NAIT’s first all-woman culinary team takes silver at “Olympics” of cooking

Earning a medal a “dream come true” for young culinarians

At the end of 2023, as nearly 18 months of training for the IKA Culinary Olympics wrapped up for the NAIT Culinary Team, Crystal Higgins (Culinary Arts ’21) was brimming with confidence.

“I know that our work ethic and passion are unmatched,” said the captain of the seven-member, all-woman team of recent NAIT grads and current students. “We’re ready to take on the rest of the world.”

And they were.

On Feb. 4, at the international cooking competition in Stuttgart, Germany, the team achieved a NAIT first: a silver medal in the community catering category. To earn it, the chefs created a three-course meal for 120 guests. Including prep and serving, the event lasted five hours.

“This win is huge for us as a team!” says Higgins, her award now proudly in hand.

“Bringing home a silver medal is a dream come true. I am so proud of these women and what we have accomplished.”

NAIT’s 2024 IKA Culinary Olympics Team

Student/grad competitors

Staff coaches

  • Troy Lymburner (Cooking '92)
  • Christopher Short (Culinary Arts ’96)
  • Enrico Caparas

“These culinarians put in countless hours of practice and refining of recipes, and this is a well-deserved achievement,” says coach Troy Lymburner (Cooking '92). “Truly, the work ethic, attention to detail, cleanliness and efficiency are all exceptional.”

A dish prepared by the NAIT culinary team at the 2024 IKA Culinary Olympics

Lymburner has served as coach for the event since the polytechnic began competing in it 20 years ago.

“It's by far the most prestigious and challenging competition the NAIT culinary team participates in,” he said before he and the group left Canada.

The IKA Culinary Olympics has taken place in Germany every four years since 1900. It attracts 1,800 participants from 67 countries.

For Miranda McElwain (Culinary Arts '21, Retail Meat Cutting and Merchandising '22), the sense of community at the event was as important as the opportunity to compete.

"Chefs from across the world unite over our passion for food," she says. "It was a great honour engaging with chefs from across Canada and watching other teams compete."

From the start of her time at NAIT, Higgins was focused on earning a place on the team that would ultimately compete in Germany. “It drove me to success in class,” she said.

Looking back on the competition, Higgins realizes she’s added lessons to what her NAIT instructors taught:

  • Be resilient – “In this industry if you are unable to adapt and move forward with what a kitchen can present to you, you will sink.”
  • Seek growth – “You always have to keep yourself in an uncomfortable state of learning.”
  • Accept feedback –  “Use it to fuel the fire within. The right mindset will take you to your desired destination.”

video panning dessert table at IKA culinary olympics

“This is another accomplishment to put on their resumé and will hopefully open doors in their careers,” says Lymburner. “It shows a true dedication and persistence that many employers would find valuable, as well as the ability to work under pressure.

“This is truly a unique group of women who should be exceptionally proud of their achievement, competing alongside professionals and coming away with validation of their skills and education,” he adds.

The experience was also an extension of that education. 

"Being a current full-time baking and pastry student while being on the team is challenging at times, but the skills [I learned] on the team have helped my excel in my classes," says McElwain. "This will only help me grow in my career."

nait culinary team having fun in the kitchen at the IKA culinary olympics

"Placing silver was such an phenomenal accomplishment for the whole team," says McElwain. "There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get to where we are today. I’m so so proud of all of us."

In looking at what made this team special, Lymburner recalls a comment from an event judge. It wasn’t just the presentation and quality of the food that made the women stand out; it was something unquantifiable yet evident in the outcome.

“He said that it was obvious that this team cooked from the heart,” says Lymburner.

"It was obvious that this team cooked from the heart."

“That was the best feedback the team got,” says Higgins. “The jury said they could tell we were cooking with love. That’s the best compliment I could ask for.

“For me, that's worth more than any medal.”

nait culinary arts team outside of event venue for the 2024 IKA culinary olympics

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