There may be some obscure cooking competitions here, but look at what the Venetians get up to…
The most bizarre cooking competition I ever went to involved teams of blindfolded leather-clad dwarves on trampolines competing to see who could prepare the best egg white omelette using quail eggs… ok, I've made that up… everyone knows that you can't make a decent omelette with quail eggs. But the part yacht race around Venice/part below deck cook-off/part fancy dress competition that is The S.Pellegrino Cooking Cup, which I recently attended as part of the judging panel is very real.
Before S.Pellegrino stepped in seven years ago, the Cooking Cup was no more that a fun and frivolous competition dreamt up by the yacht club. Although amateur cooks and crews still compete and there is a prize for the crew with the best fancy dress, the real competition is between the 10 professional chefs from across the globe that compete to prepare the best dish during the 10 km race.
This is only the second year that a British chef has competed, Tom Aikens last year took the gong for the Best International Chef. Following in his footsteps was Angela Hartnett who, while she waits for The Connaught to reopen, has a bit of free time.
Hartnett was up against nine other professional cooks from across Europe and beyond, the field including chefs from Australia, Japan and South Africa, with each chef expected to source the majority of their ingredients for their dish from Venice's famous Rialto market at 7am on the morning of the race. The yachts that act as bases for the professional chefs all have similarly equipped kitchens.
Although many of the yachts involved were just enjoying taking part, one competitor took it seriously enough to strip out his yacht's galley the night before so that he could pick up the bonus points going for operating with a more basic kitchen.
On the judging boat, I felt regal as the yachts lined up to present dish after dish.
The judges were divided into three teams and we each tasted around 18 dishes which were judged on appearance, taste, creativity and – considering it's all been done below deck on a racing yacht – difficulty.
There were some truly terrible efforts from the amateurs although they cranked up the creativity; one entrant sent out a terrifying volcano-like presentation of various dips and salads, others sent poems and music (courtesy of an ipod connected to a set of speakers) alongside their dishes in an attempt to sway the judges.
That said, the best thing I tasted came from an amateur cook who, with my palate particularly jaded towards the end, put out a near perfect oyster risotto.
As for our Angela, she took the Best International Chef for the UK for the second year in a row with her John Dory and Stuffed Tortellini, despite having to rush between the galley and the lav' with severe sea sickness, poor dear.