by Allen J. Sheinman | March 01, 2011

Food lovers will forever argue about which of the world's cuisines is best: French, Italian, conference center, Chinese -- wait, what was that? Can conference center food hold its own in the culinary constellation? The answer is a resounding yes, especially if the venue in question is one of the 400 or so facilities that belong to the International Association of Conference Centers. Creatively delicious meals go hand-in-hand with IACC's stringent standards, so much so that a yearly tournament is run specifically to highlight the artistry and skill of member properties' chefs.

Introduced in 2004, the Copper Skillet Competition is a series of cook-offs held at IACC venues around the world. The event becomes a battle of elimination as colorful as that of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's annual basketball derby, culminating in a final round at IACC's upcoming annual meeting, to be held later this month. In this version of March Madness for foodies, the winner is crowned Global Conference Center Chef of the Year and receives the coveted Copper Skillet, emblazoned with his or her name and achievement.

"This really is a big deal for those of us who proudly serve our food to conference center guests daily," says Mark Moran, executive chef at Sodexo Conferencing's Conference Center at NorthPointe in Lewis Center, Ohio, and who took top honors for the United States in 2009. "It means a lot to be judged best over many fine chefs from all over the world."

Here's the inside story behind this unique cooking contest.

The ground rules Copper Skillet cook-offWhile some aspects of the criteria differ from country to country, U.S. requirements give a good idea of what it takes to enter the competition.

To begin with, IACC center chefs must submit to an association qualifying committee a three-course menu whose ingredients cost no more than $15 total. Detailed recipes and studio-quality photos of each course must accompany the menu, as well as a complete set of the chef's usual conference dining menus, to put their work in perspective. The judges, a group of highly regarded food professionals chosen from outside the IACC membership, review the materials and make assessments based on points such as degree of innovation expressed in the chef's usual menu, organization and clarity of the newly crafted menu, and creativity of presentation as depicted in the accompanying photographs. Candidates are then selected to advance to a preliminary cook-off.

For the preliminaries, each year's competition has a theme, usually targeted to geography, e.g., Asian Fusion, Provençal, Thai food, etc. But for 2011 the organizers were in an especially playful mood: the theme is Mystery Basket.

"This is an on-your-toes contest, meaning the chefs must be ready to create an entrée live, before the judges, without knowing the ingredients beforehand," says Jerry White, IACC's director of education and technology, and one of the original developers of the event. "Competitors receive a market basket filled with fresh produce, grains and three protein ingredients -- meat, fish, poultry and the like -- from which they must choose two. They also can select from a basic pantry list of items such as sugar, beef stock and whole fresh eggs, along with staple items such as rice, beans and noodles. The chefs have 15 minutes to review the items and plan an entrée, then 30 minutes to do the actual cooking."

The tools All chefs have to work from stations equipped with one burner and the same precisely delineated array of tools:

• Two cooking spoons (one slotted)
• One tablespoon
• Two knives (one for paring)
• One set of tongs
• Two dozen tasting spoons
• Two mixing bowls
• One squeeze bottle
• Two disposable cutting sheets
• One cooking pan
• One cooking skillet
• Assorted towels, disposable hand wipes, one trash can and one service plate for presentation

"A vegetable peeler, spatula and grater also are allowed," notes White, "but no other tools or special plates or serving vessels can be used." In other words, a souped-up labor-saving device like the Kitchen Magician ("It slices, it dices!") in this game is the equivalent of an outlawed shot of steroids in baseball.