"THAT'S A Michelangelo!" Roger Fessaguet, chef of New York's La Caravelle restaurant and one of the judges for Washington's 14th Salon of Culinary Arts, repeated to anyone who came within range.
Fessaguet was standing in front of what looked like three bejeweled Faberge' eggs. But rather than being made from gold, gemstones and enamel, these were entirely edible, crafted of sugar that had been blown, pulled, poured, dropped and brushed to resemble treasures from a Russian museum. The three elaborately and delicately encrusted eggs, one of them split open to reveal a gilded interior and a tiny bouquet of glimmering flowers, had just been chosen the Best Piece of the Show in the competition held Feb. 28 at the Washington Sheraton Hotel. This gold-medal winner was among 140 edible culinary displays in nine categories entered by Washington professional chefs and culinary students as they competed for awards and the chance to participate in the International Culinary Olympics held in Germany every four years..
"I never saw something so well made as that," continued Fessaguet. "It couldn't be duplicated in New York." Being a veteran judge at such contests, he should know. He had awarded the creation 40 points -- a perfect score -- and called it hors concours, or "beyond competition," adding, "to be able to judge a piece like that is almost impossible." As for creating such a work of art, "Only one of 10,000 people are gifted enough to do that."
That one of 10,000 people he was praising was Ann Amernick of Place Vendome, whose work last year also won the same prize. "I'm surprised it's a lady," Fessaguet confided, before going over to deliver the praise in person to Amernick and her two young sons as they looked over the tables full of pastry flowers, seafood sculptures and meat still-lifes.
Judge Baron Galand, national vice president of the American Culinary Federation, reinforced Fessaguet's opinion: "That would win in any show in the country," he said of Amernick's work. "That would win in Germany."
"You can always tell a woman's touch," Galand claimed. "They decorate prettier."
Indeed, both the second- and third-place awards in Amernick's category, Single Entry Competition, also went to a woman, Linda Galgay, who works on her own but sells her sugar pastillage orchids for wedding cakes through Ridgewell's. She said that she only learned this sugar-sculpture technique six months before the show, where she entered arrangements of winter flowers and magnolias. In fact, revealed Galgay, this was the first time she had ever even attended a culinary show.
This year's show was considerably better attended than in past years; long lines of cars ground to a halt in front of the hotel, and at one point on Sunday, the crowds were so large that the admissions procedures were waived to facilitate spectators' entering the exhibition area.
Not only were the crowds larger, said Gerard Pain, of La Chaumie re, one of the organizers, but the size of the show had grown and the quality had improved, partly because the entrants had learned the rules and tended not to repeat their mistakes from previous years.
Chefs Pain and Robert Greault, of Le Bagatelle, organized this local competition several years back, but only two years ago instituted the rigorous rules of American Culinary Federation, which not only increased the professionalism of the show but also enabled winners to enter the international competition.
Yet despite the fact that there were 40 percent more entries than last year, very few French chefs entered this show. In previous competitions, the winners' circle has been heavily French accented; this year the only Frenchman among the winners -- and nearly the only French contestant -- was Pierre Chambrin. He and his team from Maison Blanche won the Judges' Special Award for a wine barrel constructed entirely of sugar pastillage. The Chambrin entry -- with its Gevrey Chambertin case filled with petits fours instead of wine bottles -- was realistic down to its wood grain and the paving stones on which the barrel sat.
The team's buffet display, which took second prize in its category, also included a "wooden" farmhouse, "glass" wine bottles, "china" plates and a wine press made of pastillage and noodle dough, the whole of which took the group five months to build. The first prize in the Grand Buffet category, however, went to the team from the Sheraton Washington Hotel, whose extravaganza included lobster claws decorated with herbs to depict an underwater scene, a crystal ball centerpiece with vegetable flowers, and a "Trilogy of Wellingtons" garnished with tiny pastry skillets.
While the French chefs of Washington showed up in force to view the exhibition, their absence as contestants led one of the organizers to raise the question, "Where are the French cooks?" and then answer it himself: "If they enter, they want to win. They think they deserve to win," he said, adding, "They can't tolerate Americans and Germans winning."
In any case, the challenge has been issued. This year's largely non-Gallic list of blue-ribbon winners included, in addition to Amernick and Chambrin,
Most Original Piece of the Show: Keith Clairmonte, Washington Culinary School.
Individual Cold Food Platters: Adolf Rehm, Rehm's Caterers.
Individual Hot Food: Nick Marino, Walter Reed Medical Center.
Individual Pastry Buffet or Display: Newel Nunter, General Officer's Mess, Pentagon.
Mini-Buffet: Albert Kirchmayr, Bonnie View Country Club.
Pastry Buffet: W. Friedrich, Sheraton Washington Hotel.
Grand Buffet: Reed S. Groban, Sheraton Washington Hotel.
Apprentice Competition, 1st Year: Raymond Harrison, Metropolitan Club.
Apprentice Competition, 2nd Year: Cynthia McCafferty, Congressional Country Club.
Apprentice Competition, 3rd Year: Jessica Schaeffer, Watergate Terrace Restaurant (Best Apprentice award).
Student: Karen Gahr, L'Academie de Cuisine.