Highlights from the Vahlrona international chocolate competition.
For a professional pastry chef, the Valrhona C3 (aka Chocolate Chef Competition) is something like the World Cup. It takes years of arduous training just to get there and you compete against the best in the world. Not only will your skills be tested, but they will be on display for everyone to judge. If you survive the tension-packed finale and win, you have instant credibility – not to mention €5,000 (€2,000 to the runner up). Johnny Iuzzini, James Beard Award winning pastry chef and recent judge on ABC’s “The Great American Baking Show” explains: “You are not only competing for money and bragging rights, but for your country and honor, as well. Plus, you are being judged by chefs from different genres of the industry – trying to please everyone is an almost impossible feat. If you’re able to come out on top, the instant respect and value of that achievement is immeasurable.”
This year’s finalists faced a multi-year selection process that included submitting an original recipe and winning their respective live regional competitions. Then they travelled to Brooklyn, NY on October 23 and 24 for the grand finale at the 2016 International StarChefs Congress.
The 2016 C3 finalists are: Andrea Dopico, Moments Barcelona, Spain; Fabrizio Fiorani, BVLGARI Hotels & Resorts, Tokyo, Japan; Nicola Dobnik, Del Cambio, Turin, Italy; Fredrik Borgskog, Upper House/Gothia Towers, Gothenburg, Sweden, Benjamin Kunert, Atlantis by Giardino, Zürich, Switzerland; Damien Gendron, Grand Hotel, Cap Ferrat, France; Nicolas Blouin, Rosewood Mansion, Dallas, U.S.A.
The lengthy and difficult selection process is only the first of the hurdles the competitors face during the C3. The chefs must also execute impossibly complicated and technical desserts under strict time constraints, all with cameras in their faces, and in front of a live audience of industry professionals. “It was unbelievably stressful, you are competing against the best. Then there is time management… there’s no room for mistakes,” says Benjamin Kunert, who went on to win the press award.
Adding to the pressure are three sets of judges. Tasting judges, who award the overall winner and runner up, comprised of legendary pastry chefs from the U.S. and Europe: Jean-Francois Piege, Le Grand Restaurant, Antonio Bachour, Bachour Bakery + Bistro, O. Fernandez Obiols, Gran Hotel La Florida, Johnny Iuzzini, Sugar Fueled Inc., Enrico Cerea, Da Vittorio and Francois Payard, FP Patisserie. Work judges (Stephane Cheramy, Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes and Sebastien Serveau), who watch the competitors’ every move to make certain they meet food safety and competition guidelines. The Press Jury that I had the honor to be part of alongside Antoinette Bruno, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of StarChefs, and Maria Nguyen, Editor-in-Chief of “The Art of Plating”, who decide the C3 Press Award. And finally, our MC for the day was Zac Young, TV host and Director of Pastry, Craveable Hospitality Group, was the MC for the event.
For 2016, each competitor was required to produce a petit four and a plated dessert around the theme of “Guanaja 70%”, Valrhona’s ground-breaking chocolate, which turned 30 in 2016. The chefs were given three hours in the L’École Valrhona kitchens in Brooklyn to prep their dishes the day before the finale.
The Live Competition:
If you’ve never attended a live pastry competition, you might be surprised at how exciting it can be. The seven finalists – who occupy the main stage simultaneously – must complete their petits fours in the first 80 minutes and their plated desserts in another 80 minutes. Start times are staggered so that the judges receive one plate every 10 minutes after the first petit four is completed.
The live final has a sporting-event-like atmosphere. Three competitors brought cheering sections complete with country-specific face paint and giant flags. Sweden – cheering for Fredrik Borgskog – made their presence known with bright yellow matching polo shirts.
As the completed petits fours began to arrive, the judges got their first glimpse of how the chefs chose to incorporate the Guanaja 30th anniversary theme. Competition guidelines require that the judges award – or deduct – points based on how well the Guanaja theme was addressed.
Fabrizio Fiorani’s use of the theme was both clever and beautiful. His plated dessert featured an airbrushed stencil of South America filled with Valrhona’s signature “feve” shapes in different sizes. (Guanaja’s blend of Criollo and Trinitario beans hail from South America.)
Nicola Dobnik took a more splashy approach that drew a lot of attention – and cameras. He sent out every one of his “Planet Guanaja” petits fours inside a custom box with a black light inside that made the number “30” on his dessert fluoresce.
Tasting judge and third generation pastry chef Francois Payard liked Borgskog’s highly technical petit four, calling it “beautiful, with great textures and flavors,” and Andrea Dopico’s stunning jewelry-like design, which had such “clean lines” and was “classic”.
Dopico’s petit four was inspired by perfume and the fact that one of the first things chefs noted about Guanaja when it debuted 30 years ago was its “aromatic potential”, often comparing it to wine. The shape of her petit four seeked to emulate the top of a perfume bottle and also pay tribute to Valrhona’s iconic feve shape.
By far the most whimsical (and risky) petit four was Benjamin Kunert’s “Guanaja BBQ burger”. He recreated an exact replica of a hamburger (sesame seed bun and all), but in miniature form, and made with mostly chocolate components. It brought immediate smiles to all the judges’ faces. Kunert reflected, “For me a dessert always has to tell story. Being in the U.S., the home of the hamburger, what better way to celebrate an anniversary than to make a BBQ and have a good time with friends?”
But submitting a dish with a lot of savory components (burger bun, sesame seeds, mango gel, smoked sweet mayonnaise and tree tomato ketchup) in addition to the chocolate (Guanaja 70%) at a chocolate competition with a diverse group of judges was a big gamble that Kunert was well aware of. “To be honest, I knew that it was going to be a win or lose situation. I know what style most French pastry chefs are looking for, but I decided against it and I took the risk. When we got the theme for the final I wanted to make something that was unique. In the end it might have not been the overall winner, but [it was] definitely the most talked about and that’s what counts for me.” Payard said this about Kunert’s Guanaja BBQ Burger: “It was a great idea, very creative, very clever – everybody [all the tasting judges] agreed on that, but for me it had a bit too many components so that chocolate was no longer the star.”
Iuzzini explained some the challenges of trying to please the judges and what transpires behind the scenes. “The judging panel’s diversity is important, but it’s hard to put creativity in a box. We all have different backgrounds, experiences and specialties and will analyze the chef’s work differently. Sometimes it creates contention and debate amongst the judges, as we interpret themes and rules differently.
As creative and beautiful as the petits fours were, the plated desserts were even better, and executed at an even higher level. Any of the dishes would have fit right in at a Michelin starred restaurant.
Nicola Dobnik’s dish impressively featured the New York skyline, along with a tiny but highly intricate house designed to hold a pool of violet sauce that was poured in front of the judges. Payard was impressed and listed the dish among his favorites, noting that it was “very risky” because so many things could have gone wrong.
The top two scoring plates were equally spectacular in their own way, with each chef deciding to exploit a different spacial plane. Eventual overall winner Borgskog created a colorful, low profile, almost flat dish, while runner up Damien Gendron sent out a towering piece reminiscent of a space station.
Gendron’s dish featured slightly more traditional and easily identifiable components such as a velvety smooth cube of buttery molten Guanaja mousse and a delicate ring of crunchy shortbread croustillant that looked like it could snap at any moment. A pool of tart yuzu juice provided just the right balance against the sweet components.
Conversely, Borgskog’s plate was 100% modernist and would be at home in an industrial design museum. His chosen color palette was striking, but concealed the flavors of certain components. This made for a few fun surprises.
A shiny red braided twist looked like a piece of Twizzlers candy, but was actually a piece of slightly tart green apple terrine. The bright white sphere in the middle of his plate turned out to be a delicious Opalys and coconut sorbet. A forest green air brushed segment was revealed to be a smooth, bitter Guanaja bavaroise. Guanaja was present in three of the 12 components, including a sublime, pudding-like Guanaja creameux.
In the final judging the scores were all very close. “Overall the level was very high, [it was] very impressive. First and second was [particularly] tight. It probably came down to Borgskog’s petit four,” noted Payard. Our deliberations on the Press Jury echoed Payard’s sentiments. Interestingly, even though we had no contact with them during the competition, the press judges’ rankings aligned exactly with the professional tasting judges.
Thinking of giving it a go?
If you’re considering entering the Valrhona C3 Pastry Competition yourself, the consensus among past attendees is that the experience is overwhelmingly positive. Erin Kanagy-Loux, Executive Pastry Chef, Reynard at the Wythe Hotel, who won the press award in 2015, called the experience “Incredible” and said “it was a milestone” in her 16-year career. “I feel I gained a level of professional support and networking that I had not anticipated.” Tyler Atwell, Executive Pastry Chef, Lafayette in NYC and a veteran of many high level pastry competitions, agrees. “I would definitely recommend pastry competitions to chefs as another way to push themselves professionally and personally.”
Advice to future competitors:
Francois Payard reminds future competitors that “it has to be about the chocolate, you can have a beautiful design and beautiful presentation, but [this is a chocolate competition, and] what you send out has to be about the chocolate.” Atwell suggests that contestants “practice as much as possible before the competition. From start to finish it’s very important to make sure you can achieve everything under the time constraints of the competition.” Finally, perhaps the most obvious but easily forgotten advice from press winner Kunert was “Stay true to your own style...don’t be influenced too much by others. It’s good to listen to opinions and take constructive criticism, but don’t let yourself be guided into doing something that isn’t you.”