I feel like the Rocky Balboa of food sport.
At the World Pasta Championships in Kissimmee, Florida, I played the role of Canadian upstart chef against repeat Arizona champ, Suzanne Clark. While my back was up against a stovetop (literally) instead of the ropes, it reminded me of Rocky's first bout with Apollo Creed. Our dramatic kitchen head-to-head came down to 0.8 of a point, and my team (consisting of Jerry Barber, Paul Malito, Carlos Carballo and Andrew Meli) finished a close second.
But the experience pushed me to create my best dish ever, and two other mouth-watering entries that will become fixtures in 2016 on my menus at Terra in Thornhill, Sarpa in Richmond Hill, Francobollo in Toronto, and Rusty's in Collingwood.
I competed at three events as part of the World Food Championships -- held November 3 to 10 -- featuring over 1,100 chefs from 17 different countries: the pasta category (one of the nine core categories at the 2015 WFC), Food Fight Night and the World Chef Challenge. Our "ring" was the largest outdoor kitchen on the planet at 7,800-square feet, with 54 distinct kitchen areas.
I finished first in the Food Fight Night: BBQ event -- a qualifier for the 2016 WFC -- thanks to my Triple Seared USDA Prime Beef Tenderloin with lobster, corn, bacon, jalapeño and smoked cheddar stone ground grits, fennel chimichurri and red wine jus; and I placed second in the World Chef Challenge: International Division. Most categories were contested by over 20 teams of three to six people. Unlike a boxing ring, food sport is all about the team.
Every competition felt like a 12-round match, with our crew typically arriving onsite at 5:30 a.m. and not leaving until 4 p.m. Recipes typically had to be prepped, cooked and plated in about 60 minutes. Sure, we didn't leave a boxing ring bruised black-and-blue, but the dark circles under our eyes certainly fit the part.
The pasta category competition is where the peak drama unfolded as it's one of the nine core categories at the WFC and the stakes are the highest. Our only pre-set dish was agnolotti stuffed with lobster, mascarpone, ricotta, lemon, fresh sweet peas, wild mushrooms, three cheese sherry crema, and fennel pangrattato.
Most recipes had to be created on the fly, as we learned about each round's mandatory infused ingredient -- from ramen noodles to truffles -- about 24 hours before hitting the WFC kitchens. That forced us to get creative, delivering the chef's equivalent of a hard upper cut -- a 30-ingredient shoyu style ramen noodles that included lobster, white Gulf shrimp, mussels, crab, scallops, Asian roasted pork belly, toasted nori and sesame seeds. That mouth-watering taste-bud pleaser put us into the second-place position going into final cook-off.
The day-and-night before Sunday's pasta final was a near disaster, as we frantically created a recipe (they had to be submitted by midnight before an event) and tested our dish offsite. We also had to locally source most ingredients, so I now know Orlando like I know Toronto -- down to every back alley, grocery store and Asian supermarket. For our final table dish, we chose a challenging tortellini stuffed with mangalitsa pork, black truffle, sage, and ricotta, and topped with foie gras-green pistachio-truffle cremal; iberico ham crisp; grana-pistachio-truffle frico; and shaved, fresh black truffle.
Tensions ran high. On the test run, I hated the dish and I thought our goose was cooked. Making matters worse, the WFC scores 15 per cent for artistry, and we smashed our presentation plate -- which we spent almost three hours hunting for - at 4 a.m. the night before the final.
Our little secret (until now): The morning of, we borrowed someone else's beautiful plates left behind from a previous competition. That wasn't below the belt. No harm, no foul, I say.
With some slight tweaks to the recipe and better division of labour, we went from zeroes to heroes. Our team delivered a near knockout performance. A lacklustre dish in practice became probably the best dish I've ever served in my career. In the kitchen, the devil is in the details - whether the sauce or garnish. Our truffle, for example, was cut in half and slowly steeped in brandy, and our final sauce was like silk on your tongue. The dish scored 96.6 out of a possible 110 points, which garnered us second place overall -- a huge feat!
This was my first WFC, but returning chefs knew the winner and my main competitor well: Suzanne Clark is a Martha Stewart type that takes no prisoners in the kitchen. Much like the underdog Rocky endeared himself to fans, the culinary crowd was decidedly behind me. Close but no cigar.
Our team proudly floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee in every kitchen contest -- and next year we'll come even more prepared. I'll nail down more recipes, and source more local ingredients, in advance. (Oh, and we'll bring some spare serving plates.)
Much like Rocky did in his sequel, in 2016 I plan on leaving the WFC a World Champion. The winner in the elite category events (such as pasta) competes in a $100,000 Final Table competition.
While Rocky famously yelled "Adrian" upon victory, if I win maybe I'll yell the name of one of my restaurants. Does "Terra!" or "Sarpa!" have a better ring? But for now, the tortellini and ramen noodle dishes are bound for their menus, while my beef tenderloin entry will find its way on to Rusty's plates.
While the final bell has rung on my WFC experience, I look forward to now being able to share its kitchen victories with my faithful customers.