As any good coach will tell you, training the next generation of competitors is as important as leading the teams in play. That’s one reason why Chef Chris Hastings devotes some of his time to serve on the ment’or Culinary Council and judge Young Chef competitions. The 2012 winner of the James Beard Best Chef: South award and co-owner of two restaurants in Birmingham, Alabama, Chef Hastings has plenty to keep him busy—but feels it is important to spend time creating awareness about the value of culinary competitions.

Tell us about these culinary competitions.

We have a different history here in the U.S. with culinary competitions than they do in Europe. The Bocuse d’Or competition in Lyon, France, is a huge event and every country competing takes it very seriously. It’s part of the culture in Europe. But in the U.S., we don’t have that culture and Team USA is relatively new, with few people aware of it. 

Our culture is more influenced by the Food Network perception of what a competition is all about. And the Bocuse d’Or is not anything like that: It’s not about entertainment; it’s about recognizing the best culinary team in the world. I believe creating awareness for that level of serious competition in America is critical.

How do global competitions impact U.S. chefs and restaurants?

Competing helps elevate the perception of American cuisine around the world. In the last competition in Lyon, when Team USA led by Chef Philip Tessier won the silver it was huge. The countries that compete in the Bocuse d’Or are more aware of the magnitude of that win by Chef Tessier than most Americans. 

What I love about Team USA is that they bring that uniquely American creativity, and the thought process and way of American cooking, to an international competition. The American food scene has matured since it was born in the 70s with chefs like James Beard and Alice Waters, and now, having a team compete at the highest level internationally is the correct evolution of our food scene. It’s important for those of us in the industry today. We’re a relatively young collection of American chefs and we’ve come into our own with a dynamic food scene that is diverse and delicious. 

Why is it important to bring young chefs into competitions?

As part of a multi-layered planning process for Team USA, having young people involved—whether they are young chefs or culinary students—is an important aspect to being competitive. At ment’or, we host competitions for Young Chefs and Commis to introduce them to the idea of serious competitions. 

The competitions are for young chefs, age 21 to 30, who have three years of restaurant experience. They are largely working in high-end restaurants and have been exposed to this idea of competition. The Commis requirements are for even younger culinarians, ages 20 and under, with at least one year of restaurant experience. The Young Chef competition is designed to create interest—almost like a minor league program does in the athletic realm. It helps young chefs begin to think about the idea of competition, and hopefully one day they will consider possibly competing to be a Team USA captain. What we’re doing is kind of like building a bench of players. 

Did you compete as a young chef?

I did get to compete. When I was a sous chef at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta, we had an incredibly diverse group of chefs and competed in a local event. I was working a gazillion hours, and I’d wind up work at 11 at night and then stay another three hours and practice to get the platter right. It paid off; our sushi-inspired cold platter won a gold medal. 

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