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Top Chefs: The IACC’s Copper Skillet Competition picks its winner. We meet the finalists from the U.S., U.K. and Canada ...




Started in 2004, the annual Copper Skillet Competition is the International Association of Conference Centre’s (IACC) opportunity to showcase the great culinary skills of its member conference centers around the world. The showdown is held each year at the IACC-Americas summit where competing chefs assemble and are presented with a secret basket filled with produce, grains and proteins to use in their meal. Each chef is granted 15 minutes to plan his or her dish and 30 minutes for the cook-off.

After, three judges assess the meals on criteria of creation, presentation, texture, flavor and hygiene in the work area. This year’s winner was Pascal Marcin of Dolce La Hulpe in Belgium who presented a sweet lamb with basil and diced blue beef, fondue of leeks in chicken stock, red pepper seared with lemon and coriander and potato and purple asparagus tips in virgin olive oil with thyme.

Here we meet the three finalists from the U.S., U.K. and Canada who fill us in on the experience and what they will take with them to the kitchens at their conference centers.

U.S.

Shane Brassel of the Charles F. Knight Executive Education & Conference Center in St. Louis, MO

His background …

It all started in high school. That’s when chef Shane Brassel caught the cooking bug. He was working at an Italian restaurant on the weekends and, as part of his coursework, took a cooking class that resulted in a scholarship to a culinary program at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island.

Later, Brassel began his career with the Ritz-Carlton Group in St. Louis before migrating to the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. But it’s his current role with Washington University’s Charles F. Knight Executive Education & Conference Center that really stuck, perhaps thanks to the variety Brassel gets to exercise. “We have a catering menu, a wedding menu, a pub menu, a room service menu. There’s so many different options to make it diverse for all our clientele,” he says.The experience at Copper Skillet …This year was the first time Brassel had participated—and to great success. Not only was he the U.S. finalist but Brassel walked away with the runner-up silver medal as well. “You can’t even turn on your stove beforehand to warm up the pan,” Brassel says of the high-stakes cooking round. “When you finally get to see the ingredients you have to make sure you can cook your dish in the amount of time allotted. My focus was to work on the protein.”And his strategy worked. Brassel’s winning dish was a combination of Dijon-crusted pork tenderloin medallion with natural jus and pan-seared beef filet, accompanied by a Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer sauce, buttered poached asparagus and a southwestern bean relish.The one thing he’ll take with him back to his kitchen …“Always being creative. You have to be fast in this job. If you don’t get a delivery in time or you are out of stock of an item, you have to be able to work around it and think about something else you can prepare—but that’s what makes the job fun.”U.K.Iain Miller of the Woodside Conference Center in Kenilworth, WarwickshireHis background …Since beginning his culinary career at the age of 17, chef Iain Miller has come full circle. “I apprenticed at Woodside as a teenager and as of last year I came back here to where it all began,” Miller says. Of course in between there were chef appointments at a number of Michelin-rated restaurants, including head chef at Kenilworth’s noted Simply Simpsons where Miller earned a Bib Gourmand in the Michelin Guide. In 2010, Miller opened a steakhouse with a friend and worked to make it successful for two years but something called him back to Woodside when the opportunity was presented to him.
 

“I like being able to change my menu on a daily basis,” he says of the appeal of the conference center where he has recently been practicing a sous vide method of cooking. “You’re feeding people for multiple meals a day for several days a week, so you have to keep your menus fresh and varied because if you don’t, people will notice.”

The experience at Copper Skillet …

Although Miller has medaled at several cooking competitions within the U.K. in the past, this was his first time competing in the Copper Skillet. “It’s the competition I’ve enjoyed the most,” he says. “Everyone is on par and everyone has the same chance. You use the same utensils and ingredients; it all comes down to how the chef produces on the day of and what decisions he or she makes, and that in itself is refreshing.”

Miller’s tactic was to think outside the box with his proteins. “I assumed everyone would go for the steak so I went for the pork and lamb,” he says of his strategy. What resulted was a trifled lamb pate with mango salsa and pork filet with caramelized apples and crushed potatoes.

The one thing he’ll take with him back to his kitchen …

“It’s interesting to go to other places and see what people do with food. One morning [during the competition stay] I had a scrambled egg with chorizo for breakfast. I had never thought to do that before but it was a great combination so I’ve started incorporating that into my menu. It’s those little things that can change your whole perspective as a chef.”

Canada

Murray Hill of the BMO Financial Group Institute for Learning in Toronto, Ontario

His background …

Chef Murray Hill started his culinary education at Caribou College in British Columbia and later apprenticed at the Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta. His first chef position came with the Marriott Hotel and Resorts Group at a hotel in, of all places, Bermuda. “It was very nice but then my work permit ran out and I had to come back to Canada,” he recalls.

After a few rotations at various Marriott properties, Hill joined Dolce Hotels and Resorts five years ago and now works for their Institute for Learning center in Toronto where his focus is on healthy catering. “Our company trademark is a thoughtful food program,” he says. “I look at my menus to see where I can reduce fats and eliminate sugars and add foods that hit low glycemic levels.”

The experience at the Copper Skillet …

Hill has been named the Canadian finalist the past four years, perhaps because he’s able to flow with the mishaps that come during the day. “I couldn’t find the cream for the life of me,” he says of one of the day’s challenges. “Our table was also rocking quite a bit so it knocked the water off the stovetop—but other than that it was great.”

Although chefs weren’t privy to the contents of their food baskets before arriving, Hill says, “50% of my menu was made up in my head before I got there,” which helped him tremendously in preparing his dish. His final presentation offered a pork tenderloin with sweet mashed potatoes, seared scallops and buttered asparagus in a lemon bur blanc sauce with crushed chilies for spice.

The one thing he’ll take with him back to his kitchen …

“As an executive chef you’ve always got to be thinking on your feet the entire time. There’s no such thing as a regular day in this industry. The competition reinforced that idea for me.”
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