The coach with the most
Rudi Liebenberg, executive chef at the Mount Nelson, has trained more winners of chefs' competitions in SA than anyone else. He shares his tips for success
I probably tell my trainees 10 000 things, but I always start off by saying: "Do not do it if you don't want to do it." Once that has been decided, here are six skills that will help competition entrants to prepare.
No amount of planning can prepare you enough, but do all you can. Planning entails knowing the kitchen you are going to cook in, knowing the rules of the competition, and understanding what you will do with potential selected ingredients. With a mystery basket, know what you are going to cook before getting to the competition. This is much harder than it seems, but it is necessary. For example, you could get either lamb neck, loin, shank, leg or tongue - know what you are going to do with each of these. Write down five things you could do. This will help immensely on the day; you'll know how to set up your station when you walk in.
2. USE YOUR INSTINCT
With most mystery baskets, the chef is given 30 minutes to complete a menu. I encourage young chefs to write two or three menus at this time, very quickly. It calms a person down and helps you to make a better final decision. Many times contestants work on one menu for 30 minutes, only to realise halfway into the competition that they have made a mistake. By this time it is too late.
3. KNOW YOUR CAPABILITIES
Do what you know you are capable of doing. The more you put on the plate, the more you are going to get judged on. The less you put on, the more perfect each element has to be.
4. WORK CLEAN
It is of enormous help both physically and mentally to continually pack away, wipe down, wrap up and so on.
5. TAKE IT IN YOUR STRIDE
In professional kitchens we cook every day and the pressure is always intense. Nothing changes at a competition. Remember that this is what you do for a living, and do it well.
6. WE ONLY GARNISH IMPERFECTION
If chefs respect the food and work with it properly, it will look good. Do not tamper too much. In terms of presentation, a plate must have something of every texture to stimulate the senses, almost like a chocolate bar: something soft, something crispy, something that smells good and something attractive. Colour is always the most controversial for me. Many chefs will add colour, saying it needs some orange - or maybe something red or green - but if you have followed the correct cooking techniques and principles, then the food will look good. Do not put food on the plate simply because of its colour. If it does not work, keep it in the pot.