All the world’s a kitchen
For the Canadian team, winning the World Culinary Olympics wasn’t everything. Beating the French was
The crisp autumn dawn had not yet broken over Frankfurt’s skyscrapers, but backstage, in the Canadian practice kitchens at the 14th World Culinary Olympics, tension was so thick you could cut it with a paring knife. Panic bubbled like Sauce Bechamel gone berserk. Tempers flared with the gusto of a flambé. “Aaieey. If somebody doesn’t get going, I blow,” steamed Xavier Hetzman, executive chef of Vancouver's Bayshore Inn. who paced the linoleum in his temporary role as the Canadian team’s show-kitchen commandant. “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .” he began to mutter to himself. It was 7.35 a.m., with starting time for the second heat of the cold bufl’et event across the street at the city’s vast Messegelände Exhibition Arena only 55 minutes away, but all the heavenly supplications of 100 cooking battalions could not move the mammoth poached BC salmon head that lay inert and jelly-eyed on the mirrored tray'in front of him.
ChefUlrich Falter of the British Columbia Vocational School bent over it, grim-
faced and red-eyed. Falter had had such visions for this salmon. It was to be a masT terpiece among salmons, an unforgettable fish with its tail swirling up over its head in a dazzling inspired yogic spiral, a salmon to act as fitting sequel to his two-foot bread-dough Eskimo and his Quail Pâté en Croûte aflutter with puff-pastry mother quail and babies, each feather separately sculpted and baked on for the previous day’s competition. But alas this salmon’s backbone had not borne out his aspirations for it and had snapped only seconds before, leaving him with a naked decapitated fish spine in one hand and a fast-ticking clock. The other platters had all been despatched to the grand hall where the jury waited, but now, after three nights without sleep. Falter must perfect this one last tray if he were to score for a gold medal, and time was running out.
Finally he hoisted it in his white-coated arms and hand-carried it the quarter-mile across street and parking lot to the exhibition. Oblivious to the morning fog, concentrating, concentrating, all the time concentrating on spinal improvisations. The instant the tray hit the white draped buffet table he was off and running. A hush settled over the Lamb Crown and Glazed Pheasant Gelantine as he juggled fish bones and mousse slices, whipped zuchini tartlets crowned with red peppers and truffles into a deft pattern, then with one final flourish framed it all in a piping of sparkling aspic diamonds. He had just wiped his mirrored tray to a pristine gleam and hidden the window spray only seconds before the judges descended, score sheets at the ready and knife-sharp eyes on the lookout for the slightest misalignment of an asparagus tip—all set to look but, in this particular event, not taste. Suddenly one of the judges could no longer restrain himself. He pulled out a pocket instamatic camera and immortalized the salmon—a sure sign that there would be a medal waiting for Falter at the end of the week, although he would not know for certain until that final moment.
Falter was still flushed with the prospect of victory as he told a reporter in a postbuffet interview, “You have to have endurance. You have to think positive. I had never made an Eskimo in my life before, but you must say to yourself, T must be able to make an Eskimo.’ Like an athlete, you have to train and practise. You’re competing with the best in the world here, and the pressure is enormous. After all, you’ve been chosen to represent your country.”
Ah, take your Valery Borzovs and Bruce Jenners. Take your 1,500-metre finals, your shotputs and your high jumps. It may be inspiring to watch tiny Nadia Comaneci arch into a flawless parallel-bar handstand or Vasili Alexeyev execute a 562-pound clean-and-jerk, but for sheer spine-tingling, heartrending drama and a basic tug deep in the stomach, nothing can compare with the World Culinary Olympics. While debates still rage over whether Filbert Bayi is the fastest man in the world or Khristo Plachkov the strongest, for thrills, chills and breathtaking pragmatics nothing can match such time-worn questions as whose chaud-froid glaze is the shiniest, whose hollandaise the liveliest? Man, after all, cannot live by decathlon alone.
If the champions of the pantry have not enjoyed as much public celebration as their athletic counterparts, it has not been the fault of the World Culinary Olympiad. Founded the same year, 1896, in Athens and held each Olympic year since, for one week every four years, teams from around the world gather at the Messegelände in high white hats and aprons to cook their
way to national glory, the track and infield replaced by five glass-enclosed kitchens, the roar of the grandstand by the deafening clamor of knife and fork in the adjacent 800-seat taste-testing restaurant. Here, too, there are the same camaraderies and rivalries, the ritual exchange of national pins. The fears of patriot judges and the speculation as to whether the Romanians will defect, seduced by the guiles of Frankfurt’s night life and apple wine. Here, too, are the superstars and the unforgettable moments: the Mark Spitzes of the stove, such as American captain Ferdinand Metz of the amazing cooking Metz family, his brother Reinhold, captain of the German team and his father, an independent cold buffeteer. And the feats of which culinary history are made—the twirling Japanese vegetable waterfall and the American roast-beef piano.
Any mere spectator who pooh-poohs
this as tame stuif does not know the profession in which Louis II de Bourbon’s kitchen chief, Vatel, once skewered himself on his own sword three times when he learned that his order of fish for the king’s feast had not come through, or in which three centuries later the chef of Paris’ Relais de Porquerolles shot himself over the dishonor of losing his two Michelin stars. This is a supercharged arena, a struggle of egos and filleting knives, a clash of wills and foie gras recipes. A marathon for national honor and the perfect Parfait de Caviar.
Four years ago, on its second entry, Canada chopped and stirred its way to fourth place and eight gold medals. But this year the Canadian team was back with its biggest contingent ever, 26 men and 8,000 pounds of groceries, led by diminutive captain Tony Roldan of Toronto’s Harbor Castle Hotel, determined to place Canada in the top three. The Canadian team was confident of its Duckling Malabar and Paupiettes of Arctic Char, but not overconfident. After all, right at this very moment, down the hall in kitchen number one, the same kitchen they would inherit two days later, the French team had begun their hot cook-off.
At the 1972 Olympiad the French had placed a miserable sixth, behind Canada even—a national disgrace, an ignomy. But this year word was out that they were here to retrieve their reputation as defenders of the gastronomic faith and founders of la haute cuisine. There was no secret that for the previous two years the team had met more than 20 times to practise, once a week during the preceding three months, led by portly, respected Augustes Guyet, president of the prestigious Société des Cuisiniers de Paris and a member of the feared Academie Culinaire which has the power to veto a recipe for so much as the abuse of a peppercorn. Already, with the smells wafting from kitchen No. 1 as they dished up a succulent, truffle-stuffed Gourmand de Volaille and a creamy exquisite Ballotine de Bar Mousseline, the Canadian team was growing edgy. Hans Bueschkens, the glad-handing Canadian manager from Windsor raceway, grew uncharacteristically pensive. “There’s no question about it,” he said, steely-eyed, “the French mean business this year.”
In hot kitchen No. 1, steam was rising. Through the first rays of morning sunlight, the stainless steel was bathed in a brief wash of gleaming serenity, but nothing could have been more misleading. It was 8 a.m., two days later, with three more hours to go until the final flag, when the squadron of judges would fall upon the Canadian team’s fodder with knives, forks and rigorously honed palates, and the air was akin to a pressure cooker. Conrad Falk of Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel might have wowed the judges in the chocolate event that morning with his compressor-covered two-car locomotive; Jean Saliu of Que-
bee’s Castel d’Estrie might have knocked them dead in galantines with his prizewinning Salmon la Sagouine topped by tiny perfect Acadian women with mushroom heads and salmon-skin capes, and perennial medal-winner Fred Staheli of Toronto’s Prince Hotel might have broken new ground with his platter of smoked bear haunches and grizzly mousse, but it was all academic compared to the test of the hot kitchen. If Canada were to fly home with a medal, it was here, over the hot stove, that the winning points would be scored—here under the spoons of its fourstar national team that the country’s culinary fate would be sealed.
Captain Tony Roldan, the Spanish-born veteran of two cooking Olympics and one of Toronto’s most celebrated chefs, sped between sink and cutting board, still upset over his team’s late start and fears that their competitors had walked off with his sauté pans. At home, where he commands the million-dollar complex of the posh new Harbor Castle, he scarcely dons a white hat or stirs a sauce from week to week now, his days crammed with paper cookery and the administrative thorns of an executive chef. But here, where no souschefs were allowed, the chief himself had to face chopping his own garlic and washing his own pots.
Beside him, Marcel Kretz, revered master of Quebec’s Hotel la Sapinière kitchen and a first-time member, was a bundle of nerves. For weeks he had been on the phone to Roldan, stewing over German customs regulations which would not allow him to import his personal supply of crepines or calf diaphragms in which to wrap his inimitable boneless rack of lamb and crying, “It’s my reputation,” to which Roldan had shortly replied, “We have reputations too, you know.” Kretz had, however, come with fresh thyme, sage and sweet basil from his own garden, his secret brand of mallard and, like each of them, his kitbag stuffed with his private collec-
tion, although at this particular moment what he most needed he could not find anywhere in the cooking pit: a can opener.
At the burners, British Columbia’s Hubert Scheck, onetime lord of the Hotel Vancouver’s larder and now proprietor of his own inspired Inn of the Sea on Vancouver Island, a fish specialist who had garnered a gold medal for his whole boned halibut at the 1972 Olympiad, presided over the snow peas and, from time to time, dipped an index finger into the Sauce Velouté for a tentative lick. In the far corner, the final team member, Robert Vercleyen of Calgary’s Palliser Hotel, at 280 pounds a walking testament to the joys of his profession, sweated quietly, scarlet-faced, over the peeling of the onions.
Each member of the national team had been elected by regional runoffs, but there had been some dispute over Vercleyen’s selection and now he kept to himself, although later on prize day he would be the only one of them to walk off with a private gold medal, his pudgy herculean fists having formed a picture frame of delicate pink marzipan wild roses around an exquisitely detailed landscape of Fake Fouise painted on a cake top in vegetable coloring.
Down the hall, in competing galleys, the Dutch team was madly washing its lettuce, the Swiss grating their cheese with a fury, and the Yugoslavs racing to lay out their crocks. But as the minutes slipped by the Canadians still had a trick up their aprons. As the clock’s final lap approached, Hubert Scheck laid out fresh white linen on the counter, whipped out bowls of wild rice and fresh fiddleheads in an artful arrangement and set a mouth-watering mise en place. Chef Guy Fegay of the French team and Paris’ renowned Fe Doyen Restaurant sauntered by to spy and was clearly distressed. To compete just not with the egg whisk but with the tablecloth. Mon Dieu.
The Canadians were definitely a threat, he said. Then suddenly, it loomed up before them, the final wire. The judges had arrived.
Tony Roldan sprinted into action with a duckling breast, drizzling it with Sauce Rumona and mango slices, popping a Guava Barquette and a cream puff oozing fiddleheads mornay onto the plate, all in less than 10 seconds, and the esteemed Swiss judge bit in. He chewed again. His eyes brightened behind spectacles. He chewed again. He nodded approval. He chewed yet again and whirled round and shook Tony Roldan’s hand. The other judges all did the same. “Bravissimo,” saluted the
Italian jurist. “Hmmm, hmmm,” grunted the British. Bliss, elation and exhaustion spilled over the Canadian team’s collective faces. Clearly they had cleaned up on taste, service, display, sanitation, nutrition and speed. Now, all that remained was the approval of the fickle-palated German public. A horde of hungry Frankfurters chafed at their tablecloths just beyond the glass, waiting to render the final judgment. But within one hour and 10 minutes, ahead even of the redoubtable Swiss team, the Canadian kitchen was sold out of its 200 compulsory ducklings and lambs, for an added score. Robert Vercleyen mopped his brow and snapped open a victory beer
with Hubert Scheck, raising cans to their teammates. A bronze, maybe even a silver or gold medal, lay just within their oven mitts’ grasp. But then, as other Canadian chefs crowded around with news from the cold buffet arena, their faces fell like dayold soufflés. The French—the formidable French—had upstaged them. They had laid out a spectacle of massive sugarwork funeral bouquets under belljars and a four-foot, all spaghetti statue of the Eiffel Tower from which theFrenchTricolorwas unfurled. But the performance that had the culinary elite all atwitter, the pièce de resistance, so to speak, was an exact replica of France’s historical Château des Hospices de Beaune, scene of the annual burgundy wine auctions, complete with paved courtyard, multicolor tile roof and fountain, all made over 2,500 man hours by chef Jean-Pierre Legland of Paris’ fabled Gastro Mani Bazaar Fauchon, out of 2,500 noodles. Hans Bueschkens’ face had fallen when he saw it. “Boy, some cooks have dedication,” Fred Zimmerman of the Calgary Inn shook his head in wonderment, snapping a souvenir photo. “But who could eat a thing like that?”
On the morning of the fifth day of the 14th Culinary Olympics, Tony Roldan woke up with nightmares of garnishes. Marcel Tibeault of Nova Scotia’s Celtic Lodge broke down in a crisis over carved vegetables. Backstage, in the Canadian practice kitchen, chefs had not slept for days, most bent like Toronto’s Fred Staheli for eternities over millimetre-thin gothic letters sliced from trufflette slivers and painstakingly assembled in aspic. Propelled by the drive for excellence and wake-up pills, Staheli’s only rest of the entire competition was the few minutes he had snored off during a chefs’ meeting. Now, with nerves worn to a frazzle, an explosion had boiled over in the kitchen when he discovered that captain Tony Roldan had snatched his precious pâtés from the garbage a day after judging in order to salvage their rich pistachio-studded centres for the Canadian team’s final compulsory canapé race. This particular rivalry had gone back years to a previous pâté war, but in the world of the white hat it was not unusual. Tony Roldan’s best friend, a former saucier under him at Toronto’s Westbury Hotel, never again spoke after Roldan called him down in front of the entire kitchen staff for failing to strain his mornay. Now, voices had been raised, insults had been flung. Hours later, the entire team worked in deadly attenuated silence, 26 chefs, each of them undisputed stars of their own kitchens, forced here to submerge gourmand sized egos to hunch together for the national interest over miniature Canada goose panoramas sliced line by line out of trufflette, intricate roses blooming out of tomatoes, tiny precious market baskets carvedout of kiwi melon.
Across the street, within the walls of the
vast cold buffet arena, lay the spectre of their competition, tables sagging with feats of chocolate wizardry, stands spilling over with new records set in pastry and pastillage. An American sugar statue of the Spirit of’76, twirling on a rotary motor. A gigantic 10-tiered wedding cake encrusted with the portraits of every U.S. president, disgorging fruitcake from a tiny swinging door. There was a six-foot Dutch windmill made, shingle by shingle, from icing sugar. A Sicilian feast featuring lobster, roast chicken, mussels on the half shell and king crab—every morsel sculpted out of marzipan. And an icing-sugar piano adorned with a bust of Mozart and sheet music from
Piano Concerto Number One inscribed in lyrical chocolate. Everywhere, there were cakes turned into nudes, buttercream turned into black hammerhead sharks, turkeys turned into violins and lobsters turned into little white-hatted chef men. Nothing was as it seemed.
After a while, the mind boggled before the mountains of Pheasant Mousseline and forests of Roast Beef en Croûte, the rivers of chaud-froid sauce and truckloads of truffles. The eyes glazed over with aspic. As crowds poured into the Messegelände, the temperature soared and Conrad Falk’s chocolate train began to buckle on its last spike. Oeuf en Gelée started to wilt and
dribble. Standing in front of a three-foot replica of Berlin’s Siege Saule Monument in gilt-trimmed dark chocolate, the nose caught the unmistakable aroma of moldy salmon mousse drifting by. All the stomach yearned for was a simple green salad. And in the brain, the same nagging question took shape: what was all this for? Not an ounce of this food would be eaten, ton after ton of it consigned to the garbage by German law (including 2,000 pounds of Canadian groceries). “Truffles cost five dollars an ounce and here people throw them around like breadcrumbs,” said one chef. “We’ve used enough aspic to wallpaper a whole hotel. In a world where people are starving, should we be allowed to do this? It’s a question of morality.” But the chef wouldn’t allow his name to be used. This was a debate where emotions ran high.
“If all this food were given to charity, the really needy probably wouldn’t get it anyway, as usual,” said Ulrich Falter, waving off the quibble. “And we have the opportunity tó pit ourselves against the best in the world with a fantastic amount of special skills which are not too often used anymore. In the dailyjob we don’t get this kind of workout.”
“Even if you lose, you get to see what the top men everywhere are doing,” extolled Fred Staheli, who had more medals than any of them at home in his basement. “You get inspiration for your work. I saw something today with an apple that was brilliant, absolutely brilliant.”
And, of course, like the orange-juice endorsement waiting at the end of the 100metre backstroke race, there was also the prospect of payoffs—the prizewinning footnote to tack on a menu, the publicity, even the upgrading of the whole profession. Paul Bocuse, the legendary lion of Lyon, had not needed to join the French team for the cooking Olympics, for in France, ever since Escoffier was raised to the Légion d’Honneur, chefs have been lauded and decorated. “In Canada, we’re still fighting not to be classified domestic help,” said Tony Roldan. Still, surveying the mad orgiastic frenzy of food, Roldan too had his doubts. “This is cooking in the old style,” he said. “La grande cuisine stopped 100 years ago and has never evolved. Who wants a turkey that doesn’t look like a turkey? Who eats chaud-froid sauce anymore—all that white? Some of these plates look too perfect to touch. No hotel or restaurant could stay in business if a chef spent six hours over a tray of hors d’oeuvres for eight. One hundred years from now nobody will be cooking like this—it will all be simplicity and taste. But meanwhile . . .”
Roldan himself, a onetime saucier, scarcely touches sauces anymore—a rigorous adherent of the scourge that had sent la grande cuisine spinning dizzily into a decline: the diet. He ate only one meal a day. On the first night in Frankfurt, he joined five other Toronto chefs for dinner on the
town, and a reporter who had tagged along with them, hoping for gourmet guidance, had been somewhat surprised when the plates arrived heaped with sausage and sauerkraut. “If I spend a lot of money on a meal. I’m very critical. It’s no fun,” Roldan explained.
In Frankfurt’s Congress Hall, just across from the hot kitchens, expectations were bubbling. Here, only four days earlier, every national team had marched in wearing its whites and waving its country’s banner and flag to the roar of the crowd and the strains of a children’s band dressed in white high hats and aprons. It was a spectacle to remember. But now the chefs sat in their national team blazers on the same floor, waiting for the moment they had all slaved over hot stoves for. On the stage, before a blinding array of silver trays, gold medals and the coveted gold chefs’ oscars, Joseph König, president of the World Congress of Chefs, announced the winners from the bottom up. A hush fell. Then he uttered the words: third place went to the United States—and France. The Americans were crestfallen as they marched to the podium. French leader Augustes Guyet summoned a stiff upper lip. Then the next announcement rang out: in second place, Canada! The announcement that the Swiss had placed first was drowned out by wild Canadian screams and stetsons flung high. Marcel Kretz’s wife cried and flashbulbs popped. “To beat out the French.” Ulrich Falter rolled his eyes.
The sweet taste of victory lay on all their
lips as the green-ribboned medals were slipped over their necks and Canada counted up its toll of 30 gold. But like butter sculptures, which are subject to the vicissitudes of time and temperature, the triumph was short lived. Two hours later, at the gargantuan feast they had cooked in celebration, the conquering Canadian chefs crowded into a hotel ballroom only to find they couldn’t get seats. They sat down to their own hastily-laid tables outside the hall, like hired help. The exhaustion, the hours of pressure and personal sacrifice, flooded in on some of them. Jean Saliu broke down and sobbed. Tony Roldan boiled and threatened to go out for sauerkraut. “It’s the third time I come here and the third time I no get to eat,” he blew up. But hours later, chewing over a lobster tail, he was already talking about the next cooking Olympics. There was this idea he had for a saddle of venison . . . O’