Behind the scenes at the 2017 Valrhona C3 North American Final

By Niko Triantafillou


Niko Triantafillou

“Winning is a good thing. We always want to be at the top and get noticed. Getting noticed can bring you more chances and opportunities in life.” That’s how Ghaya Oliveira, beloved executive pastry chef of Daniel and part of the tasting jury, characterized the stakes for the competitors in the 2017 Valrhona C3 North American final—once again, taking place at the StarChefs International Chefs Congress. The winner received €4,000 and the honor of representing North America in the 2018 Valrhona International final. The runner up and press jury prize winners each receive €1,000. Read about the 2016 International final here.

An experienced and diverse group of six contestants from the United States and Canada were required to create plated desserts based on the theme chocolates: Oriado 60 percent, a blend from Peru and the Dominican Republic, and specifically for a petit four, Waina 35 percent. Both chocolates are part of Valrhona’s organic and Fairtrade Certified range.

This year, unlike in previous years, the chefs had to produce everything in one grueling, five-hour long session on the main stage. Of course, pastry chefs are no strangers to long days. But they’re less used to video cameras filming their every move, floor judges constantly hovering over them, and oh, is that Pierre Hermé who just walked in?

Giane Cavaliere (Volt Restaurant), winner of the press jury award, did feel the pressure, but, “I wasn’t paying attention to the judges and really blocked them and everything else out. If I thought about it, I would probably get nervous!”

Even before the petit fours were finished, there were signs the level of artistry was going to be high. One chef appeared to be fabricating silicone chocolate molds. Another was mixing what looked liked dozens of colors in preparation for airbrushing. Clearly, none of the chefs were holding anything back.

As the petit fours arrived at the judges’ tables, two themes emerged. First, the contestants were taking a broad view of the definition of a petit four. Press jury member Lisa Shames (so good.. magazine) was both impressed and surprised, “[The petit fours] were really fun! We’re really blurring the boundary of what a petit four is!”

Second was the challenge of balancing sweetness. Pierre Hermé, tasting judge and perhaps the most influential living pastry chef, said competitors “took a lot of risks [working with] petit fours, [especially since] they started with white chocolate”, referring to the 35 percent Waina chocolate. Each competitor pursued different paths to strike balance in their dishes.

Curtis Cameron’s (Acacia House) “Milk and honey” used lightly sweetened or neutral flavors like milk meringue and brown butter to mute the sweetness. His honey-bee themed presentation featured a tiny white chocolate cylinder embossed with a honeycomb pattern. A colorful yellow and orange bonbon with a bee stencil adorned the top.

Christian Lai Chun’s (Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts) creation evoked Fredrik’s Borgskog’s winning petit four from 2016, with its two vertical hemisphere shaped bonbons atop an almond Sablé base. Chun cleverly used tart rhubarb compote and rhubarb ganache to balance the sweet white chocolate.

Thao Nguyen (Grey Eagle Resort & Casino) used tart passion fruit in both crémeux and glaze forms to help offset the sugar in her fruit-themed petit four. The brightly hued creation resembled a glossy, yellow passionfruit.

Cavaliere’s petit four may have been the most ambitious. For her oyster-themed dish, she created silicone chocolate molds on real oyster shells during the competition. “[With an] oyster based theme, there was always going to be some salt, but I bumped it up even more. There was a lot of salt on the foam, citrus from lime and yuzu—a lot of yuzu, actually. That little pearl [on the oyster] was filled with unsweetened coconut milk.”

The most successful petit four came from Mina Pizarro (L’Apparte). It was the only plate of the entire competition when there was consensus among the judges. “[Mina’s] was everyone’s favorite,” said tasting judge Belinda Leong (b. patisserie) “Her [petit four] was the lightest and also had a good balance of flavors. Her technique—the aeration of the chocolate—resulted in a very light and airy finish.”

Leong also called out competition runner up Yam Lok Hin’s (Rosewood Sandhill Hotel) stunning bonbons, “The shell was beautiful! It was really thin and texturally very nice.” Notably, Pizarro used ginger, cloves, and cinnamon to balance the sweetness in her dish while Hin used lime, yuzu, and mango inside his chocolates.

The consensus over the petit fours went out the window with the plated desserts. The biggest point of contention? The use of salt. Hermé raised the issue twice during the course of the day. “There were some very good desserts that had too much salt and vinegar… Balancing salt and sugar takes real mastery.” However, not everyone on the jury agreed with the pastry icon on this point. Overall winner Mina Pizarro’s dessert, featuring Oriado 60 percent ganache with a balsamic reduction, included a heavy dose of salt.

One tasting judge seemed to agree with Hermé, saying that a high-scoring dish was far too salty for their tastes. But another judge speaking about the very same dessert said, “ It had a nice balance of sweet and salty.”

For Pizarro, the saltiness in her plated dessert was a calculated risk “[Initially] I thought, ‘Wow this is salty!’ I tasted it for over a month and [considered reducing] the salt, but then went with my gut. I also tried to mellow it out with the lavender ice cream. On its own, without all the other components, it would be very salty!”

The rest of Pizarro’s dessert was relatively simple, pairing Oriado 60 percent ganache with plenty of balsamic glaze and lavender ice cream. A thin matrix of chocolate resembling a net—something of a signature component of Pizarro’s—surrounded the dish, giving it an organic feel.

Following his successful bonbons, Hin created a jaw-dropping, modernist take on Black Forest cake by piping a hypnotizing pattern onto his main chocolate component, then filling it with cherry coulis. He also managed to use the required Oriando 60 percent in four different components, including a pleasant Maraschino mousse. Hin certainly won the most Instagram-able” dessert award.

Cameron’s chocolate terrine featured crunchy, toasted shortbread biscuits and two licorice components—crémeux and ice cream—along with a tube of white chocolate wrapped in gold leaf. The application of gold leaf to the cylindrical dessert component was called out by competition emcee Gerhard Keegan (D Bar) as a technically impressive feat.

Nguyen’s mooncake dessert had myriad textures and flavors including freeze dried mandarin crémeux, rice puffs, coco meringue, and Oriado 60 percent mousse. Unfortunately, when her plates were in front of the judges, she explained that the dish was missing some of the intended components.

Chun’s “Le Fruit de mon enfance” (The fruit of my childhood) resembled a sliced open passionfruit placed delicately on two separate rings of chocolate. Both passionfruit ganache and gelée were used with three forms of Oriado 60 percent. It was a stunning presentation, owing to the chocolate replica of a real fruit.

Cavaliere’s “Back to Black” was inspired by the paintings of Caravaggio and the color palette he used in his chiaroscuro style. The plate mixed organic shapes that resembled twigs and leaves alongside more modernist components like a shiny, glazed chocolate sphere.

Local favorite Pizarro, not only took home the €4,000 grand prize, but also earned a chance to represent North America in the Valrhona 2018 C3 finale. Hin and Cavaliere both received €1,000 each for their placings.

Advice for future competitors
Pizarro: “With the recipes I submitted to Valrhona, I really wanted to represent myself and the style that I do, versus changing to a more traditional style you might see [at] Valrhona. But at the same time I wanted to represent the chocolate in the best way that I could."

Tasting judge William Werner (Craftsman & Wolves): “Be strategic with your components! The diner should easily be able to taste all the components. They shouldn’t have to hunt around for them”

Why you should participate in a pastry competition
Hermé: “Exposure, an exchange of information, and [the opportunity] to collaborate with other experienced pastry chefs.”

Gerhard: “It’s not like the old days—where there were maybe five places in New York City where you could work to be known as a premier pastry chef. Now there are dozens of great places in many cities across the U.S. and Canada. What else have you done beyond what other [great] pastry chefs do? If you can be a rock star at your home restaurant, lead a team, and still make the time to train and then win the Valrhona C3, that’s a seriously organized, talented, and unusual human being!”

The 2017 North American finalists were: Curtis Cameron (Acacia House), Giane Cavaliere (Volt Restaurant), Lok Jim Yam (Rosewood Sandhill Hotel, Madera), Christian Lai Chun (Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts), Thao Nguyen (Grey Eagle Casino & Resort), Mina Pizarro (L'Appart)

The tasting Jury: Pierre Hermé (Pierre Hermé | Paris), Belinda Leong ( b.patisserie | San Francisco), Ghaya Oliveira (Daniel | New York), Johnny Iuzzini (Sugar Fueled, Inc. | New York), William Werner (Craftsman & Wolves | San Francisco), Kelly Fields (Willa Jean | New Orleans)

The Press Jury included: Tom Hemerka (Pastry Elite), Lisa Shames (so good.. magazine), Nick Muncy (Tooth-Ache magazine).

The emcee was Gerhard Keegan (D Bar | Denver)

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