Ever notice how people never say, “It’s only a game” when they’re winning?
The psychology of entering competitions and winning awards is an interesting one. We do so for affirmation that we’re the best at what we’re doing. And that’s just fine.
Of course Tant Sannie’s egg-in-the-spoon race isn’t really what is being discussed here, unless that egg has been perfectly poached and served with wilted spinach and a Hollandaise sauce. Which of course neatly takes us to the subject of chefs’ competitions.
There are a number of disparate competitions that take place throughout the year, sponsored by this or that food manufacturer or cooking academy. Then, of course, there’s the touchy subject of restaurant guides and their awards.
Enter the original and still, the greatest, the Michelin Guide. Created by Andre Michelin in 1900 and sponsored by Michelin Tires to appeal to folk with culinary motives who might tour through France, Guide at the ready.
Then, the people who work for those guides. In the case of Michelin, the identity of the inspectors is never revealed and their subject absolutely respected. The evaluation of the restaurant is in the form of a star or two or three given to the establishment. One star means it’s good and located on your route. Two means worthy of a detour and three that it’s worth a special trip.
Inspectors visit more than once – and of course the public takes their decisions very seriously – but even more so by the chefs and their restaurants. So much so that some years back, Burgundian Chef Bernard Loiseau committed suicide after losing his second star.
In this country restaurant guides are mostly designed to be advertising carriers, and it is clear that those awards are simply designed to create hype around the publication itself.
What, then, to do to acknowledge and award the hard working part-craftsperson part artist in the kitchen?
I fondly remember veteran food critic – retired and missed – Victor Strugo, “the proliferation of awards leads to devaluation and the sadly inescapable conclusion that their chief purpose is to promote not restaurants and chefs but sponsors, organizers and publishers.”
Speaking of promoting restaurants and chefs, of course the public relations budget comes into play here, too. Food critics and other journalists are wooed by the big-bling putz and chefs quickly become ‘celebrity chefs’, whatever that title might mean. The word is ‘celebrity’ is mostly synonymous with air-heads and not people who work endless hours in cramped environments, incessant heat and objects infinitely sharper than many celebrities’ intellects.
There are approximately 317,000 Chefs and Head Cooks working in the US at the moment. Having said that, ‘chefs’ and ‘cooks’ are often loose terms that are used to describe a person who either directs all or some proceedings in the kitchen, or who actually cooks.
Take the merry pubs of England, for instance, often now morphed into ‘gastro pubs’. Surely this is an oxymoron? Chef, in this case – and I see it right before my eyes – wears what resembles a dirty butcher’s apron and serves swill to what he thinks are swine.
In this country, the aforementioned bring-‘em-on bling of the celebrity chef profiled in glossy magazines focus on a relatively small circle of people. But where are the ones that create consistently fabulous fare down the lanes of, say, the Natal Midlands or the dusty drives of the Karoo? And there are many of them.
It was advertising guru David Ogilvy who said, ‘running a business without advertising is like winking in the dark. You know you’re doing it, but no one else does’.
So here too, awards should shine the light on winners.
THE GAME OF WINNING AWARDS
So in the light of the jockeying of position by using PR rather than skills, it is exactly the culture that has been created by the nature of the competitions that has created this.
Many of our chefs rush around the world to enter competitions and hopefully return with trophies. Why?
It is time for an intelligently constructed, objective competition that will acknowledge an across-the-board spread of cooking professionals. It is only in this way that we will finally identify who the truly talented ones are.
Food guru Dorah Sitole once said to aspiring chefs, “if you are passionate about food you will remain focused and this, coupled with courage and hard work will help you reach your goal”.
To choose all those with spectacular spatulas, the wonderful thing is that it doesn’t matter whether the chef is directionally disadvantaged, wears facial jewellery or is of ambiguous sexual orientation, what matters is that the spatula should indeed be spectacular.
To mix metaphors, winning might not be everything, but if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the competition kitchen.