NEW YORK—A medley of aromas hung in the air, and with each breath, you could almost taste the food being served up at the International Restaurant & Foodservice Show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, on March 3.
Walking past row after row of booths, each with their own specialties, you’d eventually come across the coffee expo, where the deep smell of coffee beans sought to draw you in. But beyond that, past the artisan chocolates and ice cream, there was something yet more wonderful.
Top pastry chefs from around the world had gathered to show their skills, and behind the group of men and women speaking in French, there seemed to be statues of all sorts—some with brightly colored frills and glossy plates of delicacies. Yet, these were more than just statues. They were the finalists of the 24th Annual U.S. Pastry Competition.
“The cakes you see are all edible, there is no plastic or anything,” said Dominique Noel, vice president of Paris Gourmet, whose company presented the competition.
It was a good thing Noel clarified that, also. At first glance, few would guess that the entire cakes were edible. The chefs were challenged to experiment with sugar structures, and the products of their labor landed them in that place between food and art that most pastry chefs relish.
Benjamin Shelton of Pre Gel USA from Concord, N.C, was named the Pastry Chef of the Year. Second place went to New York’s Sandro Micheli from Daniel. Third went to Maura Metheny from Normal Love Confections from Fort Myers, Fla. The honorable mention went to Staten Island’s Salvatore Settepani from Pasticceria Bruno.
According to Noel, one of the main points of the contest is to drive the industry forward, and top chefs come from around the world to see what new innovations have been cooked up.
“It is certainly a place where the community of top chefs gets together to study new techniques that have been brought by the competitors,” Noel said.
“This competition is really a big gathering of a community of chefs,” he said. “We try to bring together the elite of the pastry industry, from the judges, to the competitors, to the mentors, to the sponsors. What we are trying to do here is create a community.”
The cakes were judged on a few key points. Taste was one of the leading factors, of course, but judges also rated the cakes based on their artistic presentation.
Noel said the perfect cake comes through balance, noting a good cake has “not too much sweet, not too much chocolate, not too much fruit—it’s a proper balance—and there are certain flavors that marry well together, and other flavors that do not marry well together.”
Marco Cossio, executive pastry chef at the M Resort in Las Vegas was one of this year’s judges. Cossio won the competition two years ago, and said his favorites were those that kept things simple.
“Sometimes during competitions, people like to try to impress the judges and put in different layers and this and that, and next thing you know, it has such a mix of flavors that it’s too much,” Cossio said.
“Then, other people go back and do maybe three or four flavors, put a nice texture on it, make it nice and well-finished, and that’s what did it,” he said.
There was one in particular that caught his attention. He said he couldn’t tell which cake it was, exactly, since the judges are not told which ones they’re tasting, but “the one that I liked a lot was just a simple chocolate mousse—nice cake, nice mousse, nice gloss on top. It was well-done, simple, not too sweet.”
Yet, as with any dessert, instinct always seems to be the deciding factor. Cassio said, “Something that I notice is that when you’re tasting a lot of cakes, if you feel like tasting another bite, it means you like it.”