by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | June 3, 2016

Cheryl-Anne SturkenIt was a brutal and heated battle that lasted for just 30 excruciating minutes. When it was over, Barrington Graham, first cook at Toronto's St. Andrew's Club & Conference Centre (with 25,000 square feet of meeting and event space), and Jesse Hughes, general manager and executive chef at the 32-room Vue Grand Hotel, Victoria, Australia, emerged victorious. The prize? Bragging rights to the International Association of Conference Centres' much-coveted Copper Skillet award.

Barrington Graham and Alex CabañasThe three-part competition, which drew competing chefs from IACC members in North America, Australia, Asia Pacific and Europe, wrapped up in New York City, with six hopefuls vying to wow the judges using ingredients from mystery baskets. "This year we saw extraordinary talent and incredible camaraderie from all six competing chefs,” said Alex Cabañas, CEO of Benchmark Hospitality and president of IACC's board of directors. “I’m thrilled that this event remains as popular as ever, while underscoring the importance of culinary expertise in our member conference venues worldwide.”

When the last fork was set down and the burners were turned off, it was Barrington Graham who walked away with the senior category Copper Skillet, thanks to his dish of five-spice maple-glazed duck breast and pepper-crusted pork on potato hash with tomato and olive relish and asparagus tips. "It was inspired by a dish my mother used to make with jerk chicken," said Graham, when I asked how he conceived his winning creation.

Jesse Hughes and Alex CabañasJesse Hughes, who was competing in the second annual junior category, took his dish in an Asian direction, serving up soy-glazed duck breast with soba noodles, pickled salad and pork dumplings. "I definitely liked the flavors and textures of this dish, but I would need to refine it a bit more before putting it on a banquet menu," he noted. 

The Copper Skillet competition is now in its 12th year. It was begun by IACC to highlight the artistry and skill of the best chefs from its member conference venues around the world, with the goal of sharing F&B ideas that can lead to outstanding conference experiences for meeting clients. Today, the competition is pushing the envelope on culinary trends and redefining the banquet experience for attendees. 

"Competition always challenges you to think on your feet and push you as a chef, so I always feel like I’ve taken something away from it," said Hughes, who just might take up a skillet next year to defend his championship title.