In Pursuit of Perfection

Stafford DeCambra

By Stafford DeCambra, CEC, CCE, CCA, AAC

Aloha, friends! The 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea last month got me thinking about competition in general and culinary competition in particular. Competitors of all kinds and in various disciplines have this in common: first, a will to win, followed by a recognition of what a privilege it is to be in the competition arena. They are dedicated, passionate and enormously skillful. Competitors are tenacious, performing the same tasks over and over again in the pursuit of perfection. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they have an overwhelming desire to produce the performance of a lifetime.

I have competed for much of my culinary career, and although I shared that hunger to win, I discovered that the most valuable prize was an education. I think every competitor agrees that the judges’ critiques, where you learn your strong and weak points and, most importantly, how you can improve, is priceless. Judges are seasoned industry professionals who volunteer their time to help the next generations of culinarians perfect their craft—what an incredible gift.

Although some think that you must be at a certain stage in your career to start competing—established in a good position with a high skill level and enough time, flexibility and funds—that simply isn’t true. I’ve heard countless stories from those who ended up representing ACF or the U.S. in international competition who began competing because of an instructor’s encouragement while still in school. Yes, it means juggling school work, practices and, often, a job, but think of the rewards. The success of any team or individual competitor depends on instructors, coaches and advisors, so if you are one, please know that you are playing a vital part in someone’s life.

There are many opportunities to compete within ACF—just look at the competitions taking place this month and next listed on the website. Our chapters are heavily involved in competition and chapter members willingly volunteer their time. Older members remember the people who helped them get started, and younger ones know they are investing in the future. Competition judges take the task seriously, knowing that their careful critiques will help competitors improve their skills. As a judge, I have found extreme satisfaction in helping the next generation of competitors succeed.

ACF regional culinary salons have been taking place since January, and we honored the Northeast and Southeast winners for Chef of the Year, Pastry Chef of the Year, Student Chef of the Year and Student Team National Championship at Chef Connect: Charlotte in February. We’ll honor Central and Western winners at Chef Connect: Newport Beach later this month. The winners of all four regions will compete for national awards at Cook. Craft.Create. ACF National Convention & Show in July in New Orleans. Win or lose, all the competitors deserve our admiration for the time and effort they expend in preparation. And I guarantee they’ll agree it was worth the effort.

Also this month, March 8-16, branches of the U.S. military compete in the 43rd Annual Joint Culinary Training Exercise at Fort Lee, Virginia. And, members of the 2020 ACF Culinary Team USA national team are hard at work practicing for the Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung (IKA) in Stuttgart, Germany, Feb. 14-19, 2020 (note change of venue and date). I’ve been fortunate to compete at the IKA many times, and I look forward to witnessing ACF Culinary Team USA do so in Stuttgart. To see teams and individuals competing on the international stage is awe-inspiring, and we should be proud to have these chefs representing our craft and our industry. They are dedicated, disciplined to the extreme, driven and persevere even in the face of setbacks. They learned many of those attributes from their ACF colleagues—teachers, coaches, mentors, advisors and competition judges.

I enjoy judging culinary competitions and feel privileged to be asked to do so. It’s humbling to see competitors give their all as they pursue perfection. They have endured time away from loved ones, sleep deprivation and many lonely hours in the kitchen—not to mention spending their own money—to reach their goals. They are to be admired, wherever they are on the competition journey.

Please join your colleagues at Chef Connect: Newport Beach, March 18-20, and Cook. Craft. Create. ACF National Convention & Show, July 15-19, in New Orleans, to enjoy the competitions. See you there. Aloha!

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