Sweet Success: Battle Stories from the 2nd Annual StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition

Sweet Success: Battle Stories from the 2nd Annual StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition

The launch year by any new venture is a challenge: nearly 60 percent of restaurants fail within their first 12 months, according to Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly. Last year, the 1st Annual StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition, presented by PreGel, put the curse of first year tribulations to shame, presenting a three-day showcase for some of the nation’s top pastry talent. But while 2010 certainly set the bar for a competition packed with high stakes prizes and hard-core judging, this year’s competition really upped the ante.

“A lot of people were in the bleachers watching last year, waiting to see how things would play out,” said the king of competitions himself, Pastry Chef Johnny Iuzzini, who served as the official executive pastry chef of the competition. And while the first year chefs were duly impressive, Iuzzini was excited by the new faces. “This year there was a lot of great talent, and a lot of different styles.”

From this group of 20 wildly talented chefs, Ramon Perezwho boasted day one that he came to take the title—rose up as winner of the 2nd Annual StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition. But the challenge wasn’t easy for the chef; 20 of the crème de le crème of the new pastry world, a gathering of former StarChefs.com Rising Stars, and fiercely experienced competitors rounded out the group. Along with a few familiar chefs from last year, a crop of fresh faces brought a whole new level of competition, from the Nordic influenced Dana Cree to the winsome British-bred Rory MacDonald of Brooklyn's Dram.

And while the grand prizes stood just within their grasp, almost every competitor was thrilled to share the stage with their talented peers, reason enough for many to muscle through the process of competing.


  • The Ultimate Cutting Room

    Unlike most pastry competitions, the StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition highlights working restaurant pastry chefs, and while it might not demand the technical skills of sugar work or elaborate sculpture creation, it’s no walk in the park either. The three-day competition includes a variety of requirements and stipulations intended to put these pastry wizards to the test, and a selection of the world’s most celebrated chefs reign over the judges table.

    “Last year Albert Adriá tasted my food, and I thought that was incredible,” said competitor Chris Ford who came in a close second place in the 2010 competition. “And now this year, with Pierre Hermé as a judge, it’s the ultimate for a pastry chef.”

    Along with Hermé, a number of top-notch chefs and journalists manned the judging table, scrutinizing the presentation, execution, creativity, taste, and theme of each and every dish. The judges combined the expertise of classic techniques by way of Hermé and François Payard, with the modernist attitude of Iuzzini and Elizabeth Falkner. Round 1 brought pre-dessert rock star Ron Paprocki to the table—a place he earned with a win at last year’s competition, as well as Stéphane Tréand, a former World Pastry Champion who was originally slated to offer his expertise as a floor judge, but stepped up when another judge was delayed. Claudia Fleming, ICC Presenter Michael Laiskonis, and expert eater Jeffrey Steingarten also offered their expert palates.

    One hard-core line-up: The 2nd Annual International Pastry Competition judges Johnny Iuzzini, Pierre Hermé, Elizabeth Falkner, Keegan Gerhard, Jeffrey Steingarten, François Payard, Claudia Fleming, and David Burke flanked by StarChefs.com's Will Blunt and Antoinette Bruno

    “I was very much impressed with the level [of talent] StarChefs.com is able to collect. They are such a strong group of up-and-comers,” said Laiskonis after tasting 20 pre-desserts on the first day. “It’s very cool to see such a huge variety of approaches at this competition.”

    The Flurry Before the Storm

    A good chef knows how to roll with the punches, and a competition is nothing without a few last minute surprises. As the group of 20 competing chefs gathered the day before the competition, a large food delivery was delayed, stalling the prep time start. Drago Centro’s Ian Gresik used the opportunity to scout out a local grocer for crème fraîche, and the pastry chefs got straight to work just as soon as the eggs, milk, and cream arrived. Reaching into the Main Stage kitchen—equipped with the newest toys from Bakers Pride, DeMarle, and Electrolux—the chefs had a world of pantry and chocolate products from US. Foods, Perfect Purée, Cacao Barry, and Guittard at their finger tips.

    With only two hours to prepare their elements, this prep day was a flutter of nerves, whisks and—fulfilling the requirement to create a pre-dessert using Bravo’s Trittico 183 Ice Cream Machine—ice cream, sorbet, and gelato bases (made with everything from Perfect Purée’s Roasted Red Pepper purée to Sparkling Rosé).

    Jiho Kim of L'Espalier in Boston is surprised how quickly the Bravo Trittico 183 Ice Cream Machine spun his peach-passion sorbet

  • Round 1: Tiny Plates, Massive Flavors

    The next day—Round 1 of the competition—opened with an additional hour of prep time, an opportunity for the audience to get true insight into these wunderkinds’ ability to plan ahead. Many had used the prior day to the fullest extent: the ultra-prepared Cree spent the entire 60 minutes of Round 1 wiping her Steelite plates clean and practicing plating an organically styled dish of Lime Meringue with Jasmine Tea Cuajada and Lychee Sorbet. Although Cree had initial worries about her meringue’s texture—New York City rain introduced unexpected moisture into the air, and her dehydrator had been mistakenly unplugged during the night—the composed pastry chef was content with the product she presented at judging time, a tart and refreshing dish and a flavorful masterpiece of culinary artistry. With a few additional minutes added to her prep time (Cree was allowed to plate her dish last because of the dehydrator problem), the meringue’s texture added the perfect crunch to the creamy and floral lychee sorbet and cuajada, a jasmine-scented flan-like element.

    Others rushed around the Main Stage as eggs cracked and cakes baked in the last hour. Early on, The Oval Room’s Cecily Austin hit a road block—the equipment necessary for the liquid nitrogen couldn’t be located, a vital tool for her intended Autumn Berry Snow. Instead, the savvy chef quick-froze her base in an Electrolux blast chiller, producing a frozen element to pair alongside a rich tarte tatin-style Banana Corn Cake.

    And almost every competitor raved about the Bravo Ice Cream machine; Antonio Bachour was so taken with the speedy spinner, he intends to purchase one for his new post as executive pastry chef at the St. Regis Bal Harbor. But perfecting the texture of sorbets, gelatos, and ice creams proved a challenge for a number of the chefs. Max Santiago of Gansevoort Miami Beach ran into trouble as he scooped Apple-Wasabi Sorbet next to Tropical Fruit Sushi. And Chris Leung made the quick decision to press his brittle ice cream into a more natural rock-like formation for his dish of Buttermilk Mousse with Rye Streusel and Hay Ice Cream.

    The Makings of Flavor

    Troubles aside, many pulled off strong pre-desserts. “The pre-dessert is a great vehicle for a competition, because it is only two to three bites,” said Laiskonis, a return judge from last year’s competition who marveled at these chef’s abilities to carry across strong flavors and varying styles. The most successful of these pre-desserts were compact in size, both striking and balanced in flavor. Both Manabu Inoue and Christina Kaelberer made use of PreGel’s Magic Sugar to create a sparkling garnish for their plates to help create this balance. Inoue paired a faintly sweet Sugar Glass filled with Fresh Raspberries with a tart and creamy Champagne Lime Écume, while Kaelberer expressed reinterpreted sangria with a stunning sugar flute filled with Sparkling Rosé-Strawberry Sorbet.

    But at the end of the day, Round 1 was all about creating a pre-dessert both memorable in flavor and realistic for the modern day pastry chef. The judges tasted 20 desserts, but not everyone met this goal; some were too simplistic in approach and taste, while a few ambitious chefs created pre-desserts that bordered on fully plated desserts. As Emcee Keegan Gerhard explained, “The presentation needed to be an achievable pre-dessert on a working menu. Some of the chefs took it too far; some took it too literally and didn’t go far enough.”

    In the end, 11 presented a dish worthy of this standard (Austin’s troubles with the liquid nitrogen earned her an automatic pass into Round 2). Armed with the prize of a Waring Commercial Spice Grinder, the group of semi-finalists headed back to the prep kitchens to game plan for day two.

  • Round 1 Winners:

    » Pastry Chef Cicely Austin of The Oval Room – Washington, DC
    Banana Corn Cake with Autumn Berry Compote, Sweet Corn Ice Cream, and Autumn Berry Snow

    » Pastry Chef Antonio Bachour of The St. Regis Bal Harbour – Bal Harbour, FL 
    White Chocolate Crémeux with Lychee Granita, Grapefruit Gelée, Campari Meringue, and Greek Yogurt Sorbet

    » Pastry Chef Dana Cree of Kadeau – Bornholm, Denmark 
    Lime Meringue with Jasmine Tea Cuajada, Raspberry Powder, Raspberry Gel, and Lychee Sorbet

    » Pastry Chef Chris Ford of Four Seasons – Baltimore, MD
    Fromage Blanc “Mozzerella” with Pecan Meringue, Brown Sugar Syrup, Red Currant Gelée, and Squash Sherbet

    » Pastry Chef Manabu Inoue of Morimoto – New York, NY 
    Champagne Lime Écume with Roasted Red Pepper Cream, Fresh Raspberries in a Sugar Glass, and Raspberry-Red Pepper Sorbet

    » Pastry Chef Christina Kaelberer of Market by Jean Georges – Boston, MA 
    Sangria: Jellied Spicy Red Fruits with Candied Citrus and Sparkling Rosé-Strawberry Sorbet

    » Pastry Chef Jiho Kim of L'Espalier – Boston, MA 
    Blueberry-Vanilla Mascarpone “Rock” with Grand Marnier Fizzy Streusel, Coconut Sablé, and Peach-Passion Sorbet

    » Pastry Chef Katie Rosenhouse of The Burke Group – New York, NY 
    Sweet Potato Cake with Pecan Maple Caramel, Spiced Crumble, and Cranberry-Crème Fraîche Swirl Ice Cream

    » Pastry Chef John Park of Lukshon – Culver City, CA 
    Kaffir Lime Yogurt with Asian Pears, Mango Pearls, Rice Puffs, White Chocolate Feuilletine, and Rau Ram-Lime Sorbet

    » Pastry Chef Ramon Perez of Comme Ça – West Hollywood, CA 
    Coconut Crémeux with Green Apple Gelée, Coriander, and Cucumber Ice Cream

    » Pastry Chef Jennifer Yee of SHO Shaun Hergatt – New York, NY 
    TriStar Strawberry Consommé with Red Bell Pepper Meringue, Cilantro Oil, and Ricotta Sorbet

  • Round 2: Honing the Palate

    Round 2 was a day all about pistachio, filled with plates galore of green-tinted cake, earthy mousse, and nutty ice cream. Required ingredients keep chefs on their toes, and with the second day came the decree to use PreGel 5-Star Chef Pastry Select Pistachio Superior Paste. Luckily these chefs had a product they were happy to use. “PreGel’s pistachio paste has a super bright green color and a nice, velvety texture,” said Kaelberer (a feeling most of the competitors reiterated). But where some of the chefs soared with the opportunity, others fell flat into the realm of heavy, sugary preparations.

    With the start of Round 2 came another hour of prep time, and the cordiality and smiles of the first day were replaced with an air of tension and haste. Although she spent most of this time working to create a bright green sugar garnish, Katie Rosenhouse of The Burke Group literally placed this final element onto her Sticky Toffee Pudding with Yogurt Ice Cream with microseconds to spare. And where the 10 minutes of plating time seemed almost too long on day one for Cree, on day two it wasn’t long enough. She worked on her plate of Goat Cheese Mousse with Aerated Pistachio Ice Cream and Pine Powder down to the wire, needing to rearrange a final apple slice after head judge, and PreGel’s Corporate Pastry Chef Fredric Monti, called time. This left her without a moment for the finishing touch, a hit of the torch on the pine bark garnish—an element she had hoped would add an aroma and sense of place to the dish.

    Creativity was not a problem; pistachio paste was used in everything from John Park’s pistachio-packed spin on a pineapple upside down cake to chocolate wizard Inoue’s picture perfect Pistachio Parfait Glacé in Chocolate Purse. But most of the competitors focused the presentations on the heavy pistachio flavor, lacking the flavor balance that the three shining stars of the day presented. The finalists—Ford, Perez, and Bachour—each created a dish matching strong complementary flavors with their pistachio element.

    Add Intrigue into the Mix

    The judges were surprised and delighted with Perez’s Soft Madirofolo Chocolate Ganache; Fleming’s eyes went wide as two liquid center bonbons exploded with a deep, rich chocolate flavor. Paired with his nutty Black Sesame Praline and creamy Pistachio Ice Cream, the overall dish was a study in the ability of rich flavors to play on the tongue in a light and refreshing way. And Ford married his rich Pistachio Crème with a deep and woody Coconut Caramel and Praline Cocoa Sherbet, spinning a trio of nutty flavors into a bright and complex dessert.

    Of course, the judges weren’t focusing on flavor alone. Although pistachio paste was required, the competitors needed to focus on execution and technique. As Iuzzini explained, “The key thing to remember is just because you are a great chef doesn’t mean you can win a competition. It’s all about being prepared and bringing your skills into a new environment.”

    After a grueling three-hour break to tally up the extensive scores, Ford, Bachour, and Perez were announced as winners on the Main Stage. They also received a slew of prizes including a $3,000 Bravo equipment voucher, a $2,000 Carpigiani equipment voucher, a Hobart N50 5-quart mixer, a Waring Commercial Combination Food Processor with LiquiLock™ Seal System, and a Trannon Culinary “Culinarist” Tote.

    Green apple sorbet and lemon curd gives Antonio Bachour’s pistachio dish a bright, refreshing complexity
  • Round 2 Winners:

    » Pastry Chef Antonio Bachour of The St. Regis Bal Harbour – Bal Harbour, FL
    Pistachio Cream with Lemon Curd, Pistachio Sponge, Bread Croquant, Candied Pistachio, Yogurt Sauce, and Green Apple Sorbet

    » Pastry Chef Chris Ford of Rogue 24 – Washington, DC 
    Pistachio Crème with Coconut Caramel, Cocoa Meringue, Candied Pistachios, and Praline Cocoa Sherbet

    » Pastry Chef Ramon Perez of Comme Ça – West Hollywood, CA 
    Soft Madirofolo Chocolate Ganache, Black Sesame Praline, Pistachio Tuile, Chartreuse Gel, and Pistachio Ice Cream

  • Round 3: And Then There Were Three

    After two busy days of rushed preparations and down-to-the-wire plating, the third (and final) day of the competition seemed like child’s play at first. When the day began Bachour hardly seemed to known what to do with himself, having finished his Mango-Lime Jelly and Gianduja Mousse entremet (complete with glaze and garnish), during the prior night’s prep time.

    But the chefs certainly had their work cut out for them: after two days of whisks and quenelles, the paint brushes and scrapers were pulled out because this third day focused on chocolate. The three remaining competitors were challenged to create an à la minute dessert using Carpigiani’s Soft Serve Machine, as well as a Chocolate Trio: an 8-inch by 8-inch chocolate centerpiece, and 10 bonbons using Cacao Barry’s line of chocolates.

    “Day three is about your experience, what you know, and how you can bring that into the competition. It’s no longer about something you’ve been working on for a month,” Gerhard said, explaining that the chefs now needed to craft all of the elements on the spot, in the competition’s kitchens, whereas some of the items for Round 1 and 2 were prepared ahead of time at home.

    Having finished much of their work during the eight hours of prep time the day before, Perez, Ford, and Bachour all seemed to be working much slower than they had on previous days. But with chocolate work, precision and a clean environment is of utmost importance. At second glance, their movements were actually just more deliberate. Perez carefully worked with cocoa powder, cutting up the material with a paint scraper, then sifting it over a sheet pan of chocolate to create a delicate swirled garnish for his stunning entremet, a Sacher Sponge Bombe with Praline Mousse and Coffee Crémeux. Meanwhile Ford worked patiently on his gold-decked Brown Sugar Génoise with Pecan Hazelnut Crunch entremet, a presentation of rich dark chocolate glaze and shimmery gold-garnished hazelnuts.

    Drawing the (Chocolate) line

    The momentum intensified as the judges entered the Main Stage, exciting the audience and putting the pressure on the competitors. They watched the chefs line up their creations—sitting side by side, the varied style’s of three competitors couldn’t be more obvious. Bachour choose a more classic sculpted shape for his chocolate piece and traditional rectangular Tropical Fruits Bonbons, and he crafted an elegant entremet. Ford opted for a minimal organic design; his sculpted piece resembled giant rocks that displayed gold-dusted Lavender-Caramel Bonbons. Perez went with a more modern, sleek design in his caramel glazed bombe and futuristic chocolate sculpture, a sloped platform for his Olive Oil-Thai Basil Bonbons.

    It was clear this round of judging would be the most difficult when Hermé requested to taste the Cacao Barry chocolates used for each preparation in its original form (a first for the competition and any competition Gerhard has ever hosted).Tasting the original chocolate allowed the judges to determine how the flavors had been manipulated during preparation, and give a stronger evaluation.

    Each element of the desserts was put under tough scrutiny: Hermé and Payard cut the bonbons open to test for proper chocolate tempering, while Iuzzini scraped out the chocolate filling of one candy and tasted the shell and ganache individually. After carefully tasting each chocolate creation, the judges honed in on the craftsmanship of the work, taking time to view each sculpture and entremet as a pair.

    In a day all about chocolate technique, judges David Burke, Elizabeth Falkner, and Jeffrey Steingarten give the sculptures and bonbons the eagle eye

    In the end, Perez pulled ahead as winner, proving his bold Round 1 statement true. Along with some serious bragging rights, PreGel’s Jillian Hillard presented Perez with a $5,000 check, as well as an invitation to teach a 5-Star Pastry Series Seminar with media promotion, including airfare, stipend, and accommodations near the PreGel Professional Training Center in North Carolina. He also won $5,000 worth of Bravo equipment, $2,000 worth of Waring Commercial products, a 3-day VIP pass for free classes at the Cacao Barry Training Center, a Baxter Hybrid Convection Oven, and a seat at the judges table for next year’s competition. The win couldn’t have come at a better for Perez, who is in the midst of starting his own chocolate shop and will use the goods to help build his new kitchen. The winner, who hit the ground running back at work since his big win, is particularly excited about the arrival of the Baxter Hybrid Oven.

  • Join Us Next Year
    Already planning your pre-dessert for next year’s competition? Another 20 talented Pastry Chefs will battle over sugar in the 3rd Annual StarChefs.com International Pastry Competition. Join us September 29 through October 2, 2012 for one day of prep and three days of intense pastry making and baking on the ICC Main Stage. Look for more information coming in March 2012.

    Advice for 2012 Contestants:
    StarChefs.com asked 2011 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:

    Antonio Bachour: Have precision in the items you bring.

    Ramon Perez: Just cook the way you cook; don't worry about what everyone else is doing. Just do your own thing.

    Manabu Inoue: Believe in yourself!

    Cecily Austin: Have a plan B, and be prepared for anything.

    Jiho Kim:  If you think you are ready for competition, your competitors are more than ready. I was really surprised by the other competitors’ skill and ideas. Practice, practice, practice. This is the only key!

    Dana Cree: Anticipate the failure of every component, and understand how to recover from it. And practice each dish, all the way through, start to finish. Set the kitchen up as limited as possible so you have none of the comforts of your own kitchen. Make it hard, run through the recipe, then make it harder.

    By Katherine Sacks with Joanne Liu; Photos by Shannon Sturgis