Winning this chef-of-the-year contest can turn a cook into a legend
PETER! PETER! PETER!” screams the young Asian woman, her hair spiked into a cock’s comb, her “Rockabilly Forever” T-shirt slashed at the shoulders, as she stands up in the stadium. “Karin! Karin!” yells a lanky blond teen in the nosebleed section. Their cries mingle with the music they came to hear—only we’re not talking electric guitar. The sounds emanating from the stage are the thumping of knives, the clattering of pots, and the sizzling of chicken searing in hot oil.
Much has been made of the rock star-style fame of some U.S.
chefs, but what I’m seeing now in Göteborg, in southwestern Sweden, is indisputable evidence of that phenomenon. Forget Woodstock; this is Árets Kock, the Swedish chef-of-the-year contest, and it is as eagerly awaited an entertainment as its country has to offer.
Held every February for the past 21 years in either Göteborg or Stockholm—and hosted this year by Trâdgâr’n, a local restaurant and nightclub—Ärets Kock is a major national event: the TV special recapping the seven-hour spectacle draws over a million viewers in a country of just 8.7 million people. (The actual contest is open to the trade only.) The contestants are heroes to youngsters, like those here today, from Swedish cooking schools. Indeed, they’re “like hooligans for cooking”, says Leif Mannerström,
KELLY ALEXANDER, a former senior editor at SAVEUR and now a consulting editor for the magazine, lives in North Carolina.
an elder-statesman chef who has been a judge every year and owns Sjömagasinett, a temple to fish on Göteborg’s harbor. The importance of the contest can’t be overestimated, says Mannerström: “Everybody knows you the day after—you are on the radio, on TV, in advertisements.” The predominant theory as to why competitive cooking is such a draw in Sweden has to do with tennis. “The Björn Borg effect has come to cooking,” says Hanna Halpern, the contest coordinator. She’s referring, of course, to Sweden’s famous “Ice Man”, who won Wimbledon five years in a row beginning in 1976. “Borg made tennis accessible to all. It’s the same thing with the chefs, and the contest grows in popularity year after year.”
Six CONTESTANTS, chosen from a field of 150 on the basis of their submitted recipes and their having won regional contests, are about to take the stage. Since all are full-time restaurant cooks, they’ve had to practice in the wee hours of the morning, after an arduous day on the job. Nerves are jangling. One contestant, a very tall man with bleached blond hair and the debauched demeanor of Billy Idol, drums his fingers against his skull; he is Anders Vendel, chef-owner of a restaurant called Mötesplats Österlen, in Löderup in southern Sweden. Last night, the contestants all ate together at a meal traditionally called “the voltage dinner” because it is so rife with tension.
The room begins to fill, and the chefs go to their individual cooking stations, where each will have one assistant. The first part of the contest requires the chefs to make a “modern main course from chicken". This tests both their creativity in dealing with a quotidian ingredient and their basic cooking techniques. The second part involves composing a platter of finger appetizers (called “cocktails” by the Swedes) that should be aesthetically pleasing as well as delicious. Judging the first segment will be old-guard master technicians like Mannerström; the second will feature internationally influenced chefs, including Marcus Samuelsson of New York City’s Aquavit and Riingo restaurants, who grew up in Sweden.
As the contest officially begins, a TV crew plants itself in front of the action. In addition to rebel Vendel, there is Anders Wilhelmsson, the executive chef at Teater Cafét, in Umeâ in northeastern Sweden; he looks boyish, with ears that stick out from his head. Peter Johansson, dark-haired and serious, is the owner and executive chef at the one-Michelin-star Restaurant Lux Stockholm. Peter J. Skogström, chef of Mat och Vin pâ Stolpaberga, in southern Sweden, is a broadly built fellow with a big following here because he’s a member of Sweden’s Olympic culinary team. (The team, which trains like the military—with members signing up for a four-year tour of duty and taking ten-kilometer runs together—has placed first in the last three Olympics.) Markus Aujalay, a chef at Stockholm’s Swedish-French-Asian restaurant Fredsgatan 12 (see SAVEUR, January/February 2004), took third here last year and is the most relaxed of all the competitors, looking around with an impish grin. Finally there is Karin Andersson, a blonde with icy blue eyes and a trim ponytail who in fact works in the kitchen at Trädgar’n. Not many women compete, and Andersson cooks as if she bore the mantle of her entire gender; her hands shake, and she is flustered by the hovering reporters.
At the one-hour mark, the stage is a flurry of activity. Vendel is trimming brisket, Wilhelmsson is wrapping meat in foil, Johansson is tying packets of herbs, Skogström is peeling garlic, Andersson is tasting stock, and Aujalay is arranging potatoes in a roasting pan.
AT 1 1:00 A.M. the judges convene to taste the chicken dishes, j Karl Ljung, a small, soft-spoken man who was chef of the year in 1999, sits next to me near the stage and assesses the plates. One fea! tures a whole chicken breast and leg alongside what looks like mashed potatoes for ten, while another shows a medallion of chicken breast the size of a 50-cent piece. The smaller, more elegant presentation is the one Ljung predicts will do better, saying it shows “good craftsmanship”. Only Markus Aujalay’s plate has anything green. His panfried breast and wing, stuffed with herbs and served in a clear broth with porcini mushrooms, is garnished with artichokes, celery, and soybeans. Compared with such offerings as Skogström’s curry-spiked chicken with apple jelly and Andersson’s chicken with tomato chutney, roasted jerusalem artichokes, and fried shallots, Aujalay’s entry, with its cleaner-sounding flavors, seems to shine.
Several hours into the event, the contestants are carefully arranging their cocktails, so artful they look like jewels. Andersson is forming tiny sandwiches of jerusalem artichoke mousse, potatoes, and chanterelles; Aujalay is putting bits of lobster on croutons that have been wrapped in cucumber slices and layered with cauliflower mousseline and lobster jelly; Wilhelmsson is nudging smoked reindeer meat into small pools of celery root purée; and Skogström is sprinkling miniature parsley-cauliflower omelettes with shallots. Ljung has become my pipeline to the buzz behind the scenes. Through his friends on the judging panel, he’s learned that Skogström, Aujalay, and Andersson are the main contenders and that it’s a tight race.
One by one, the chefs are told to stop cooking. (The staggered schedule makes it easier for officials to monitor any illegal last-minute touch-ups.) The second jury takes its place on the dais. Marcus Samuelsson, who is well known here, gets huge cheers as his name is announced. Before the contest began, he told me that although winning Ärets Kock can offer a golden opportunity, he feels that a competitive culture sometimes gets in the way of the food: “Art is not about wanting to be the best—that attitude goes against creativity.” And, interesting enough, the man who is probably Sweden’s most highly regarded chef, Melker Andersson—with four cuttingedge restaurants in Stockholm, including the aforementioned Fredsgatan 1 2 (where Aujalay is a chef)—has never won the contest.
The judges sample the cocktail platters and murmur among themselves. Aujalay’s lobster-cucumber-cauliflower concoction, with its cheerful pink, green, and amber bits, seems to be a hit, as does Andersson’s little sandwich of local cheddar cheese spiked with lime juice and olive oil. As the contestants tidy their stations, the judges finish deliberating, and a break is called until the evening, when the winners will be announced at a banquet dinner.
At the coat check, I notice the woman next to me, a fair-skinned brunette with deep blue eyes and a decidedly nervous expression. She smiles, and we begin to chat. It turns out that she is the partner of Markus Aujalay and the mother of his two small sons. “I’m Erika,” she says. “How are you holding up?” I ask her. “He has worked so, so hard for this,” she says of Aujalay gravely, “and sacrificed so much; I don’t want to think about it if he doesn’t win.”
IN JUST FOUR HOURS, the kitchen stadium has been transformed into a fancy, table-lined ballroom sparkling with Orrefors crystal. Dinner for 400 is about to be served, and the guests include several government officials. I sit with the minister of agriculture, AnnChristin Nykvist. “Who will win?” she asks me. Having intently watched the cooking, I agree with the assessment Ljung conveyed: Skogström, Andersson, and Aujalay were the most impressive.
Those predictions swiftly prove to have been accurate. Skogström is given third place; if he is disappointed, he doesn’t show it. And the crowd of teenagers in the banquet’s balcony whoop as if he’d won it all. When Andersson wins second, she bows deeply, her expression relaxed. “She will be back next year,” Ljung says to me, and I hope that she does compete again, next time with all the confidence in the world. When Aujalay is announced as the winner, it isn’t the stage I am watching. Sitting at a table near me is Erika, her eyes welling with tears as everyone else in the ballroom—all 400 people—stands to celebrate her beloved’s accomplishment. Aujalay himself beams at her, his own eyes shiny, the moment belonging to him. jp*-