Star status for Chefs Mayer and Gissinger

Take a moment to think about yourself in a kitchen, making a meal for people you care about and consider the pressure to deliver food that tastes good and looks appetizing.

Now, think about altering the setting. The kitchen is a temporary set-up in the Whistler Conference Centre Grand Foyer complete with nice shiny new brushed aluminum appliances, an overhead camera tracking your every move, a microphone on you capturing every sound and a large audience watching your every move while two television hosts, Nicole Fitzgerald and Edison Mays, are commenting in a critical tone on every decision you make. All eyes and ears are on you. You know that much like Nascar fans waiting in anticipation to see a crash, the audience is hoping for a kitchen disaster.

Welcome to the Whistler Chef's Challenge. I like to call this "epitainment" and it is all about food as entertainment through discussion, criticism and comparison.

Olivier Mayer and Guillaume Gissinger, the Shirtless Chefs, overcame all the distractions of Kitchen Stadium at the opening event of Cornucopia to capture bragging rights as Whistler's top chefs.

The pair had 45 minutes to prepare three dishes featuring two mystery ingredients: duck and apple.

And, their dishes had to be superior compared to recipes prepared by teams from Araxi, the Four Seasons Resort and Whistler Cooks. The Four Seasons Team was led by Clayton Beadle from Sidecut in the Four Seasons. Beadle was on the Food Network show called Top Chef Canada and cooked his way through a number of episodes as the youngest person on the television program.

The Shirtless Cooks were up against a team from the legendary Araxi kitchen - a kitchen celebrating 30 years of collective Whistler wisdom this year.

"It was the shortest 45 minutes of my life," said Gissinger after a few days of reflection and recovery from Masquerave, where he was a contributing chef.

Gissinger is currently between kitchens. He said he's close to finalizing an agreement to join one of the top local eateries. He entered his name into the challenge believing he would be teamed with one of his friends who cooks at Alta Bistro, his former place of employment. Gissinger said his friend had to bow out, so just three days before the competition Gissinger phoned Mayer to invite him to participate.

Mayer was a good choice due to his experience back in France with similar competitions. He has competed in five such French events when he was working in the country of his origin.

Mayer, who has been working as a personal chef for the last decade, accepted the invitation and the night before the competition the pair met at Gissinger's house to set their strategy.

Their duck and apple dishes included buttered scallions, couscous, mushroom, pumpkin and potato.

"We talked together mostly in French through the event," Mayer told me in his distinct French accent. "When Nicole came in as well it was kind of confusing to switch back to English from French."

The eventual winners said they went into the competition with less equipment than the other teams, but they didn't let that distract them from turning their duck and their apples into works of culinary art.

Mayer said the family he cooks for was impressed with his victory and his employers want him to enter a similar contest in New York. He said he is going to the Big Apple soon for a few months.

All four teams in the competition turned out tasty dishes and deserve to be acknowledged. I know this first hand because I was honoured to be one of the judges. The other two judges were Kristi Gordon from Global TV's weekend news team and Alexandra Gill the Globe and Mail west coast restaurant critic.

The dishes were judged mainly on taste but also on originality and appearance.

Scott Thomas Dolbee, executive chef of Four Seasons Resort Whistler, produced the show with help from Astrid Cameron-Kent. A team of audio and visual experts backed up the producers by making sure everyone could see and hear every bit of the action.

A crew from Shaw was on hand and highlights of the event are planned for an upcoming episode of the cable television station's program called The Express .

The next time you find yourself on the business end of a whisk, a kitchen knife or a spatula and the pressure is on to produce, think of the pressure Whistler's top chefs felt in Kitchen Stadium in front of a crowd of foodies with cameras rolling and microphones on while a countdown clock reminded them at every moment that time is running out to get it on the plate looking fabulous and tasting delicious.





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