Culinary Olympics Erfurt

10 May 2017

I had the privilege of attending the 2016 IKA Culinary Olympics in the beautiful and picturesque town of Erfurt in Germany. Erfurt is the regional capital of Thuringia and its old town is one of the most intact medieval cities in Germany, having survived World War II with very little damage. A fabulous setting to welcome 59 nations and over 2,000 chefs. The Olympics took place from 22nd to 25th October 2016.

The opening ceremony was a grand evening, cheering parades of chefs from all over the globe with some fielding hundreds of members. In amongst them our proud Culinary Springboks, receiving great applause as they took the stage to their “African Dream” theme tune.  Although Team Masakhane were small with only 13 team members, my colleagues from Team Sponsors LSC and Imperial group and I felt goose bumps as our South African flag was paraded.   

The energetic juniors under the guidance of manager Klaus Beckmann consisted of Zandria Platt, Tayla Scou, Thabang Masango, Thapelo Aphane, Jasmin Marsal and Tevin Evans.

The spirited seniors led by Team manager Heinz Brunner were Henrico Grobbelaar, Dion Vengatass, Blake Anderson, Trevor Boyd, Minette Smith, Kirstin Hellmann and Arno Ralph.

Our chefs are all volunteers, picked from the very best available in South Africa and have trained for this moment for over two years.

Thomas Overbeck, General Manager of SA Chefs Association commented “To see the power of all these top chefs in one room brings home what it means to be a chef, the commitment and pride, an emotional and rich experience.”

According to Team member Blake Anderson, there was no rest for the guys after the ceremony, no early night, no tour of the lovely Erfurt, no German beer. It was straight down to work to prepare for the Cold Kitchen competition. They knew that an “all-nighter” was in order as the dishes had to be on display for the judges at 7am. It was not all plain sailing though. One of the team members realised that they didn’t have the micro herbs needed for one of the dishes. Using his stealth, he snuck into a garden near their practice kitchen and deftly and quietly harvested all that was needed. Little did he know that this was not going to be the only “hitch” whilst procuring ingredients 8,000 miles from home.

In the Cold Table category, teams must be innovative and serve creative precise dishes that are judged on presentation, composition, originality, correct serving and professional preparation.

The public could view the different tables after the judges had completed their markings. What a treat! The innovation, colour and creativity on display that morning far surpassed anything I could have expected. Such intricate detail was awe inspiring.

The South African theme of minerals and gem stones was simply beautiful. The painstaking effort shone above many of the other entries and compared favourably with those of some of the larger teams.

The team walked away with a Diploma for their culinary art display.

Team SA were “disappointed” to get a Diploma after so many hours of work and preparation, they felt that they did what it took to get a medal. But, with true grit, they would not allow this to affect their spirit. Now it was time to regroup and prepare for the Hot Kitchen Challenge. Time to stand together.

Next up was the SA Junior team challenge of the Edible Buffet. This was a brand new competition for the 2016 Olympics. The chefs set to work in their state of the art kitchen. If you can imagine working in a fishbowl, this was it. The young team surrounded by the eager eyes of the public and the close observation of the jurors as they prepared their dishes. The team had 5 hours to complete and present a full edible buffet with hot, cold and pastry elements. Much to the delight of all, they walked away with a Bronze medal. A fantastic achievement for our young crew.

The Olympics was a great opportunity for South Africa to compete against some of the world’s culinary giants. Like Sweden, Norway and eventual overall winners Singapore. Some of the international teams were able to practice for thousands of hours in preparation. Our Springboks hold down full time jobs that only allows for practices once a month.

Blake Anderson commented that “It felt like David meeting Goliath, we needed more than just talent to compete in our next challenge, the hot kitchen. We needed determination and the ability to push on and not give up.”

 Then the big blow came to the team. Heinz Brunner and Thomas Overbeck take up the story.

“We were driving to Frankfurt airport to pick up our supply of crayfish (rock lobster) arriving from Australia and received a heart-breaking phone call telling us that the crayfish had died in transit and the vet would not release the crustaceans.” The crayfish being the irreplaceable key ingredient for the hot kitchen starter.

“When breaking the news to the team, it was like telling them of a death,” exclaimed Thomas “Now a plan needed to be put together to find crayfish with one day before the start of the hot kitchen competition.” A near impossible task it seemed, they hit the phones calling restaurants, suppliers and anyone who would listen.

Eventually some lobsters were located in Bonn, which was a 9 hour round trip. Heinz and Thomas set off on the autobahn (no speed limit), in an underpowered VW to collect these precious jewels.

“Much to our relief the lobsters were fresh, alive and well,” added Thomas.

The two exhausted companions chatted to keep themselves awake on the long trip back to Erfurt. Only to have a puncture, being towed to a nearby town and having to wake up a VW dealer in the night to fit a new tyre. Eventually arriving back in time to inform the team, at a 5am breakfast, that all was saved.

The day dawned on the Hot Kitchen/Restaurant of Nations competition, the highlight of the Olympics. Culinary Team SA had practiced for years for this moment. They had produced the menu under competition conditions on several prior occasions and were confident that they would win a medal. The Restaurant of Nations requires the presentation of a three-course menu for 110 members of the public, jury members are served random plates.

“The support we had motivated us,” commented Blake Anderson. “At times, we were flagging, especially when our table collapsed and we lost 14 of our lobster starters.” But the singing of ‘Shosholoza’ and the shouts of inspiration from our South African supporters pulled us through. “The most vocal of which were the contingent of Sponsors from LSC and the Imperial Group, who did not just give financial support but moral encouragement when we needed it the most.”

Heinz Brunner commented, “The team pulled together and are an incredibly strong unit - mentally and physically. They picked themselves up and did a fine job.”

All the Blood, Sweat and Tears paid off as Team Masakhane where proudly presented their Bronze Medals at the awards ceremony a day or so later.

“A Bronze was a great result!” exclaimed Heinz “Team Masakhane are excellent ambassadors for our country and hopefully will stay together for the next Olympics in 4 years time. It has been an honour for this team to represent South Africa amongst the world’s top culinary nations.”