Butter sculptures, chocolate handbags and creativity with cuisine…the SICA competition turned food into art

Zutho from Nagaland, puttu from Kerala and handbags made of chocolate. The first set of miniature chocolate handbag make their debut on a tray laden with petit fours. The other’s a fairly hefty affair, seemingly inspired by the Louis Vuitton logo, and accessorised by a single dramatically pink strawberry mousse lipstick. At the SICA (South India Culinary Association) Competition & Exhibition 2012, recently held along with the AAHAR International Food Fair at the Chennai Trade Centre, food isn’t just food. It’s competitive art.

More than 350 young chefs competed to take home gold, silver and bronze medals over the three days the competition ran. They iced cascading wedding cakes, meticulously carved sculptures out of butter and set up mini-buffets. As president-mentor of SICA, Chef P. Soundararajan, walks between rows of painstakingly assembled petit fours, he explains who has won gold, silver and bronze — and why. It’s not just about creativity, technique and flamboyance. Competitions for chefs also take into account the nitty-gritty of food presentation: precision, discipline and hygiene.

Stating that about 3000 chefs come under the SICA banner, Chef Soundararajan says at least 350 are participating, and more than 500 attend the event. While it’s undoubtedly an idea setting for networking, bringing together the city’s top Chefs, as well as national and international attendees, this is also designed to be a learning experience.

“In 1928, Auguste Escoffier said we should show our talent to the outside world and organised a culinary exhibition in Paris,” says Chef Soundararajan, adding that the idea was “to innovate, motivate and train. For the younger generation to learn from their seniors. Bring them under one umbrella.”

While India does compete in global cooking competitions of this sort, the country’s not made much of an impact yet. One problem, the chefs agree, is a lack of exposure. Although Indian cooks have the advantage of understanding spices, and complex layering of flavours, they need to up their game when it comes to International cooking. “Even with Indian food, we need to evolve. To take it to the next level. Look at how much respect there is for Japanese food. It’s because they use the best technology, ingredients and skills, In India, we have the skills but need to work on rest,” says Chef Soundararajan.

However, skills have undoubtedly been improving over the years. Mark Laming, Executive Sous Chef of Training SATS Limited (Singapore Airport Terminal Services), who is here to judge the competition, reckons it’s inevitable, given the current environment. “The public are more food-savvy, there’s increased professionalism within the industry and the media has generated more interest in the profession.

At SATS, he says they see an increasing number of career switches. “Architects, bankers… all becoming chefs. A few want to open their own restaurants.” These aren’t necessarily young people. “They are anywhere between 30 to 50. I even had a 60 year old once.” Can they keep up? “Oh yes. At graduation, the mature ones are often the ones who get ‘students of the year.’ He adds, “It’s probably because they made the choice, after making many others in life. It’s not a flippant decision.

However, becoming a chef is still not a popular career choice in India. Chef Soundararajan says there are fewer people moving into the profession. “It’s a difficult job. Trainees start with Rs. 20,000. They’ll get much more in IT. Yes, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But the younger generation wants to see changes in their salary and designation every two years, and it doesn’t work that way here.” He adds, however, “It’s a cycle. Now there is an increase in demand, so salaries will go up, and that in turn will make the profession more attractive.”