Latin American chefs test mettle at world contest
Talent got them to the finals of the World Cuisine Contest, but three Latin American chefs still face formidable obstacles obtaining ingredients and bringing with them local foods to compete in the Bocuse d'Or in Lyons.
It is not the first time that Argentina and Uruguay have reached the final round of the competition, created 23 years ago by the celebrated French chef Paul Bocuse, but it is for Guatemala, which will be represented by the youngest of the 24 finalists.
The rules of the January 25-26 competition are the same for everyone, but not the challenges. The ingredients they are given to work with -- monkfish, crabs, king prawns and lamb -- are not always easy to find at home, particularly in the form specified by the competition.
"It's been a big challenge," said Nicolas Palomo of Guatemala. "I traveled to London and Edinburgh to get familiar with monkfish with its head on, because you can't find it whole in Guatemala. Lamb we have, but to work with the same cuts (as in the competition) we had to bring it from the United States."
Palomo is just 27, and was trained in Guatemala and Canada, where he worked in the kitchens of big restaurants like Sooke Harbour House and Toque. Today, after various culinary ventures of his own, he works 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Guatemala City in the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo in Antigua, which is backing his quest for the prize.
Uruguayan chef Alvaro Verderosa, 39, who is taking part in the competition for a second time, also had trouble finding the right ingredients.
"We drove our fish suppliers crazy," he said. "In Uruguay, we get whole monkfish, I found two boxes, I froze them and practiced until they ran out. Now I'm praying that some fishing boat will bring back more on its next voyage."
As for lamb, Verderosa makes the cuts himself from local lamb. Asked whether Uruguayan sheep is similar to Scottish, he says shyly but with pride: "I would tell you that ours is better."
For his part, Argentina's Juan Pedro Demuru, 33, who took part in the Bocuse d'Or in 1999 as assistent to Argentine chef Dario Gualtieri, says he is "realistic."
"Argentina is a country in which we do not have many resources to compete. If I am going to race Formula 1 with a Fiat 1500, I surely won't win, but will come in last. For me, this is the same."
He adds jokingly: "The one that drives this car is going to come in last, unless the other 20 all crash."
In five hours and 25 minutes, contestants from Europe, America, Asia and the Pacific must prepare 12 dishes with monkfish, crab and king prawns and another 12 with Scottish lamb, including kidneys, sweetbread and tongue, all presented on a great platter.
There are 24 members of the jury, who can give up to 60 points -- 40 for taste and 20 for presentation and originality.
The competition, promoted by its organizers as a "laboratory of trends in tomorrow's cuisine," is regarded by the three Latin American chefs, however, as a bastion of classic cuisine.
"It is a classic competition where there are no big surprises in terms of innovation," said Demuru.
Palomo said the jury, which is made up of people from different countries, may not appreciate some flavors.
"When it came time to prepare my menu, I kept to a very classical, French base, which the judges can recognize, because when one competes in an international event it is risky to have flavors and combinations that are very different or novel, because they may not be understood," he said.
Despite that, the chefs seek to give a personal touch to their menus, and to that end many will try to bring local products, even if it means running a gauntlet of health regulations at customs.
"I know I can have problems bringing some things into Europe, but I am going to take a chance," said Verderosa.
© 2011 AFP