"We’re ready to take on the rest of the world"
On Feb. 4, 2024, seven Culinary Arts students and recent graduates will get the chance to make their mark on the international culinary scene.
After a year-and-a-half of training outside of their regular coursework, they’ll battle teams from around the globe at the IKA Culinary Olympics in Stuttgart, Germany. The all-woman team – a first for NAIT – will have just five hours to prepare and serve 120 three-course meals to some of the most sophisticated palates in the world.
The NAIT group is Canada’s sole representation in the category of community catering.
“It’s a huge honour that we can take our skills that we've worked really hard on and showcase how we use ingredients in innovative ways,” says team captain Crystal Higgins (Culinary Arts ’21).
“Of course we have some nerves, but I know that our work ethic and passion are unmatched,” she adds, “and we’re ready to take on the rest of the world.”
More than a great menu
The IKA Culinary Olympics has taken place in Germany every four years since 1900. It attracts 1,800 participants from 67 countries. NAIT has sent a team to the event for more than 20 years.
“It's by far the most prestigious and challenging competition the NAIT culinary team participates in,” says Troy Lymburner (Cooking '92), Culinary Arts instructor and team coach ever since the polytechnic has competed in the Olympics.
“The team has their sights set high and we all hope to walk away with a gold medal.”
They'll prepare and plate their dishes in a convention hall in front of thousands of spectators. Each team starts with 300 points that are deducted based on rules that reflect various aspects of the trade.
“It includes things over and above the menu,” says Higgins, “such as sanitation and following proper food safety protocols, efficiency and keeping cool under pressure.”
Gold medals are awarded to teams who finish with 90 to 100 points. The top three teams will also earn a spot on the podium, receiving overall gold, silver or bronze medals.
The NAIT team began planning its menu, which event organizers dictated be defined by sustainability and feature plant-forward dishes, in September 2022. It was a process of trial and error.
“We test which flavours go well together and how to make the dishes look as attractive as possible,” says Lymburner. “And we also keep in mind the nutritional level. Nutrition plays a big part in this competition.”
In a nod to Canada and Alberta, the team’s menu will highlight ingredients such as field mushrooms, kidney beans, maple syrup, wild blueberries and raspberries, and wild rice – the combinations of which have been refined by unique opportunities for feedback combined with hours of practice.
Practice makes perfect
Since training began nearly 18 months ago, most of the team’s practice has happened outside of school hours. It has taken the form of fundraising events, catering opportunities and, most frequently and significantly, ticketed luncheons hosted in Ernest’s Dining Room, NAIT's on-campus restaurant.
During those monthly meals, the team spends time refining not only their culinary skills but core competencies such as teamwork, communication and working under pressure – skills that will also serve them well in careers to come.
“It's a lot of late nights and early mornings on practice days, and it takes a lot of balancing to handle both school and team expectations,” says Baking and Pastry Arts student Miranda McElwain (Culinary Arts '21, Retail Meat Cutting and Merchandising '22) . But she’s feeling positive thanks to the support of her coaches and teammates.
Higgins, who is a full-time sous chef at the Royal Glenora Club and a mom of two small children, shares that sentiment.
“It's extremely busy, but we all have the passion and the determination to want to do it. Our team mindset is that this is our one and only chance to do this, so let’s put the time, effort and passion into this and come home with a gold medal.”
The community has stepped up to help. Those practice lunches, for example, are consistently sold out. Lymburner notes that sponsors including Alberta Chicken, Freson Brothers, Blackjacks Roadhouse and Pratts Food Service Alberta have also contributed to efforts to raise the roughly $80,000 the team needs.
“Without the support of our sponsors, their donations and the fundraising events that they hosted for us, we would be challenged to get the team to the IKA Culinary Olympics.”
Already, those streams of support have enabled a unique student experience. The team has rallied around a goal that – without leaving Canada yet, and months of practice to come – has shaped their education.
Higgins knew from the start of her time at NAIT that she wanted to make the team.
“It drove me to success in class,” she says. “Now that we’ve gotten to this point … it’s like, ‘Wow, this is amazing! We’re actually going!’ We’ve been working so hard. It’s all very exciting.”
McElwain feels the same. “I always said to myself that if I ever get a chance to get to NAIT then I’m going to go after it,” she says. “It’s just really amazing to see it [happen].
“All the hard work has been 100% worth it.”
NAIT’s 2023 IKA Culinary Olympics Team
- Crystal Higgins, team captain (Culinary Arts ’21)
- Miranda McElwain (Culinary Arts '21, Retail Meat Cutting and Merchandising '22)
- Veronica Martens (Baking and Pastry Arts '21)
- Suzanne Boulet (Baking and Pastry Arts '22)
- Danielle Parjan (Culinary Arts '22)
- Aimée Rossetti
- Jillian Sampson
- Troy Lymburner (Cooking '92)
- Christopher Short (Culinary Arts ’96)
- Enrico Caparas