The Summer Games are over in Atlanta, but another Olympics is coming to Berlin next month. But instead of the Michael Johnson and Carl Lewis types, the 10th annual Culinary Olympics could well feature the next Fredy Girardet, the famed Swiss chef, or Wolfgang Puck.
To prepare for the cooking classic, Team California, one of the culinary teams representing the United States, hosted a fund-raising event Wednesday at Spago on the Sunset Strip.
The 11 team chefs prepared some of the dishes they will enter in Berlin, including Nicoise salad with seared ahi tuna and a charred loin of lamb with warm Gorgonzola polenta. A hundred people paid $100 each to savor the culinary delights, with the proceeds of the event going to finance the team's trip to Germany.
In the frantic Spago banquet kitchen Wednesday night, the chefs watched closely as the maestro himself--Wolfgang Puck--chipped in to help.
The Austrian-born Puck joked with the other chefs as he hefted trays of horseradish-encrusted lobster medallions onto a work area, where they were garnished and whisked out to the diners.
The Culinary Olympics will be held Sept. 3-14 in Berlin, but the diners at Spago were very impressed with Wednesday's fest.
"They are going to win," declared Cindy Zerah of Los Angeles, who said she might even go to the competition.
The Culinary Olympics began as a regional cooking contest in Frankfurt in 1900 and, like the athletic Olympics, are now held every four years. This year's games, the first not held in Frankfurt, will feature 1,000 chefs from 32 nations competing for medals in various cooking categories, such as cold food, hot food, centerpieces and pastries.
Team California will be one of five regional teams from the United States; a separate U.S. national team will also compete.
Their dishes are judged for taste, nutritional value, composition, practicality, classical technique and how the dish would work in large-scale operation.
"We are trying to be cutting edge but at the same time preserve the classical French techniques of Careme and Escoffier," said Brad Toles, the leader and creator of Team California, who was referring to legendary French chefs Antonin Careme, (1784-1833) and Auguste Escoffier, (1847-1935).
Toles, a member of the U.S. western regional team that came in second to Hong Kong in the 1992 Culinary Olympics, formed Team California in 1993.
"California is considered one of the world's prime culinary places and I wanted to showcase the food with its own team," Toles said. "Many people were upset that we were breaking away from the western regional team and said we would never be allowed to compete."
But compete they shall next month.
The team members will be assisted by a support squad of 20 and will be among the favorites to take a gold medal. Other strong teams will come from Switzerland, Canada and Germany.
France, long regarded as a gastronomic superstar, has not done well in recent Culinary Olympics. One reason is the French's team apparent lack of concern on the nutritional value front.
"Nutrition is playing a larger role than ever in the world of fine food," says Steve Geving, a former chef to executives at 1st Interstate Bank in Los Angeles, who was on the gold medal-winning U.S. team in the 1988 Culinary Olympics. "I really admire these guys. It is getting more and more difficult to win because the judging standards are rougher."
Still, the most important aspect is taste. Although the chefs who compete are not well known, many of them have trained at top restaurants in their country.
As for Team California, led by Toles, the former executive chef at the Hollywood Park racetrack, there are chefs from restaurants and cooking schools scattered throughout the state.
Chefs from this area who are members of Team California include John Hart, executive chef of the Miramar Sheraton in Santa Monica, Russell Scott, executive chef of the Virginia Country Club in Long Beach; Darrin Aoyama, pastry chef of the Boulangerie Bakery in Inglewood; Norma Arellano, pastry chef at Hollywood Park racetrack; Roger Gamboa, sous chef at Hollywood Park casino; Steve Soltz, sous chef at Hollywood Park racetrack, and Bill Barber, instructor of culinary arts at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.
Sounding more like a decathlete than a chef, former medalist Geving reflected on his experience at the 1988 culinary games.
"It's two rough weeks," he said. "You get very little sleep. You wonder why you did this. But when you get that gold medal placed around your neck, and when they play the National Anthem, it's as exhilarating as if you just won the 200 meters."