The First Annual StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition: An Industry Game Changer

The First Annual StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition: An Industry Game Changer
  • First, there were 20. At last count, just one. Among his peers, 2010 Rising Star Pastry Chef Ron Paprocki of Gordon Ramsay at the London in New York, rose as the victor of the First Annual StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition presented by PreGel. The three-day event showcased some of the industry’s most intense and gifted talent, and its novel format challenged the nature—and caliber—of future pastry competitions worldwide.

    “There is no other competition out there like the StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition, which focuses on the day-to-day job of the pastry chef, especially those in a restaurant setting. This is great exposure for our craft,” said Frederic Monti, floor judge and PreGel corporate pastry chef.

    Traditional pastry competition tests like pulling sugar and crafting 20-foot sculptures were tossed aside for composing real-life, fine-dining dishes: pre-desserts, plated desserts, chocolate showpieces, bonbons, and entremets. Further, there were no teams—only a chef with his or her tools and ingredients, plus the pressure of being eliminated after each round.

    “The levels of competition were well-structured, allowing each pastry chef the opportunity to showcase the various skills he or she possessed,” said Monti. “With that said however, it definitely left a gap between those who were well-rounded and those who lacked experience in certain areas.”

    Judging the Talent

    Strengths and gaps were judged by an industry dream team. Leading the event was Pastry Competition Executive Pastry Chef Johnny Iuzzini of Jean Georges in New York. Iuzzini was joined by Chef Albert Adrià, formerly of Inopia in Barcelona, Spain; Chef Wylie Dufresne of New York’s wd~50; Chef Elizabeth Falkner of Orson in San Francisco; Chef Marcus Samuelsson of New York’s Red Rooster; Jeffrey Steingarten, writer for Vogue; and Pastry Chef Jacques Torres of Jacques Torres in Brooklyn.

    In addition to the tasting judges, floor judges, including Pastry Chef Alex Stupak of New York’s wd~50; Michael Laiskonis of New York’s Le Bernadin; Jordan Kahn of Red Medicine in Los Angeles; Mindy Segal of HotChocolate in Chicago; Frederic Monti, and Gina de Palmaof Babbo in New York, patrolled the competition with clipboards and timers in hand.

    Day One: Innovative Pre-Desserts

    Round one began on Sunday evening with a short time allotted for each chef to prep his or her dessert, but the full-on pastry battled started early Monday morning.

    Contestants had 60 minutes to make their desserts and 10 minutes to plate six portions— five for the judges and one for photography—on Steelite plates. In that hour period they also had a short 15 minutes to use the Carpigiani LB 100 ice cream machine, which churned out the likes of sweet tea ice milk, rosemary lemon sherbet, avocado ice cream, vanilla-rosemary ice cream with two types of Nielsen-Massey vanilla bean, chocolate mousse, Guinness mousse, and sake-lime sorbet.

    Contestants also had at their disposal the Tamaya Gourmet Chilean Carica fruit, a golden-fleshed, papaya relative from Chile that’s new to the U.S. market. Carica has honey-sweet nectar and the texture of a mango. Pastry Chef Jiho Kim of L’Espalier in Boston, used the fruit along with Perfect Purée passionfruit purée to make fettucine, and Pastry Chef Yulanda Santos of Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, California, topped her Halo Halo dessert with pickled carica.

    Day one of the competition yielded an impressive array of pre-desserts that stepped beyond the familiar formula of cream, crunch, and berry, according to Keegan Gerhard, pastry chef, host of the hit “Food Network Challenge,” and event MC. “I saw dishes with microgreens, caramels, candies, gel, and liquid nitrogen,” he said. “Quite frankly, in this sort of competition, it makes you feel if you’re not doing this in your desserts, then you’re old fashioned. You need to get with it.”

    For me—and even the judges—it was surprising to see every single competitor use molecular gastronomy techniques,” said Keegan. “I saw liquid nitrogen and iSi whippers, and even a fairly new microwave sponge technique.”

    The sponge technique belonged to Paprocki’s Celery Ice Cream, Macerated Cucumber, Gin Gelée, Glass Pepper Tuile, and Yogurt Sponge. iSi Cream Chargers produced foams in flavors like ginger, sesame, and caipirinha. Pastry Chef and finalist Ian Gresik of Drago Centro in LA garnished his pre-dessert with coconut pearls, made with the help of a Vita-Prep blender and a small chemistry set of ingredients, including calcium chloride, sodium alginate, and sodium citrate.

    “[StarChefs.com] has created a platform for pastry chefs to be creative,” said Gerhard, who went on to venture that this single day of the competition would be a major force in forever changing the concept of pre-desserts.

    Based on five criteria—presentation, execution, creativity, taste, and theme—10 contestants were selected to move on to day two of the competition. These semifinalists each received a Waring Commercial Immersion Blender Quick Stick WSB25 and stainless steel cheese knives, presented by Wisconsin Cheese.

  • Round One Winners

    Maximo Carmona-Rivera of Lacroix Restaurant – Philadelphia, PA
    Soup De’ville: Pineapple-Tarragon Soup, Coconut Cilantro Sorbet, Cucumber Pearls, Ginger Foam, Lemon Meringue, and Basil Ice

    Chris Ford formerly of Trummer’s on Main – Clifton, VA
    Rosemary Lemon Sherbet, Basil Pound Cake, Candied Pine Nuts, and Passion Fruit

    Ian Gresik of Drago Centro – Los Angeles, CA
    Strawberry Salad, Coconut Sorbet, Basil Ice Cream, and Coconut Pearls

    Kei Hasegawa of Sashi – Manhattan Beach, CA
    Goma-Tofu with Sake-Lime Sorbet, Sesame Foam, and Sesame Crunch

    Jim Hutchison of Foxwood Resorts – Norwich, CT
    Caramel Cream, Cacao Fruit Sorbet, Sesame Shortbread, Banana Citrus Pearls, and Passion Fruit Nectar

    Jiho Kim of L’Espalier – Boston, MA
    Tamaya Gourmet Chilean Carica Fruit Fettuccine, Matcha Sablé, Toasted Coconut Sorbet, Caiphirinha Fizzy Foam, and Lime Fluid Gel

    Ron Paprocki of Gordon Ramsay at The London – New York, NY
    Celery Ice Cream, Macerated Cucumber, Gin Gelée, Glass Pepper Tuile, and Yogurt Sponge

    Ramon Perez of David Myers Group – Los Angeles, CA
    Lychee Sorbet, Pineapple, Carica, and Eucalyptus Yogurt

    Toni Roberts of C-House – Chicago, IL
    Pistachio Orange Creamcicle Sandwich: Vanilla-Rosemary Ice Cream, and Orange Yogurt Sorbet

    Yulanda Santos of Dry Creek Kitchen – Healdsburg, CA
    Halo Halo: Avocado Ice Cream, Evaporated Milk Crystals, Mochi Dumplings, Passion Fruit or Raspberry Jelly, Lemongrass-Infused Tropical Fruits, and Pickled Tamaya Gourmet Chilean Carica Fruit

  • Day Two: Overcoming Setbacks in Plated Desserts

    Day two turned up unexpected trials for many of the chefs. They had limited access to running water and ingredients and equipment proved more challenging than expected—just imagine five chefs sharing one Baxter oven.

    For plated desserts, the competitors had to use Fig Arabeschi, a fig paste by PreGel, and one of three Wisconsin Cheeses: Crave Brothers Buttermilk Blue, Les Frères, or Cave Aged Cheddar. “I don't normally work with strong cheeses in my desserts,” said Pastry Chef Chris Ford formerly of Trummer’s on Main in Clifton, Virginia, “so to incorporate that and keep it in my style was a great challenge. I figured everyone would go with the blue cheese because of the wow factor, but the Les Frères was the only cheese that could be kept a soft flavor element for me.”

    Joining Ford in the Les Frères camp was Pastry Chef Ramon Perez of David Myers Group in Los Angeles, and his Crave Brothers Les Frères Farmstead Wisconsin Cheesecake, Fig Gelée, Muscovado Gelée, Beet-Fig Sponge, and Salted Walnuts; as well as Pastry Chef Jim Hutchison of Foxwoods Resorts in Norwich, Connecticut, and his Pistachio Custard, Wisconsin Les Frères Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Pineapple-Basil Compote, Cognac Shortbread, Pineapple Cotton Candy, and PreGel Fig Arabeschi Sauce.

    Team blue cheese included desserts such as Chocolate and Pistachio Terrine, Blue Cheese Sauce, Chocolate Sauce, Fig Espuma, and Violet Cotton Candy from Pastry Chef Gresik; and German Chocolate Cake, Ecuador Chocolate Crémeux, Vanilla Coating Gel, Buttermilk Blue Cheese Cake Mousse, Eucalyptus Yogurt Sorbet, Blueberry Violet Fluid Gel, Port Wine, and Fig Powder from Pastry Chef Jiho Kim of L’Espalier in Boston.

    Cheddar-centric desserts included Apple Pie Ice Cream, Brown Sugar Cave-Aged Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese Streusel, Vanilla Yogurt Pound Cake, Apple-Fig Cream, and Spiced Cotton Candy Paper by Pastry Chef Santos; and a circus-inspired Sage Funnel Cake with Clothbound Cheddar from Pastry Chef Toni Roberts of C-House in Chicago. Day-two desserts were presented on Sambonet and Rosenthal plates.

    Cheese wasn’t the only challenge of the day. The Koerner cotton candy machine also tested chefs, but the company used the pastry competition as an R&D testing ground for the machine. Based on generous feedback from chefs, Koerner recently released a new, improved model.

    Despite any setbacks, with Koerner machines and Koerner Alphabet of Flavors in hand, chefs spun cotton candy in flavors such as vanilla, violet, verbena, black pepper, and pineapple—a far cry from the cloying ballpark treat of most American childhoods.

    Beyond the Koerner improvements, Randell also used the competition to develop a new product for the pastry industry. “Based on our interactions with chefs at the pastry competition, we have decided to design the first ever pastry prep table,” said Michael Williams, Director of Culinary, Unified Brands. 

    The most nerve-racking machine of all was the ticking clock. “Presentation is huge in pastry. When you’re in your home field, you can create something beautiful. When the clock is running out, you can tell the great plater from the weak plater,” said Stupak.

    Even Paprocki was victim to the stopwatch. “I wish I would have paid closer attention to my plate-up time in the second round. I almost ran out of time because I miscalculated the timing on the Irinox blast freezer. I wish I would have plated the dish nicer,” he said.

    For all the challenges of the day, the competitors still impressed judges. “Americans are the forerunners of the plated dessert. We started them, and we’re the best at it. And you can see that at this competition,” said Gerhard.

    Chefs Chris Ford, Ian Gresik, and Ron Paprocki stood out among round-two contestants and earned a spot in the final round of the competition. Each of the finalists received a Hobart N50 5-quart mixer, and a $2,000 voucher toward the purchase of any piece of Carpigiani equipment.

  • Day Three: Chocolate Under Pressure

    With only three competitors left, the chocolate portion of the competition surpassed the intensity in a bar of 85% Belcolade chocolate.

    “I like how the competition intensified over the course of three days, narrowing the pool of chefs and increasing the pressure. As a spectator, we inevitably connect to one or more of the competitors, and that heightens the drama of it all,” said Laiskonis.

    The pressure was especially intense for Paprocki, who didn’t expect to make it past round two. “I had so much going on with rounds one and two of the pastry competition and attending the Rising Stars Gala in New Jersey that I didn’t prepare. I didn’t think I would make it beyond plated desserts, so I didn’t have any supplies ready for the third round,” said Paprocki.

    When I found out I made the cut, Ian [Gresik] and I had to hop on a train and go to my apartment to pick up cake rings and molds. From there, we went to my kitchen in midtown to grab more supplies. The third day was an exercise in shooting from the hip.”

    Pressure aside, day three was all about the chocolate. “I’m just happy to be here and eat some chocolate,” said Adrià.

    Ford, Gresik, and Paprocki had their pick of Belcolade chocolates: Noir Selection 55%, Peru 64%, Ecuador 71%, Lait Selection 33.5%, Vanuatu 44%, Blanc Intense, Costa Rica 38%, and Costa Rica 64%. With the Belcolade selections, the chefs built hand-tempered bonbons and centerpieces. The idea behind the challenge was to make something a chef would send out to a VIP table in a restaurant setting.

    Entremets—usually relegated in between courses—finally got its dues on day three. Ford’s Chocolate Genoise, Chocolate Mousse, Mirror Glaze, Chocolate Meringue was a sleekly glazed cake with rough meringue rocks guarding its exterior. Gresik combined the deadly duo of peanut butter and chocolate in his Chocolate and Peanut Butter Agnolotti: Milk Chocolate Cake, Candied Peanuts, and Fleur de Sel. But the day’s winning dish—Salted Chocolate Cream, Passion Fruit Gelée, Chocolate Mousse, Moist Macaroons, and Cocoa Nib Tuile—belonged to Paprocki, who topped his entremets with chocolate ribbons crafted with the aid of CoolStation by TempStations. Paprocki also used Paderno pots throughout the competition. “I loved using the Paderno pots, they provided even cooking, especially on the induction burner,” said Paprocki.

    The 2010 Rising Star pastry chef won a 5-night trip to Paris and a stage at Pierre Hermé in Paris, presented by Bravo; a 4-night trip to Costa Rica, including a visit to a Rainforest Alliance Certified Cocoa Plantation, presented by Belcolade; a 2011 invitation to teach a 5-Star Pastry Series Seminar with media promotion—including airfare, stipend, and accommodations—near PreGel Professional Training Center in North Carolina, presented by PreGel; and the opportunity to judge next year’s StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition.

    Paprocki also was awarded a surprise $5,000 cash prize presented by PreGel. “Next year there will be a lot more people involved,” Paprocki said. “No one knew about the cash prize this year.” Paprocki has his earnings stashed away for safe keeping.

  • Grand Prize Winner

    Ron Paprocki of Gordon Ramsay at The London – New York, NY
    Salted Chocolate Cream, Passion Fruit Gelée, Chocolate Mousse, Moist Macaroons, and Cocoa Nib Tuile

  • Join Us Next Year

    Will you be among the 20 chefs to compete in the Second Annual StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition? Join us October 2 through 5, 2011 for one day of prep and three days of intense pastry making and baking on the ICC Main Stage. This year’s competitors’ work will be judged by industry luminaries, including Pierre Hermé and Elizabeth Falkner, among others. Learn more and apply online today; the deadline for entry is February 28. 

    Advice for 2011 Contestants

    StarChefs.com asked 2010 contestants and judges what advice they would give a pastry chef interested in entering next year’s StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition? Here are a few of their answers.

    Ron Paprocki: The bar has been raised. This year was interesting because there was no measuring stick. People with a broader range of experience will enter for 2011, so it will be much more of a challenge.

    Chris Ford: Mentally prepare yourself for whatever. You know going in there are going to be some bumps, but just be yourself in the end.

    Ian Gresik: Bring your own ingredients, so you aren’t taking a subway to a far-off market to buy basic ingredients.

    Jiho Kim: Practice your menu, and check the taste with a friend.

    Michael Laiskonis: Having a strong set of flavor-forward desserts that also show a range of techniques is very important. And while the competitors should master and practice those dishes until they become second nature, they must also leave some room for spontaneity. Researching the equipment and the ingredients ahead of time can also help in creating the perfect, winning dish!

    Alex Stupak: Stick with what you're good at and what you love. Every dish should be a reflection of the chef. Let your personality shine through.

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