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Culinary Olympics warm-up was a feast -- for the eyes


TO AN EATER it looked like a glorious feast. Plates of roasted vegetables were gorgeous. Slices of salmon were arranged in provocative angles. And there were rows of desserts, ready to slide down your gullet.

But this was not a banquet to be ravaged by fork-carrying hordes. This was a feast for the eye. It was a warm-up for the team of chefs from Maryland who are competing in the 1996 Culinary Olympics Sept. 8-12 in Berlin, Germany. The practice session was held at Hillendale Country Club in a room overlooking the rolling countryside of Baltimore County. There was some food available for eating, but the stars of the evening were plates of food designed to be viewed, not chewed.

Those of us with supper on our minds saw temptation when we looked at these plates, but master chefs Hartmut Handke of Columbus, Ohio, and Gunther Heiland of Philadelphia saw imperfections. These two chefs had come to Baltimore at the invitation of Rudy Speckamp, owner of Rudys' 2900 restaurant in Finksburg and captain of the Maryland team. Like Speckamp, Handke and Heiland had competed in prior Olympics.

To prepare the Maryland team members for their trip to Berlin, these veterans critiqued their food. Dishes that ordinary eaters would look at and say "Wow!" were viewed by the judicial trio as needing work.

The slices of eggplant in an eggplant terrine made by John Rocca, executive chef of the Chestnut Ridge Country Club, for

instance, were not all the same thickness. At the Olympics, only perfect vegetables win.

The provocative slices of salmon terrine made by Tony Talucci, chef at Hillendale Country Club, had a problem with their sweet-potato trim. The trim was too wide and took away from the elegance of the dish, the veteran chefs said. And that inviting pumpkin-cream creation, whipped up by Marshall Rosenthal of the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, had a bubble in its coating. At the Culinary Olympics, there are no bubbles.

So it went with the work of other team members: Chris Jorcin of the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel, Susan Notter of the International School of Confectionery, Adolf Rehm of Rehm Catering, Bill Lay of Atlantic Foods and Steve Magan of the Wye River Conference Center.

The trio of judges found things to praise, but they found more flaws that needed to be fixed, imperfections that the judges in Berlin would pounce on.

In conversations with some members of the Maryland team, I got an inkling of how the Culinary Olympics work, and why chefs compete in them.

The chefs' competition has some similarities with the recently completed Atlanta Olympics. Both draw competitors from around the globe. Both award gold, silver and bronze medals. Both have team as well as individual competitions.

A major difference is that in the Culinary Olympics several gold medals can be awarded in one area of competition. For example, the Maryland team could win a gold medal in the cold-food competition, and so could a Texas team, and so could any team that scores more than 36 points out of a possible 40 points. In addition to awarding medals, judges name the three top-scoring teams.

The scoring in individual competition is the same as in the team contest. Gold medals go to chefs who score more than 36 points. A chef customarily starts the competition with 40 points, and judges deduct points for flaws.

The judges, I was told, can spot shortcuts. For instance, a chef who poaches a piece of fish to help it keep its shape, but then enters it as "roasted," would be caught. In small, regional competitions a chef might be able to substitute ice tea for his consomme, and rack up points for clarity, but not in the Culinary Olympics. Judges would spot that deception, or sniff it out.

These are judges who can tell with a touch whether there is too much gelatin in a mousse. If there is a dispute over whether a dish is what it claims to be, judges can submit it to the ultimate test -- they can taste it.

I was also told that it is not considered good form to surprise Culinary Olympic judges. A chef should "show the flavor" to them. If, for example, a salad entry is flavored with shallots and tomato bits, the shallots and tomatoes bits should be in be view, not hidden.

Mastering these details requires a lot of work. The day I spoke to Rocca, for instance, he was individually coating 24 kernels of corn with aspic. One of the judges at the practice session had told him that coating the kernels would improve the appearance of the corn he used in one of his dishes.

The payoff for all this work is professional prestige. "A medal in the Culinary Olympics is the highest honor a chef can have," Rocca said.

Talucci added that he, like most of the chefs on the Maryland team, already has won trophies in American culinary contests. "But the competition in international contests is much different, much more intense," he said.

Speckamp put the Culinary Olympics in perspective for me. It could be argued, he said, whether or not the chefs who win in Berlin are the world's best chefs. But there is little dispute, he said, that winners of the Culinary Olympics are the world's most disciplined and best-organized chefs.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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