When Tina Tang returned to North Island College’s Campbell River campus in late November this year, she barely recognized the place.
“When I was driving up, I was like, ‘Is that a new sign?’ and I walked in and it’s so bright and so shiny and new,” says Tang. “I’m like, ‘I’m in the wrong school.’ It’s great.”
The college was fresh off a $17.8-million dollar renovation that included a new teaching kitchen for its culinary arts students. Designed by Chef Xavier Bauby, the kitchen is envious. Stainless steel counter tops dominate the space and large big-screen TVs showcase the work teachers demonstrate for students until it’s their turn to replicate.
“He made it amazing,” says Tang, named by the Globe and Mail as an upcoming culinary talent in 2018. “I told him I would go back to school just to work in this kitchen because it’s so beautiful.”
A member of Culinary Team BC, Tang was on campus again for the first time in over five years since she started her culinary training. The team was hosting a fundraiser for its upcoming competition at the 25th IKA/Culinary Olympics in Stuttgart, Germany in February.
With just over two months until competition, the team is reaching critical mass.
On this sunny Thursday afternoon, the team is savouring an “off” day in a busy week. Fresh off an event at the Steamship Grill in Victoria the day before, Team BC is preparing ingredients for their competition menu, which they’ll serve to a sold-out crowd Friday. The following day, they’re back in Vancouver preparing food for more than 260 people as another fundraiser before the competition. Then on Sunday they’ll reboot and repeat the Campbell River training exercise, but this time at Trump Towers in Vancouver.
It’s a gruelling schedule, says team manager John Carlo Felicella, but necessary.
“It takes a lot to get a team to the gold status,” he says.
Felicella would know. He’s been part of the culinary competition circuit for awhile, first as a competitor with the national team and with Team BC. He’s been a manager for Team Canada and the Junior Team Canada for more than a decade.
He’s only been managing Team BC, which is a regional team, for under two years. It’s been busy.
“It took a year and a half, but we finally have the team nailed down,” he says.
It can be hard assembling a gold-standard team for competition. In the kitchen, egos come out to play and that’s not usually a good thing. Team members have come and gone for different reasons. The work is all volunteer and making it a priority with life and work commitments can be difficult. Sometimes personalities clash. But the current team of Natasha Norton, Aaron Hoffman, Tina Tang, Heejo Jung and Kurt Waddingon has been a winning combination. They all live and work in Vancouver or the Okanagan Valley.
“We’re really strong,” says Tang. “We’re really hard-working and when one of us needs a little more help, we help and when there is opinions needed, we give each other opinions.”
Team BC is one of two Canadian teams competing in the Community Catering event at the IKA/Culinary Olympics, which only happens once every four years. It’s a relatively new event for the Culinary Olympics and Felicella says it’s important that Canada is represented among the 24 teams.
“It makes Canadian cooks relevant,” he says. “In the days, it used to be, ‘Oh, only the Europeans can cook.’”
But Canadians are surprising the rest of the culinary world with their cuisine. Felicella says Canadians aren’t afraid to try new things in the kitchen.
“We use much more ingredients instead of being stubborn on a regional cuisine,” he says. “We will mix flavours; we will fuse different flavours together to come up with a dish.
“Now, having B.C. be at an international competition, it puts us in the spotlight.”
It also puts B.C. food in the spotlight. The team’s menu features elements from its sponsors and partners, including a sable fish dish that Tang is excited for.
“That dish is probably one of the ones that we’re really proud is coming from British Columbia,” she says. “That’s one of the ones that I think we don’t need to work on anymore and we just try to keep on perfecting and perfecting.”
A recent addition to the menu is a flank steak that team captain Aaron Hoffman is in charge of. It’s part of their main and initially was lamb. But the lamb was taking too long to do and the team can’t run over its designated preparation time.
“At competitions, you’re under pressure all the time. You try to find the fastest way, the most efficient to get the most amount of flavour into a product, but that one was just taking a little bit too long to do.” Hence, the steak.
Working as a team will be important come competition day. Team BC will enter the kitchen as one of 24 teams in the Community Catering event. They’ll have just five hours to prepare a menu for 120 people that includes a salad, two finger foods, two meat dishes, two starchy sides, two vegetable sides and a dessert.
Their competition includes chefs from Norway, Switzerland, Austria, Taiwan and Sweden.
“Usually these community catering competitions are reserved for more experienced chefs,” says Felicella. “We’re going against Team Sweden, Norward, Switzerland, U.S.A., big boy teams and we’re just little old Team BC, but I do know that we will compete against them and we will do very well.”
Hoffman, who was a helper for Team Canada at the last Culinary Olympics in 2016 was chosen by Felicella to captain a talented, young B.C. team.
“Everyone is young, very passionate, very driven chefs,” says Hoffman. “We’re lucky to have a team like this because we all get along really well together.”
Tang says it’s humbling to see how hard everyone works.
“The vibe and the energy and their determination when they come to practices… it’s always business first, which I can appreciate, but it’s also not so stern that we can’t be truthful with each other,” she says. “They’re great, hardworking people.”
The team is preparing the same menu now as they will in competition. The repetition is important.
“We have to constantly do the same thing over and over again so when we go in, we know the exact measurements,” says Felicella.
Things like salt, which would normally be added to taste are weighed right down to the gram.
“It’s not about thinking it’s OK,” says Felicella. “It is OK.”
On Feb. 15, at 5 a.m., the team will enter the kitchen and have 30 minutes to set it up to their liking. Pots go on the stove, food gets put away. Then at 6 a.m., the judges come in to see their Mise en Place, French for “putting in place” referring to the set-up phase of cooking.
Felicella says this period of time before the competition is when nerves can kick in.
“Talk about anxiety and stress, that’s where it happens,” he says. “It’s a fragile time. You can’t just go in there and start, ‘OK guys come on, like what is your problem, we’ve done this.’ … My day, 30 years ago, it was like you listen or the chef gets the belt out. It just doesn’t happen anymore right. A lot of it is –and it’s much more effective – calm talk, communicating effectively, encouragement and making sure they’re comfortable at time of arrival in the kitchen.”
At 6:30 a.m., the clock starts.
“Practice kicks in,” he says. “They know what’s in store. It’s really tough just prior until go time, then they know. They’re here. They’ve been practising this all year.”
When the competition dust settles, the team is hoping to receive a gold medal. More than one team could receive gold, it all depends on how their menu gets judged. Then, two days later, they’ll be ranked among the other nations in the event to decide the overall winners. The goal is to earn a spot on the podium.
“The only payment is metal,” Felicella says. “A gold medal.”
And when they come home, they’ll have a new feather to add to their chef’s hats.
Says Hoffman, “Being called a culinary Olympian is insane.”