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The First Ever

First ever competition


May 2, 2008
By Diana Coutu

Topics

 “Italian Chef Wars” Competition – A Contestant’s Story.
How I lost the battle but won the war

 “Italian Chef Wars” Competition – A Contestant’s Story.
How I lost the battle but won the war

The first ever ‘Italian Chef Wars’ competition in Las Vegas went off with great energy, some challenges, and a few laughs. It started the day before, when David Cohen (U.S. competitor) and I had our pre-competition meeting, behind the Pizza Festiva kitchen. We carefully selected our ingredients for the following day; I picked out the nicest, freshest, plump roma tomatoes, portobello mushrooms, ripe red peppers, red onions, strawberries and fresh spices. The event coordinators arranged to have my “secret” ingredients for me – and a six-pack of Moosehead lager beer was in a locked cage.

We were each assigned a cooler to store our prudently selected ingredients and our pizza dough, which we were allowed to make at the meeting. I wanted to put the beer in the cooler, but it couldn’t be locked and it was suggested that the beer wouldn’t be there the next day. “That’s ok, you Canadians like to drink your beer warm!” one event assistant said to me. I think I actually gagged. “That’s the British,” I corrected her, “We Canadians like our beer ice cold, like our snow.”

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Then I made my pizza dough and I realized that the digital scale I’d requested didn’t have metric weights. ‘My kingdom for a metric scale’, I wanted to yell. Luckily, my husband extraordinaire, Pierre, was at hand to convert my recipe to Imperial measurements. I rolled my dough into 4 patties and put it in my designated cooler. It turned out wonderful and I felt great!

The next morning I arrived about an hour before the start of the competition. “We’ve got problems”, David says to me, “the cooler froze up last night. All of our ingredients are frozen solid, and our dough.” I pulled out my pizza dough … yup, frozen solid, not even slightly proofed. I check out my now frozen fresh vegetables … yep, the romas have chill damage, and the portebellos are rock-hard. This is going to be a ‘character building day’ I think to myself. I put my beer in the cooler/freezer hoping to serve frosty bottles to the judges.

I power proofed my dough by putting it near a warm oven and wetting it down. It turned out pretty good, and I only had to trim the patty a little because the edges dried out. I was allowed to select new ingredients, but they had been in the same cooler, and suffered the same fate. Oh well, I continued to collect my ingredients and set up my station. I was ready for battle.  

About 15 minutes before the clock started, I noticed that the wok I had requested was still in the box, and had to be assembled, washed and seasoned. In fact, all the pots, pans and mixers were brand new out of the box. My assistant Pierre quickly assembled my wok and washed all my pots and pans for me.

Since you don’t know me, I should mention here that I’m extremely strict about proper food handling, proper hand washing, and clean utensils/dishes. The last thing I wanted was to give the judges a nasty case of food-borne illness or to have my dishes taste like new pots. Pat Bruno, the M.C. for the event even teased me about my ‘cleanliness’ during the competition. But I digress …

Once the clock started I began making my dessert. It’s a variation of a pizza dough, made with maple syrup and Moosehead Beer and it needed time to proof within my 90 minute window. The mixer I needed was behind the Pizza Festiva kitchen, along with the Baker’s Pride oven I intended to use.

Pierre had already converted my recipe weights for me, so I made my beer/yeast mixture, weighed my flour, grabbed my olive oil and headed behind the giant curtain … only someone had closed it with Velcro so I tripped on the bottom and spilt my beer/yeast mixture all over my leg, and on the floor. CRAP, I screamed, but no one heard (luckily). A vision of me falling face first on the concrete floor and knocking out some chicklets flashed before my eyes – thank goodness that didn’t happen, I’d have to make payments on that hospital visit.

Feeling a little embarrassed, I made a quick check to see how much I’d spilt. Not too much, it appeared, thankfully I wouldn’t have to remake the mixture. Five minutes later I was back in the Festiva kitchen, weighing and rolling my dessert dough. 

Next, I slapped out my pizza, gently brushed on the olive oil and herb sauce and topped it like a beautiful masterpiece. Then I slapped out another patty into a foccaccia, brushed it with olive oil and topped with garlic, basil, oregano and sea salt. My hands were sticky with garlic and herbs, and I had to slap out my dessert dough next – which would have tasted pretty gross as a garlic- and herb-flavoured strawberry maple syrup with whipped cream dish – so I ran back through the curtains to wash my hands again. Sure enough some idiot closed them again, but this time around, I checked before I leaped through the small opening.

The next 40 minutes flew by. I can only tell you that they are a blur. Every time I looked up all I saw were cameras, and the ominous clock. I didn’t even use the portebellos because they were mushy by the time Pierre cut them up. I did complete all of my
dishes in the allotted 90-minute time period. Then David and I took turns presenting each dish to the judges.

After presenting, the event coordinators added up the scores. It took them over a half an hour. They had to add it up three times because it was so close. It was the longest half hour of my life. The crowd was restless. Turns out I only lost by about 10 points, which is pretty damn good considering my competition trained at the Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute and in Greece, and I just have a passion for cooking great-tasting food. Second best in North America isn’t too shabby. 

In the end, I had a lot of fun, and many fellow Canadians came up to me and thanked me for representing Canada so well and putting Winnipeg on the map. I’d like to thank Canadian Pizza magazine for giving me this opportunity, Moosehead Breweries for all their support, and all my fellow Canucks who cheered for me.•

Diana Coutu and her husband Pierre own and operate Diana’s Gourmet Pizza in Winnipeg, Man. Diana is “Canada’s 2005 Pizza Chef of the Year,” as selected by Canadian Pizza magazine.


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