TORONTO — Focus will be the name of the game when James Olberg dons his chef's whites for the biggest competition of his life.
He's been fixated for months on gruelling preparations for the biennial Bocuse d'Or competition, slated to take place Tuesday and Wednesday in Lyon, France.
Olberg will be representing Canada and competing against 23 other outstanding chefs from around the world in an intense contest some call the culinary Olympics. The contest was launched in 1987 by Lyonnaise chef Paul Bocuse, legendary for innovation and the high quality of his restaurants.
Olberg has cooked across the country for more than two decades in such kitchens as the King Edward Hotel and the posh La Societe bistro in Toronto; the Sheraton Hotel in Red Deer, Alta.; and Queen's Landing Hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Most recently he was culinary director and executive chef of Glowbal Group in Vancouver, though he's stepped down to prepare for the competition.
The Kitchener, Ont., native was an observer at the 2015 Bocuse d'Or so he knows what to expect when he walks into his cooking cubicle to prepare two dishes amid "distressing" noise from thousands of spectators.
"It's like a busy restaurant of service and 10 waiters are trying to talk to you at one time and you just have to keep focused. It's stressful," Olberg said.
The 49-year-old intends to concentrate on the routine he and his team have established.
"We know we're going to deal with a lot of anxiety in the kitchen with people staring at us and the cameras, but we also have a plan that we're just going to keep our heads down and follow routine. We're just going to stay in that zone as long as we possibly can.
"Adrenaline's going to kick in. Panic and fear will kick in, but it's the routine that's more important. That's what we've been working on the hardest."
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Bocuse d'Or, organizers have asked competitors to express their creativity with Bresse chicken and shellfish, based on the famous Lyon recipe for chicken and crayfish.
It's a throwback to the first competition when that dish was the compulsory element.
Bresse chicken is regarded as the best-quality table chicken in the world. Its production is rigidly controlled.
The poultry, grown free range for at least four months, is completely different from typical Canadian supermarket chicken and is not available in this country. Olberg ordered chicken from a B.C. farm that's raising animals with a similar structure for some insight.
"The (Bresse) leg meat is so huge, the breasts are small, which makes complete sense. In the wild they're using the leg muscle to move and they're not pumped on all these little things they do to chicken nowadays," explained Olberg.
"It's a more real bird. You have to look at it differently when you butcher it and how you're going to use the protein."
In a twist — and in a quest to have the contest reflect modern cooking — chefs learned only on Dec. 1 that they would also have to make a dish composed exclusively of fruits, vegetables, cereals, seeds or legumes.
Olberg says he felt comfortable with his interpretation of the chicken and shellfish dish after working on it full-time since September, but admitted to being stymied by the late addition of the vegan dish.
"We're still working on it. We're still not happy with everything about it. We're not going to stop until the last days in France," he said the day before departing for Lyon.
Chefs are encouraged to put the stamp of their country's cuisine on their creations while respecting the original recipe. Olberg planned to pair North American lobster with the Bresse chicken and add ice wine and wild rice.
Canadian components in the required three garnishes include pickled pine needles and butternut squash with apple cider.
Both dishes must be ready to present to judges in five hours and 35 minutes.
Olberg is joined by assistant Navjeet Singh Masuta and coach Trevor Ritchie, who has qualified to represent Canada at the 2019 Bocuse d'Or.
At one point, Olberg's participation was doubtful due to a lack of funding, but chefs in Vancouver stepped in and sponsored a fundraiser.
He laments there is no government help and is thankful the Delta Toronto Hotel provided him with a kitchen in which to practise.
"If we're going to focus on the arts — our opera, dance — we should be focusing on our culinary stuff too because it does develop our culture and our country," said Olberg.
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Lois Abraham, The Canadian Press