Some time ago, I was asked whether I’d be interested in judging a competition. As I haven’t actually received formal BJCP training yet, it wasn’t a beer competition. It was something of a departure from my regular activities as this was for the Barry Callebaut Intercollegiate Chocolate Competition. I’m sure that old Slugworth would have given his eye teeth for the opportunity, but I went in somewhat concerned that I was going to screw up somehow. The only thing I’ve ever judged is the Stella Artois pouring competition, and that was a great deal less work on my part. It involved a touchscreen and split second decisions and, having passed the qualifying rounds, the participants were really only required to work for about a minute.
The thing you have to understand about the Barry Callebaut Intercollegiate Chocolate Competition is that it is far more involved than that. This year the theme was The Circus. The entirety of the event was split into two days of work and many more weeks of planning on the parts of the competitors. It involved creating recipes and plate designs and sourcing ingredients and mis en place and not a small amount of architecture.
The first day of the contest was Saturday and that was given over entirely to creating circus themed sculptures out of chocolate. I know that some of you are thinking that this is not a productive use of chocolate, but I’m going to let the pictures stand on their own, to demonstrate the sort of level of skill that we’re talking about. These were on display in the hallway outside the kitchen in which our participants were toiling.
I was there mostly to judge the bonbons and plated desserts. I assume that people look at me and think that surely a man who applies himself to desserts with gusto. I almost never seem to eat dessert. I mean, everyone loves cake, but I rarely order any. Bonbons? I like a salted caramel periodically, but I do not typically find myself in front of a display case at Soma or MoRoCo or Leonidas.
Fortunately, we media judges were paired off with judges who actually had deep chocolate backgrounds. There were three rounds in total that I was judging, including hand dipped bonbons, moulded bonbons and plated desserts.
I do not know anything about tempering chocolate. On the rare occasions that I bake, I have two specialties: Blackberry White Chocolate Cheesecake and a Chocolate Cake. When I would sometimes bring them into the office, they would disappear quickly enough and I was very popular for several hours before the Xerox machine jammed and people were once again cursing my name.
Fortunately, I did not actually need to know how to temper chocolate or about the processes that go into making the bonbons. All that mattered was that I was able to recognize the signs of it being done well. For instance, you want the chocolate coating on a hand dipped bonbon to shine. You want the surface of the outside of it to be uniform. You want, should you cut the bonbon in half, it to be completely symmetrical. The layer of chocolate on top should not be greatly different than the layer on the bottom. The edges must not be ragged; if the chocolate has been tempered incorrectly, there will be bubbling. They must weigh between 10 and 15 grams and God help you if you are over or under. They must be 50% chocolate.
Unlike a beer competition, like the IPA Challenge I had been at the previous day, it is not enough to simply make something delicious. The bonbons must adhere to the theme of the competition. They must dazzle and delight. They must satisfy the eye as well as the palate.
I was very pleased with myself when I actually said something intelligent about stabilizing a gelee with agar instead of pectin. The proper judge that I was paired with actually looked thoughtful for a moment and nodded. I was probably not going to make a complete ass of myself, I discovered.
Look at the artistry on display in these pictures. These bonbons were turned out during the first two hours of the day, before I am usually out of bed on a Sunday. I want you to pay special attention to the following two pictures.
The second picture is shaky because the amount of delicacy involved in deftly inserting this stick of white chocolate made me cringe. I could literally not watch the contestant (Amanda Liang from Vancouver Community College) put this together without a squint and a grimace. I imagine that if I were watching someone defuse a bomb, it would be a similar reaction.
Some of the judging was based on taste structure. Through all rounds, this essentially meant how well the disparate elements went together. I found that texture was a particular bugbear for me. I also learned that my preference in beer carries over to bonbons. I like it when a thing has a distinct progression of flavours. Take this bonbon by Sean Tremblay from Red River College, for instance. The explanation is that he imagined clowns in a pie fight and wondered what flavours would be in a pie fight (Pineapple, Lime and Coconut). The acidity progressed through to the nutty coconut flavour. Clever as all get out.
The moulded bonbons were next. Apparently the way you make a moulded bonbon is to take a mould, fill it with chocolate and then quickly empty the mould, hoping that the chocolate will solidify around the outsides of the mould. There were some impressive techniques happening here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone wield a pastry scraper faster or with more surgical precision than Kevin Francisco from Humber College. I would not want to be a sheet of phyllo dough around that dude.
Some of the technique is astounding, with people airbrushing colour into cocoa butter on the insides of the mould. They were frighteningly precise.
Finally, we reached the stage with the plated desserts at about 3PM. The desserts were staggered in ten minute windows to give the students time to prepare. I have relatively little constructive to offer by way of criticism, except for this. If you are going to be in a competition and the competition hinges on a central thematic construct, it’s very important to be able to explain your thought process. I’m all about conceptual continuity, and while I cannot state emphatically that it influences my tastebuds, I think that the mental process of judging is affected by it. I was certainly more pleased to see plate designs that were obviously a design that worked in conjunction with the total concept.
Also, I notice that with some plated desserts, less can be more. Frequently, there are elements plated for the purpose of visual design that simply do not belong. Maybe a sort of chocolate and nut soil is added as a bed to extend height. Maybe there is one large element of the dessert that throws the plate slightly off balance visually. That said, I would have been happy to receive the vast majority of them in a restaurant setting.
By the end I was pointing things out that the other judges agreed with and managing to follow a great deal more of the technical criticism than I would have expected. I guess all that time watching Scott Conant and Alex Guarnaschelli yell at people on Chopped paid off.
Having done my best Augustus Gloop imitation, I managed to waddle home, but not before receiving a very large amount of chocolate to take away with me as a thanks for my efforts. I’m assuming that the chocolate will eventually be consumed, but probably not until I find something creative to do with it.
My thanks to the people of Barry Callebaut for having me along, and to all the students for their monumental efforts.
(ed. Note: I swear, I’ll get back to writing about beer at some point.)