One-of-a-kind cooking competition combines culinary and sailing expertise

TORONTO - A case of the jitters can affect any young chef competing in an international contest, but seasickness isn't usually part of the mix. However, for a Montreal chef representing Canada in a unique culinary competition, that malady could very well come into play.

Danny Smiles, chef de cuisine at Le Bremner restaurant, hopes calm waters will prevail in Italy this weekend as he concocts a dish in the galley of a Salona 38 while it's tacking and gybing around a 20-kilometre race course, trying to earn enough points to ensure his team's victory.

The 14th annual S.Pellegrino Cooking Cup in Venice marks the first time a Canadian chef will compete in the unique regatta on the Venetian Lagoon.

"It's special, it's different, and the minute something's different I'm always in. I like new things and I've never gone sailing before," Smiles said from Montreal earlier this week before flying to Europe.

"There's a lot of challenges, you know what I mean. I picture guys, like, practising for this so much. At the end of the day I just run a restaurant in Old Montreal and we work and, you know what, I didn't prepare and I'm not going to prepare and I just want to make sure that I have my recipes down pat."

For the S.Pellegrino Cooking Cup, the score of each chef, who must be under age 30 and working in an established restaurant, is added to the finish time of the boat to determine the winner. The Young Chef of the Year award is determined by combining scores from the regatta and a signature dish competition.

Lucy Waverman will be representing Canada for the first time as a media judge.

"Today it's a bit more than being locked up in your kitchen and cooking. The communication skills we look at. We also look at the dishes," including originality, flavours, use of ingredients and presentation, she explained Wednesday prior to leaving for Venice.

"The other part is really how they present themselves and how they communicate, what they're doing. It's not an easy thing to do, I'll tell you, to stand up and talk about your food.

"These kids have to be able to present what they're doing because in today's world it's more than just being able to cook," added the author, whose most recent cookbook is "The Flavour Principle."

On Friday evening, Smiles and the nine other chefs from Australia, Belgium, South Korea, Germany, Israel, Italy, Russia, United Arab Emirates and the United States are to prepare a signature dish to serve to 130 guests and 10 chef judges.

Smiles, 29, who was runner-up in the third season of "Top Chef Canada," was keeping mum about his plans for Friday but allowed that seafood and fish are his specialty. "I'm going to go that route, especially with Venice being a huge hub for seafood and fish.

"I have an idea what I'm going to make on Saturday, but I don't know how it's going to unfold because it is on a boat. It is intense, but I'll make it, I guess."

On Saturday, the chefs plate four servings of one dish for the judges. As far as how long they'll have, it's at the whim of the wind. The chefs can start cooking once the boats commence the regatta and continue until they arrive close to the jury boat when they have to pass the dishes over to be judged.

"I'm supposed to be on the boat with him — although honestly I'm not sure about this at this point — to see how he puts his dish together, how he works within a galley kitchen, the suitability of the dish to feed the crew and those kinds of things," said Waverman.

The Toronto-based Globe and Mail columnist said she, too, worries about becoming ill during the race.

"I don't feel good about it. I have acupressure stuff with me and Gravol," Waverman said. "I have been known to get seasick." She has packed enough supplies to share with Smiles if needed.

Smiles, whose ability to speak English, French and Italian should stand him in good stead with the sailing crew, has worked since 2011 at Le Bremner, the sister restaurant of Garde Manger, both of which are owned by chef and TV personality Chuck Hughes.

"I always just focus on what I have to do. Obviously it is a huge competition and the competitors are awesome, but I mean it's the first time for all of us. Anything can happen," said Smiles.

"I'm just making sure my knives are sharp and I'm ready to go."

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