Chefs, as a general rule, are always striving to raise their ceiling, competing with themselves to achieve higher standards. It’s a trait that serves them well in their careers, and it all starts early. Competitions like the Humber College Iron Chef Competition, sponsored for 2022 by Kraft Heinz, help to foster this mindset, as well as to help student chefs collaborate in a competitive environment.
This year’s edition of the competition was held on April 26 and saw six teams of four students from the Baking and Pastry Arts Management and Culinary Management and Culinary Skills programs at Humber College tasked with preparing a three-course meal based on a theme.
The competition is led in partnership with Kraft Heinz by Shonah Chalmers, a culinary professor at Humber College and president of the Toronto branch of the Culinary Federation. Chalmers has run the competition for over a decade at Humber, inviting culinary, nutrition, and baking students to enter. With the help of her faculty partner Mark Jachecki, she creates the parameters and sources ingredients, prices, and judges for the competition.
“It started out small but every year, it’s grown and grown with the help of other chefs as well as our faculty and partners like Kraft Heinz,” Chalmers says. “It’s a safe space for them to test themselves and each other and get creative.”
To begin the 2022 edition, 11 teams registered and created and submitted a menu and recipe package based on specific criteria. They were then whittled down to six teams of four students who competed for the title of Humber Iron Chef.
“The competition is a lot of work, but it gives students the opportunity to really hone and showcase their skills and build that mental and physical experience of working as a team under pressure,” says Chalmers. “That experience is something you may not get in the classroom.
The menus all had a theme of “Comfort Food Reinvented” and had to include one plant-forward course. Numerous mandatory ingredients had to be incorporated, including a host of Kraft Heinz products. One secret ingredient was revealed on the day of the competition: Kool-Aid Powdered Drink Mix with flavours consisting of Orange, Cherry, and Screamin’ Lime.
The finalists’ menus were then judged by a set of prestigious tasting judges for this year including Kraft Heinz’s Corporate Chef Thomas Heitz; Dave Godfrey, Director of Culinary for the Firkin Group; and Alex Fineberg, Director of Culinary Operations for Shoeless Joe’s Ltd. Kitchen judges included Humber College’s own Chef Instructors Francisco Rivera, George Taluri, and Matt Fulton.
Heitz noted that Kraft Heinz wanted to sponsor the competition for the second year in a row because of how it contributes to a sense of community and helps to enhance culinary students’ experience, giving them exposure and experience of the foodservice industry through factors such as time pressure, making multiple dishes at once, plating, and serving guests.
At the same time, he says, the experience is rewarding for Kraft Heinz, too.
“This competition is like a little innovation session,” Heitz says. “Canada is such a melting pot – we have every cuisine in the world. Canadian cuisine is fusion cuisine. Seeing how chefs from other cultures incorporate our products into their own cuisines is a real thrill for us. That level of thinking outside the box and innovating is fantastic. It’s innovation brainstorming.”
Chalmers adds that the competition was keen to retain Kraft Heinz as a partner as their product range includes some plant-based products, which Chalmers and her co-organizers wanted to incorporate this year. The plant-based products used included Good Planet Vegan Cheese and Heinz Vegan Mayonnaise.
The 2022 Humber College Iron Chef Competition was won by Team Humberlicious, comprised of chefs Yannick Charette, Mariel Quiambao, Quang Bach Pham, and Zainab Waheed. The quartet beat out the other five teams with their three delicious dishes: Vegan Pad Thai, Chicken Three Ways, and Ube Cannoli with Ice Cream.
“You can’t make three courses with four people unless you know how to work together, understand the dynamics of your group, and pick up each other’s slack,” says Chalmers. “The winning team really showcased that and that’s what makes a winner, not just in this competition but in this industry.”
That competitive streak we talked about that is within every chef drives them to put themselves to the test, and competitions like the Humber Iron Chef Competition encourage that in a collaborative and creative environment.
Ultimately, Chalmers and Kraft Heinz are proud to have created and developed a safe space to encourage culinary students.
“This is investing in the future of hospitality and food for many generations to come,” Heitz says. “This competition is a way for Kraft Heinz to give back to the industry. We are a food company first and foremost, and when you’re a food company, you’re a people company. For us to have a future, we have to make sure that there are future culinary programs and hospitality programs, because it’s in these places that our food gets exposure and grows. This ecosystem is a symbiotic system – we need to support them because they support us.”
Chalmers concludes that while chefs are very competitive against themselves, they are very collaborative with one another, and the Humber Iron Chef Competition helps to encourage that in a healthy way.
“We want to succeed, of course, but most chefs just want to be their best selves and to keep learning,” she says. “That’s why this industry is great – you can learn forever. This competition means that when they go out into the culinary world, they are already team players and planners and organized and accomplished.
“They never let each other fail and pushed each other to achieve a higher standard. If you can do that in a competition, then you can do it in the real-world industry – and you’re going to be successful in both.”