She had trained for this moment for the last six months, but time seemed to be slipping away from Puja Mishra as she hurried around the kitchen, trying to finish plating the chicken fricassee. Mishra was among the chefs chosen from 45 countries to compete in the International Young Chef Olympiad – for her, this contest was a matter of life and bread.

“I overshot the time limit by just one minute,” said Mishra, after the first of four competitions was over. Mishra had had 90 minutes to create four portions of the classic French comfort food, which figured somewhere between a sauté and a stew for the unacquainted. But like most simple recipes, the chicken fricasee required a certain finesse. The sauce had to be creamy, yet light, and the chicken browned to perfection.

A third year student at the International Institute of Hospitality Management and an organiser of the Olympiad, Mishra resolved that she would keep an eye on the clock and manage her time better in the remaining events. Also on the agenda was to create two omelettes flawless enough to feature on the menu of a five-star restaurant. Along with being judged on their ability to follow a recipe, the young chefs would also be tested on their basic technical skills.

Indian contestant Pooja Mishra.
Indian contestant Pooja Mishra.

Spread across IIHM campuses all over India, the Olympiad in late January was nothing like the cooking competitions on television – for one, there was almost no element of surprise, no big revelations. Each competitor knew which dish they would have to prepare, which ingredients they would require and how many portions of each dish would be presented to the judges. “Knowing the ingredients does bring some focus and we’ve been practising a lot, but it’s not easy really,” Mishra said. “These are difficult recipes that require technical know-how.”

With a panel comprising 13 judges, the Olympiad was for students who were training to work in professional kitchens. “We are looking for innovation and technique, but above all we are looking to see if they have basic practical culinary skills,” said David Foskett, a member of the Academy of Culinary Arts and chairman of the jury. The line-up of judges included Indian celebrity chefs like Sanjeev Kapoor, Ranveer Brar and Karen Anand.

“The focus is not on a particular cuisine or culture,” Foskett added. “The recipes have been carefully chosen to allow each contestant to display their culinary skills.” However, despite Foskett’s assurance, the chosen dishes – fricasse, pavlovas and risotto – had a distinctly Western flavour.

Panel of judges (Image courtesy: Facebook.com/ycolympiad
Panel of judges (Image courtesy: Facebook.com/ycolympiad

For the finalé, each contestant was asked to prepare various tapas dishes and a main dish. “Each lost minute meant a negative mark,” said Mishra. She created a a risotto cake, made with arborio rice, cheese and five-spice powder, fried until it was crisp on the outside, while retaining a creaminess within. Apart from this, she prepared a puy lentil dish, cooked al dente and served with a pea purée and perfectly flaky phyllo pastry cigar rolls, stuffed with spinach and feta cheese.

The dessert round, in which the chefs were asked to make a pavolva with lemon curd, was challenging for the chef from Kolkata. The pavlova is a delicate dessert which requires egg whites to be whisked along with sugar into snowy peaks, vanilla and some cornflour, but the real challenge lies in baking it perfectly – it must be crunchy, yet chewy at the centre. Finally, Mishra made it right and won the award for the best vegetarian dish.

Since the very first day, Tham Jiajun Mathew from Singapore had been the chef to watch for. “He was extremely competent, organised and calm and right from round one,” Mishra had said. When Mathew finally won the Olympiad, it came as no surprise to the contestants. Andrew Ou Kai Peng of Malaysia was the first runner-up and Selah Joy Schmoll from Canada came next.

In the 2016 edition of the Olympiad, Schmoll had been victorious. An excited Schmoll admitted to being a little nervous going into the competition. “We have been practising constantly,” said Schmoll. “We all have mentors who were helping us prepare for the competition. As cooks we want to think out of the box and do something new and different, but here we are also assessed on our ability to follow orders, a recipe, working seamlessly in a kitchen. Knowing the ingredients is only a small part of this.”

Despite the fact that she did not win, Mishra said the competition changed her for the better. “I have always been shy, but I feel after this I have gained the confidence to travel to any part of the world and interact with people,” said the budding professional chef.

Tham Jiajun Mathew of Singapore along with Andrew Ou Kai Peng of Malaysia and Selah Joy Schmoll of Canada.
Tham Jiajun Mathew of Singapore along with Andrew Ou Kai Peng of Malaysia and Selah Joy Schmoll of Canada.