Conference Center Cuisine

How top chefs from IACC venues compete for the coveted Copper Skillet

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.

The cook-offsRasmus Rasmussen 2010 Copper Skillet winnerThe preliminary cook-offs take place at IACC conference centers scattered among the Unites States as well as in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Chefs are judged by the organization of their work stations, their serving methods, presentation, nutritional balance, overall creativity and, of course, flavor, taste, texture and "doneness."  

For the current competition, the preliminaries began late last November and were still taking place at press time. In January, Jason Weaver, executive chef at La Torretta Lake Resort & Spa in Montgomery, Texas, won the U.S. division to get into the finals, which will take place on March 24 at the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Va., amidst IACC's three-day annual meeting. (Other winners include Jennifer Barker of the Sigtunahöjden Hotel & Conference Center in Sweden and Eresh Tantirrawatta of the Grange Group in Australia.)  

"It was quite a bit of fun, but stressful, too," says Weaver of his trial run for the big prize. When he delved into his mystery basket, "I found things I love to cook with -- cauliflower, fish, chicken, lemons. But the tricky part is making quick decisions on what goes on the burner first, because you only have a half hour to make a dish that will impress the judges."

For the record, Weaver's winning entrée was herb-glazed halibut, caramelized cauliflower, prawn and couscous salad atop arugula.

The grand finale Over at the National Conference Center, executive chef Craig Mason is preparing for the big day. "We've been button-holed with IACC officials to go over all of the details of the ultimate cook-off," he says. "And this is in addition to working the annual meeting wrapped around this event. Throughout, we use the menus and recipes originally submitted by the finalists when they first entered the competition, so the IACC membership can appreciate the skills of these talented chefs."

All of the eight finalists (one from each competing country plus one "chef at large," still to be determined at press time) will compete on a level playing field, says Mason. "Each will have identically equipped work stations, and they all get the same mystery basket."

Indeed, Mason is charged with preparing the baskets, and he is appropriately tight-lipped about their contents. "Let's just say that along with the required proteins and starches, I'm planning to throw in a couple of curve balls just to keep things exciting."

Mason, who prepares some 40,000 meals per month at the National Conference Center, competed earlier this year for the U.S. slot and knows well what the finalists will face. "Sure, it's a bit nerve-wracking," he notes. "You have certain concepts racing through your head, then you find out the ingredients and have to quickly make adjustments on the fly. It all comes down to two pans, one burner and 30 minutes."

All of the finalists begin their trial at the same time; the judges (the same group that worked the U.S. final) walk from station to station, observing and taking notes on things like quality of sanitation skills and prowess with a knife, until the bell rings marking an end to preparation and the beginning of the tasting.

"It's always a great moment when the winner is announced," says Mason. "You end up with one really happy chef."

When all is said and swallowed, it's clear that IACC conference center chefs deserve their day in the sun -- and a respectful tip of the toque from their peers in the other realms of the gustatory galaxy.