Has the "black box" had its day?
The Black Hat: time to remove the mystery?

A Salon Culinaire is a professional cookery competition including practical and display-based categories, with medals and certificates awarded to successful competitors. Today these categories are often called ‘classes’ and prize money is usually offered to the winners of the top class.

Salon culinaires are conducted for a number of reasons – to test cookery expertise and motivate contestants to improve their skills, showcase current trends in food preparation and promote sponsors’ products or services.

Skills development is arguably the major objective of a salon culinaire and this is often reflected in the competition design, with various classes testing skills valued by the local cookery community. While a large number of classes may be available to contestants (canapés, carvings, chocolate classes, gateau, hot served cold, petits fours, restaurant plates, showpieces etc) there is usually one considered to be the premier event, which mirrors current eating styles or fashion. This is typically a hot kitchen competition and for the past decade the most popular format has been the mystery box, sometimes called the “black box” – but is this the right approach?

Reviewing the guides and schedules of chef competitions over many years teaches us a great deal.

Unsurprisingly, competitions with similar influence and location tend to follow a pattern, and over the past 60 years 5 distinct competition ‘phases’ have emerged.
During 1950 to 1970 (and earlier), the general format of culinary classes reflected the dwindling classical foodservice era. For example, premier classes in a salon culinaire in 1960 would require a competitor to produce and present a classical eight cover Charlotte Royal or a Chaud-froid decorated leg ham.

In the early 1970s the emphasis shifted to “pièces montées” or ”show pieces”. These were elaborate constructions used as centrepieces – subsequently ice, butter sculpture, pastillage, salt and cube sugar models became very popular sections. The popularity of showpieces in competition mirrored the fashionable buffet style of meal presentation and service and the kind of artistic skills required in the marketplace.

In the early 1980s a good example of the way competition profiles matched industry needs was the “Champion State of Australia” competition where teams of chefs from across the country were required to present hot served cold, showpieces, hot kitchen and sweets buffet which were identical to the participation requirements for the Culinary Olympics and encouraged participation as a training ground for chefs who wished to represent Australia overseas.

Between 1990 and 2000 the popular hot-served cold dishes and hot kitchen classes took the premier class position (restaurant plates, three course dinner menu, Menu Gastronomique, etc) emphasising both the trend away from the display buffet/smorgasbord and the move toward small fine dining restaurants where food on the plate became the focus.

Since the late 1990s the “mystery box” has accentuated the creativity and individuality of the current generation of chefs who increasingly have their own ideas about how food should be prepared, presented and served.

Normally, in a salon culinaire mystery box competition, all main ingredients (principally the proteins) are kept confidential until the commencement, thereby testing the creativity of the contestant.

But change is always with us and no more so than in 2012 when the contemporary chef needs to be extremely well-planned and more resource-smart, efficient and consistent than ever before.

Chefs today do not create dishes or menus in a daily routine; they carefully plan, cost, rehearse, and review their concept dish before placing the refined version onto the menu.

If these are the most valuable skills possessed by chefs today, shouldn’t we be testing them in the premier classes of salon culinaires? Now that careful planning has trumped creativity, isn’t it time to remove all mystery and inform contestants exactly what to expect in any hot kitchen class?

By removing the mystery component, we will undoubtedly achieve better planned and practiced results. This change will also be a win for sponsors who will reap the benefits of controlled creativity and the more thoughtful use of their products.

Removing the mystery should also eliminate the many disastrous entries from chefs who blindly experiment in a public arena with products they have not used before, which unjustifiably embarrasses the sponsors.

A major national competition held in 2011 provided plenty of evidence in support of this argument. Two separate classes were offered – one for senior chefs who were given a mystery box of proteins and another for apprentices, which was identical except the competitors were informed about the proteins months in advance.

The overall result was astonishing: while both seniors and trainees displayed creativity, the apprentice class produced meals at a much higher standard. We still had a winner and all the standard competition assessments were applied.

I believe the mystery box class in cookery competitions has had its day and that it’s time to remove the secrecy in hot kitchen competitions. It is time to put creativity on the backburner and bring back some sensible R@R into the competitive arena. Some of the key trends to cover in the next generation of hot kitchen competitions include:

“Comfort foods” – easy to eat, readily digestible combinations

“Gate to plate” – to reinforce the association of authentic and traceable preparations

“Home style preparation” – to reflect a growing movement towards greater inhouse preparation as commodity cost pressures bite

“Nourishing” – to mirror the continued awareness of health and nutrition on menus

“Tapas, small plates” – to reflect the trend towards smaller portions and grazing

 

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Face2face