The sweat behind the sweet

MARY LUZ MEIJA
June 15, 2010
Written by MARY LUZ MEIJA
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Many batches of delicious bon-bons were produced during the World Chocolate Masters weekend. Photos: mary luz meija

 
In Europe, you don’t just make “dessert.” Anyone worth his or her sugar will have a specialty – whether it’s pastry, breads (sweet or savoury), ice cream or chocolate.

Here in Canada, much to our European colleagues’ chagrin, we often end up with a “jack of all trades” scenario where our bakers are asked to be proficient in bread, chocolate and pastry. But there’s something to be said about diving deep and becoming a specialist, as I recently witnessed at the Cacao-Barry/Callebaut Canadian Pre-Selection of the World Chocolate Masters competition. And while I was delighted to see the pros shine, I was at Humber College to judge the Ontario Intercollegiate Chocolate Competition – the first of its kind.

On the judging panel with me were French chef Jean-Pierre (JP) Challet, Donald Duong of Dessert Trends and Belgian chef Bruno Elsier. We began our day at 7:30 a.m. and shortly afterward set about our task: To taste our way through one hand-dipped and one moulded praline (or bon bon), as well as a plated dessert creation – all made in real time on-site by the five competing students. The students had to present one of each confection to every judge (and couldn’t exceed a certain weight in some cases), while staying within the parameters of this year’s theme: “Cocoa, Quetzalcoatl’s Gift.”

Quetzalcoatl was an Aztec god, who, as legend has it, created cocoa as a divine gift to relieve fatigue and provide pleasurable rest. The early history of cocoa and its connections with South America and Mexico, in particular, had to be nuanced in all of the competitors’ creations. Luckily, this is a part of the world I know something about, as I was born in South America and have spent time living there and exploring the vast region’s culinary history.

I took a moment to wander around the students’ stations, observing as Jessica Cat of Conestoga College hand-dipped her almond praline in tempered Venezuelan chocolate, while Humber College’s Chris King did the same with his Cayenne-infused honey truffle. You could feel the tension in the chocolate-filled air as the auditorium started to fill slowly with an expectant public, many of whom would get to taste the delights as the day wore on.

The students were understandably a little tentative in their approach, and when asked how she felt she was doing, Niagara College student Ruth Bleijerveld replied, “Not too bad, considering I didn’t have any chocolate skills three weeks ago,” then adding, “this hand-dipped praline has been the hardest for me to do so far.”

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 Niagara College student Ruth Bleijerveld was the winner of the Ontario Intercollegiate Chocolate Competition.  
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 Mary Luz Meija, second from left, helped judge the Ontario Intercollegiate Chocolate Competition  
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Jessica Cat of Conestoga College  
Bleijerveld, a wife, mother and former greenhouse owner, decided “better late than never” and chose pastry as her second career. She worked with her mentor, Niagara College pastry department professor Peter Storm, to hone her chocolate-tempering and flavour-combining skills. We could see and taste the hard work pay off in her Spicy Mayan White Chocolate Ganache with Mexique Origin Chocolate, Candied Red Peppers and Lime Salt creation. Clearly, serious thought and purpose had gone into this well-composed creation.

We judges were all on the same page until we got to the Moulded Praline portion of the competition.
Ukranian-born Kateryna Olifrenko of Humber College, who completed a psychology degree in her native country, created a beautiful offering poetically titled “Tlaloc Tear (the gift of the Mayan God of Rain).”
Hand-brushed, edible washes of red and gold topped the truffle dome, lending it an iridescent sheen like the armour of a scarab beetle. It was a masterpiece, especially given that a week before competition, the highly driven Olifrenko almost dropped out because she didn’t consider herself ready.

One bite of this confection and I could instantly discern a Chinese Five Spice overtone that, while delicious, unfortunately didn’t correspond to the competition’s core theme. For Donald Dung, the truffle provided a break from all of the pepper, while for me it excluded a key ingredient in Mexican cuisine. Challet commented that this was the best-looking truffle and Elsier agreed. There was no arguing that fact. On flavour, however, this was a panel divided, highlighting just how subjective flavour preferences around chocolate can be.

Waiting for our final plated dessert, I took a walk and caught up with Humber’s Akeele Constable, who was visibly sweating. I can’t say I blame him – he, like all competitors, had been at his station working diligently since about 7 a.m. It was now approaching 3 p.m.

The auditorium was full; the glass windows at the side of the kitchen acting like portals to a delicious fantasyland for the ever-gathering crowds. On the menu: Constable’s “Aztec’s Delights – Marquise Chocolate Mousse with spice Caramel and chewy Darquiose.” When I asked him who his competition was, he smiled and answered “everyone!”

With humility, Constable explained that his pralines weren’t tempered properly and he was a little disappointed with that, but that “this one will be OK.” And he was right.

The next station over, I could tell Humber’s Chris King was in his element: “I like when things get a little crazy. I like knowing that when it gets nuts, I can still compete.” He added that despite the adrenalin rush, he knows that his biggest rivals are Bleijerveld and Olifrenko, saying, “Just look at their stuff! It’s really good!”

Humber College Baking and Pastry Arts instructor Joe Kumar looked on nervously as his pupils’ plated toward the finish line. “There were severe time constraints on how much I could teach them,” he explained with a smile. Kumar wanted to spend more time teaching all three of his charges how to hand dip pralines, but mostly, he says, “I want them to cherish this moment for a long time.! This was a major learning process for us all!”

Back at the judge’s table, I asked JP Challet what this kind of competition means for our future pastry chefs. He tilted his head in thought and replied, “We need this more and more to bring students’ skill levels up and to give them a challenge. By doing this, we slowly push students, tomorrow’s professionals, up to international standards.”

No one would agree more than chef Derrick Tu-Tan Pho, director of the Canadian Chocolate Academy. “The students today have won knowledge by participating. I’m impressed with their passion, now we just have to take what they can do to the next level,” said Pho. Regarding the professionals, he said, “Today is significant – we can see the talent level in Ontario and, while good, we’re still … behind Quebec.”

As if to prove his point, it was Quebec’s Veronique Rousseau who won this year’s World Chocolate Masters competition. She will represent Canada at the World Chocolate Masters final in Paris next year. Then it was time for the students to shine. Standing next to Niagara College instructor Peter Storm, I watched as he anxiously looked on while the winners’ names were being announced. With the same excitement as an expectant father who learns he’s a new dad, Storm’s face lit up when Pho said, “And first place goes to Ruth Bleijerveld!”

“I was more nervous than she was. I was chewing my nails off,” said Storm as he made his way past the crowd to congratulate his star pupil. Olifrenko took second place and King came in third. It seems the former green thumb and psychologist have sweet futures ahead of them.

And the winners are …
Student division
1st – Ruth Bleijerveld (Niagara College)
2nd – Kateryna Olifrenko (Humber)
3rd – Christopher King (Humber)
4th – Akeele Constable (Humber College)
5th – Jessica Cat (Conestoga College)

Professional division
Plated dessert – Michael Cotard of Marius & Fanny Chocolatier in Montreal
Entremet – Sergio Shidomi of Old Firehall in Unionville, Ont.
Dipped bon bon – Veronique Rousseau of Choco Daisy in Drummondville, Que.
Moulded bon bon – Gloria Donato of Patisserie Monaco in Richmond Hill, Ont.
Overall winner – Veronique Rousseau
More in this category: « An Easy Shop  |  All in good taste »

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