This article is a compilation of tips and principles that I have put together based on my experience in the past. These tips are for anyone who is thinking about entering a cake competition.
Compete to Win
To my knowledge, the most important stepping stone in the pastry career is competition.
We are all born to compete, it is an instinct and we do that every day. The award comes in so many different forms. Good feeling about our self when we achieve something better than others. A pat on our shoulder from the boss or even facial expressions from a friend that makes you feel preferred instead of others. These are all little awards that we receive every day. I believe there is always before and after in any work, relation or situation after a little award like that. If receiving awards in any form become an addiction and when we understand the benefit we want to do good all the time that we develop good character and success geared personality.
International or regional Pastry competitions organised in almost every major city by chefs associations and related organisations around the world. The most talked about one is in the USA – The World Pastry Championship which happens every second year internationally and draws the most attention amongst the top professionals. The Award is 50000. – US$ shared amongst the top 3 positions. This is probably the main reason why this competition more popular than the one in Lyon, France. 12 countries compete just like in the Olympics, 13 hours’ battle in individual partitioned kitchens live in front of an audience and 24-panel judges. You can’t even bring your apricot jam with you, everything has to be prepared from scratch. I was fortunate to be one of the judges in the 2002 and 2004 competition. The most amazing experience is to witness the result of two years’ preparations executed in front of your eyes in such intensity. One of the reporters asked me a question – What was I looking for as a judge besides the criteria we follow; the answer was quite short for consumable products: new smartness. You can actually say new ideas, new presentation ¸new this and that. But all the components to create an impressive entry have to be done and presented in a smart way. That means the idea should give to other colleges “wow I can also do that”. At the same time, the same piece must create an image for a consumer “how on earth they can do that”. If entries non-consumable means like centrepieces the answer will be different and short. New compliment We are creating 3-dimensional objects from edible substances taking nonfood objects as inspirations so we all know that they are more to view than consume. Pastry centrepieces must create an enjoyable pathway to our eyes on the way to food. They must create a new relation and complementation between eyes and food, between food and nonfood.
We don’t have to go to the USA or France to compete. Smaller scale competitions happen around us. Beside live competitions, there are also other categories available to enter with pre-prepared items like themed cakes, multiple desserts or edible centrepieces. As a Pastry Chef who has competed and judged in many competitions and the true experience before and after effects, in followings, I would like to point a couple of importance and examples to encourage young professionals and emphasize the self-learning pathway.
This is the most important part of the whole event. Decide to compete with desire and decide to win with self-respect. Do the most difficult thing which is applying a strict discipline to you. Do not start a competition with an attitude of “see what happens” – take it seriously because this is a big deal and it is the most important stepping stone of your career.
Study the Criteria
I have seen competitors realised after so many weeks of preparations that their entry does not comply with the criteria. In fact, that happened to me once. (Only once) It is quite essential to read the entire criteria to understand the requirements and do everything else after. At this stage, you should decide your category of entry.
Information has never been so much accessible and free before and it is getting so phenomenal. Make an intensive research about past competitions on the internet without having any decision of what to do and spend a great deal of quality time to load your mind with visual information, to set your standard in parallel with your confidence. Target your best level, be realistic and don’t aim the unreachable.
You have your determination and already know the criteria in and out. Research is going on. You should be able to decide exactly what to do. Take a big breath, fantasize your piece on display, copy that and start sketching with pencil on paper and don’t start with anything else before the idea has been shaped in an actual size drawing. All dimensions- front, side and top view complete. And then do your model with cardboards, papers or Styrofoam, anything to create a 3-dimensional nonfood model to look at it and have guidance. When this model in front of you, you can take the measurement, prepare a list of actions, tasks and so on. This will be your map to draw the action plan.
Plan the Planning
You have to believe that planning is essential. Action without a plan is like a blindfold walking in a maze and hitting walls all the time to find the door to the next room. The whole event will be a trial and error instead of an effective progress. Plan the planning, look at your model and sketch, list down every part of action including decision makings, findings, purchasing, partial finishings, presentations without missing any little bit. Make sure you write all those little tasks in yellow tags so that you can categorize them again into different areas. Use large surfaces like glass top table or a large window to relocate tags to groups.
This means a clear instruction to yourself that you have to worry only that particular tasks in that allocated time frame. So line up tasks vertically and time slices. I suggest to plot days horizontally and highlight the areas horizontally to allocate time for each task. Sometimes you have to worry about a few things at the same time – to hit two birds with one stone. Using Microsoft Excel will be a good idea unless you have other scheduling software. The correct scheduling will make you confident and be able to use your mind without disturbance for each task at the time.
Nothing is more educational than the actual trial. If you do something the first time you can never do your best at once. Now is the time to be fussy with yourself. Even you are happy with what you did first time next will be better. More trial will create a better result for sure.
Good execution will be as good as your plan. The most important thing is a good line up of small actions to create the flow of good results. What has to be done first to do things next easier- the question has to be answered in the planning stage to result in good execution. Work clean all the time and clean your tools and hands as often as possible. A clean knife cuts better than dirty sharp ones. Clean hands mold better too.
Make sure you have prepared your knee-path and check every point before takeoff. I have seen competitors forget to put their tags in front of their entry. It is like a newborn baby without a name. You must plan all matters of presentation as good as the execution.
After the result you must have more interest to find out what went wrong than what was achieved. Even you lost the distinction with one point try to find out why and work on it. Don’t forget that your experience and your new and better self is a much bigger award that whatever people put around your neck. You had been not only a pastry chef competing others, more importantly, you been managing a project and knowing many others yet to come.