The Golden Ingredients

The Thailand Culinary Academy had its sights set on success at the IKA Culinary Olympics 2012, and it didn't disappoint

Thailand has thrived in the worldwide culinary sphere with a team of chefs from the Kingdom winning gold and silver medals at the IKA Culinary Olympics 2012, one of the oldest and most prestigious events of its kind.

At the first time of asking, the junior chef team from Thailand won gold at the IKA Culinary Olympics 2012, the world’s oldest and most prestigious cooking tournament.

First launched in 1900, the International Exhibition of Culinary Art's (IKA) cooking competition, aka the Culinary Olympics, is held every four years and is a renowned arena that brings together astounding cooking talent from all over the globe.

Taking place this year from Oct 5-10 in Erfurt, Germany, the event featured about 1,800 competitors, professional and amateur, from 54 countries on five continents. It's the first time Thailand has been represented at the contest, yet we managed to earn three gold medals in the wedding cake, patisserie and showpiece sugar work categories thanks to magnificent creations by Nantawat Nantanet, Kanok Chawalitpong and Bulchai Aphiwattanasor, the three Thai chefs to compete at the professional level.

However, what's more astonishing is that a group of junior chefs from the Land of Smiles also shone brightly in its first time participating.

Chef Willment Leong, chairman of Thailand Culinary Academy.

Led by veteran chef Jatuporn Juengmeesuk, the junior team comprising five culinary students (Jessada Khruapunt, Pratchaya Chopngam, Varanthon Chinprahasta, Amnad Tanasombat and Supakin Bucha, from Suan Dusit Rajabhat University and Dusit Thani College) won gold with their exceptional skills in the hot cooking category.

Following strict requirements, the team was assigned to cook a two-course meal consisting of a vegetarian appetiser and a fish main course for 90 guests within five-and-a-half hours. Their trio of appetisers: Thai papaya salad, goat cheese ginger pear terrine and home-made mushroom tofu with spices, together with seared Atlantic cod with herb crust, hor mok ravioli and tom yum sauce impressed the judging committee and brought them victory.

Meanwhile their mouth-watering creation for the cold display category _ presenting four starters, four main courses and four desserts _ also fetched a silver medal for the young team.

WIND BENEATH THAI WINGS

Both the professional and junior Thai chefs participating in the Culinary Olympics were members of the Thailand Culinary Academy, a private organisation that supports culinary talent from all over the country. Despite its name, the academy doesn't offer cookery programmes or scholarships, but focuses mainly on coaching and developing chefs, both professional and amateur, for world class competitions.

"There are a few associations in Thailand that have quite a similar purpose. Yet either they don't really focus on overseas tournaments or their management is simply too busy to give a 100% commitment, which is pivotal should they wish to compete at the international level," said Willment Leong, chairman of Thailand Culinary Academy.

"So most of the challenges Thai contestants have usually been exposed to are domestic. But at our academy, we don't want our chefs to succeed only in Thailand, but also on the world stage."

The seared Atlantic cod with herb crust, hor mok ravioli and tom yum sauce, one of the dishes that impressed the judging committee.

Leong established the academy in 2009 and it has received expert assistance from professionals in Thailand's food industry including chefs, hoteliers and university instructors.

"When I first set up this academy, I aimed straight for the IKA Culinary Olympics of 2012. With three years to prepare, great support from our team and the remarkable aptitude of our competing chefs, we were sure we could accomplish our goal and bring Thai chefs to new heights," he said, adding that the team had competed in 14 cooking challenges in nine countries to prepare for the grand competition in Erfurt.

A PURPOSE-DRIVEN ORGANISATION

Leong, a highly respected chef with 15 years' experience at fine restaurants and five-star hotels, explained that his culinary excellence, too, had flourished through competitions. Born to a very poor family in Singapore, he only graduated from junior high school.

Yet, he was given an opportunity to compete in culinary contests, and he credits these for bringing him a great career in Thailand.

During his seven years working at Swissotel Le Concorde (he was the hotel's culinary director before quitting in February to dedicate time to the academy), Leong sent his staff to many culinary competitions. They won countless awards and that inspired him to establish an institution with his own money to assist young local chefs.

Many may wonder why a Singaporean chef has decided to do so much for Thai society.

''Since I came to Thailand 13 years ago, I've had a good life and been able to give my family in Singapore good financial support. So I want to give back, to offer the same opportunity that I was once given,'' he said.

According to Leong, the student members enter the academy through three channels: a school's recommendation, a chef's recommendation or the academy's scouting during local competitions.

Trio of appetiser plate by the junior chef team.

''Although we have quite a good number of culinary institutes recommending their students to us over the past years, we still insist on providing chances for everyone, no matter where they're from. Some of our apprentices may be elderly food sellers who have no culinary degree. Some may be new graduates who already have an admirable ranking in culinary circles.

''Anyway, you don't have to be a cooking superstar to be chosen. We also consider your attitude, your passion and your determination. When we scout we don't just look at winning contestants but, perhaps, those who participate often but achieve nothing because that reflects their persistence,'' Leong noted.

Directing an organisation that is regarded as a highway to global recognition for young chefs, Leong said culinary education in Thailand is a bit behind that of the West.

''At most culinary academies in Europe, instructors are usually professional chefs who have decades of experience.

''They are people from the real industry who either set or closely observe new gastronomic trends and they can share them with their students.

''But because we don't have such a high budget to pay for the professionals, instructors at most culinary schools in Thailand are usually young graduates. Some of them don't even know what it's like to work in a hotel kitchen. Without experience, they can only teach what's in the books.

''So at our academy, other than developing the students for competitions, we also nurture them for their careers. We teach them how to live a real life and to deal with unexpected situations.''

IT'S MORE THAN A COMPETITION

''The IKA Culinary Olympics taught me many things, especially how to work systematically as a team which we need to do in the future,'' a member of the junior team explained.

''I've also realised that being a real chef is not easy. Other than creativity, we have to have a lot of stamina and devotion as well.''

Another young chef added: ''Having an opportunity to be in the event and observe chefs from other countries working, I got to see with my own eyes that the food industry evolves so fast and there are many techniques and much knowledge that we still need to learn. Before that I really thought we knew everything.''

Chef Prachan Vong-Uthaiphan, an assistant manager of the Thai team, said: ''These young chefs are exemplary and will be a role model for the next generation. Normally, most kids are not this enthusiastic, they need to be pushed or else they make no progress.

''I always advise the students to have a high goal and work hard to reach that goal, otherwise they would never accomplish anything.''

Academy chairman Leong concluded: ''I hope their winning will pave the way for the following generation. My goal is to guide these young chefs to become good professionals so they can support their fellows in the future.

''If one chef can help five more junior chefs, the Thai chef community will be stronger.''

The mega event, held in Erfurt, Germany, sees almost 2,000 professional and amateur chefs from across the globe not only compete but also share friendship and knowledge.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Vanniya Sriangura
Position: News Reporter