I recently assisted with the organization of an amazing event we hosted here at White Oaks for the first time. The Canadian Copper Skillet Chef Competition where chefs from conference centres belonging to the prestigious International Association of Conference Centers compete to be top chef if Canada. The winner of this iron chef style cooking competition then competes against chefs from all over the world in the annual conference held in the States later this year. Our Executive Chef, Michael Price has won this honour before and since then has stepped aside he steps to allow one of our Sous Chefs to take a crack at the very sought after…copper skillet. No trophy here, no medal…it’s an actual skillet made of copper. Huh.
This year White Oaks hosted this event and of course our marketing team were asked to assist with the program materials and to secure judges – yes, it is completely official with judges and everything. To make the event more, “event-y”, we decided to invite any of the conferences in house that evening to attend, some key clients were invited, some media, and even some of our team were asked to dress up and “be the audience”. We set the tables, served some amazing food, had programs printed up with chef and judge bios and most importantly, opened the bar. The stage was set for everyone to have a pleasant evening.
There were 5 chefs competing, including Spencer Gardner-Durdle, Sous Chef at White Oaks. This would be Spencer’s first cooking competition and he had been practicing for weeks. How does one prepare for this type of timed competition where you don’t know what the ingredients are in advance? Well, Spencer’s boss Chef Price would wait till the quiet time of the day, plop down random ingredients in front of Spencer, slap him on the back and say “Go!” If you have watched any of these cooking shows on TV where the diva-like head chef storms about screaming and the air in the kitchen is blue from the cursing, let me assure you that our Chef could not be further from that stereotype – well, except for the swearing. He assured me Spencer was ready!
I went into the room where all the competing chefs were supposed to be enjoying soft drinks and relaxing before the evenings’ festivities were to begin. Holy jeez, now this was an atmosphere thick with tension and stress. I looked at Spencer and gave him the thumbs up and he smiled at me but I’m not sure if he really saw me. Spencer was nervous. They all were really and that’s when it hit home to me that despite all the running around we had all done to put this evening on, despite the meetings, despite the preparations and worry about whether people would enjoy the entertainment factor, this night was far more serious for these competing Chefs. We decided to wait outside the door to make sure none of them made a dash for it!
The room was packed with people. The cooking stations were floor level so that our crowd could watch up close what was happening. The judges were ready with clipboard and criteria in hand. The videographer was set and the MC took the stage. Each chef was introduced and entered the room to applause from the crowd as they found their station. I looked at Spencer just before he walked out and I struggled for something supportive to say to him to calm him down and give him confidence. For the life of me I could not think of a single thing to say because I really had no idea what he was about to face. I mean, I am presented with ingredients nightly that I have to somehow whip together into a meal and very often I’m time crunched to do it before we have to dash back out for hockey practice or soccer….but when I am judged by my teens, I can tell them to “shut it and get the dishes into the dishwasher, get your teeth brushed and be thankful you’re getting fed at all”. I could not offer Spencer any words of wisdom or comfort as he stood there, about to walk into a room, in front of his peers, and his boss to compete for his company. Spencer’s name was called, the doors opened and the crowd went wild! Spencer walked into the room and took his station as the hometown hero where his fellow sous chefs that he worked with every day, the banquet staff, the bartenders, our clients and invited guests, screamed, clapped and whistled as loud as they could to support him. Turns out, I didn’t have to say anything at all.
In the end, the copper skillet went to the reigning champion, talented chef Murray Hall from Bank of Montreal conference centre. We wish him well in Texas in the spring. Spencer was presented with a cold beer from his boss Executive Chef Michael Price, the praise of his colleagues and that glorious moment of thunderous applause and support that he’ll never forget.