What Does it Take to be a Pastry Chef Champion?

Sep 26, 2013

What Does it Take to be a Pastry Chef Champion?

Ben Shelton knows a thing or two about winning. The faculty member from Culinard, The Culinary Institute of Virginia College in Greensboro, N.C., received first place honors at the 24th Annual U.S. Pastry Competition, earning the title of "U.S. Pastry Chef of the Year."

We caught up with Chef Shelton to find out his strategy for a successful pastry competition. What kind of chops do winners have? Here are his top components:

"You have to know the field and you have to be experienced."

What Does it Take to be a Pastry Chef Champion?

Great pastry chefs aren't born. They are made. Chef Shelton studied at Johnson and Wales University where he received associate's degrees in Culinary Arts and in Baking and Pastry Arts, as well as a bachelor's degree in Food Service Management. After graduation he landed a job at PreGel America where he worked alongside some of the most prestigious pastry chefs in the world.

For Chef Shelton, this experience was vital. "At work, I was exposed to a plethora of styles that helped shape my own viewpoint," he said. "We had some of the world's best chefs come to teach us what was hot in places like Europe and China."

He now continues to sharpen his pastry art skills by teaching a Culinard, staying up to date on the latest trends, and experimenting in the kitchen.

"You can't live in the box. You're not going to win by recreating what won last year."

Contests have very specific guidelines. To win, you have to include all the components required, but you have plenty of creative license to showcase personalized style and flavor profiles. "See what's out there, and find innovative ways to change it," Chef Shelton recommends.

His winning creation was titled "Origins," and had three components: a chocolate oriented showpiece and blown sugar; an entremet comprised of chocolate, passion fruit, banana and hazelnut layers; and praline bonbons. Chef Shelton landed on his flavor combinations through trial and error. "I had several ideas for each component," he said. "We made them all, chose which was best and then started tweaking the recipes."

"Winning takes dedication. You have to practice, even on the days you don't want to."

What Does it Take to be a Pastry Chef Champion?

Chef Shelton cites the old saying, "The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra," adding that to win you must keep pushing. Your work could always be better.

It took him almost a year of preparation to get his competition entry to its winning level. "Be prepared to give up everything to win," he said. "I practiced every day for 10 months."

When it was time for the competition, he spent three weeks of long hours prepping his creations. He and an assistant then drove the entries from Concord, N.C. to New York City. Every pothole was nerve wracking, but in the end, the intense practice, labor and travel were all worth it.

What's next for Shelton? He was invited to audition for the Coup de Monde de la Patisserie in Lyon, France, but he's going to sit this year out and enjoy time with his family. They have a new baby on the way in December.

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