionals in a way that propels the food and beverage industries forward.
“The mission of [USBG] is to unite the hospitality community and to advance professional bartending,” Smith says. Competitions, which have been a part of the USBG since inception, help the organization achieve this goal by bringing bartenders from all over the country with specific interests together to share in this educational experience. “Communities grow and form around that,” he says. And the nature of the competition helps to achieve the “advancement of professional bartending” aspect of USBG’s mission, in the opportunity to test one’s skills against other leaders in the field and then gather feedback to learn and grow as a professional.
“Competitions are how we get a lot of our members; it’s one of our primary outreach programs that we organize nationally,” Smith says. “A lot of successful people in the industry have filled their networks through those opportunities.”
Similarly, the mission of the ment’or foundation supporting Bocuse d’Or Team USA is to inspire and promote young American chefs utilizing programs that identify and showcase their culinary talent. Young Yun, executive director of ment’or, says competitions within the organization like the Young Chef and Commis programs and the international competition—Bocuse d’Or—help the organization achieve its mission by highlighting the art of cooking and providing young chefs with the tools to succeed in today’s professional landscape. “Naturally, everyone wants to win in a competition, but what I have observed is how competitions also bring everyone together to celebrate and honor tradition [and] the craft of cooking. [They] have become a global community and support system,” Yun says.