Written by James Creange.
Photos by James Creange.
Getting the chance to witness someone performing at the peak of their craft is a special moment that sticks with you for the rest of your life. If you were in the building for Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, you’ll never forget seeing Michael Jordan drop 45 points and hit the game winning shot over Byron Russell to win the championship. If you were at Live Aid in 1985 and saw Queen put on what could possibly be the greatest 24+ minutes ever performed on stage, you’ll never stop telling your kids about that in the future. For me, my unique view of peak artistry came in a culinary school kitchen in Overland Park, Kansas, at 7:36am on November 1, 2019.
But we’ll get to all of that. Let’s rewind back to October 2 of this year. Chef Maddie Sharp of The Culinary School of Fort Worth had just watched her students win two bronze medals and a silver at the Ben E. Keith Food Show Competition. After speaking with some of the judges at the event, Maddie decided that it was finally her time to become a judge. One of the last things that stood in her way was one gold medal (her fifth overall) in a cold food competition.
Maddie has been competing in culinary events since she was a freshman in high school in Idaho. These FCCLA competitions and her culinary team in high school provided her an outlet for her competitive side.
“I didn’t do great in my first year,” Maddie said. “My competitive gene flared up, and I knew I had to do it again to get better and better.”
Her high school team allowed her the opportunity to compete and to travel. After winning both regionals and state her junior year, she traveled and won a team bronze in a Florida competition that year. This was another motivating factor for her to continue to improve.
Overall, Chef Maddie Sharp had won gold in four competitions and had 12 total medals but had never been able to conquer cold food. Her first experience came in Las Vegas where she got a bronze. Unhappy and disappointed in herself, she decided to try again a few years later at a competition in Houston where she got a bronze. Maddie also has an international silver in cold food and another silver from a cold food competition in Dallas. She was 0 for 4 in her lifetime at cold food events.
So, when that Ben E. Keith Student Food Show Competition rolled around, and she got the urge to compete again, she knew that she had to act on it as soon as possible.
“It’s very easy to say that you want to do something and then just push it off, especially when you know how much work is going to be required,” Maddie said.
Since she’d done a few cold food competitions in the past, Maddie knew what she was getting herself into. But, with only three weeks from the inception of the idea to compete to the actual competition, she had to work really fast and put in a lot of hours. This is where I began to see glimpses of what makes her such a great chef.
For Chef Maddie, everything comes down to organization. It started with an outlined plan and drawings of what each dish would look like. Then, she typed out lists of everything that she would need for the event. These lists didn’t leave anything out. Each detail was etched out all the way down to making sure that she brought her chef jacket to the dry cleaners before leaving Fort Worth.
After the lists were created, the real work began. One of the advantages of a cold food competition is that the judges don’t usually eat what you are making. It is all about the appearance and the smell of the food. So, not everything has to be cooked on the day of the competition.
The first thing Maddie started on was the cracker for her salad. This intricate cracker had to be perfect because it was going to be the thing that popped off of the plate for this dish. She spent more than 25 hours working on these crackers, creating numerous options, before landing on one that she deemed to be acceptable. (On a side note, I picked up one of the crackers to get a closer look, and it immediately broke. Needless to say, I wasn’t even allowed to look at the crackers from that point forward.)
After working nights, weekend, and pulling doubles, it was time for Maddie to begin her drive to Kansas City on October 31. I was lucky enough to be asked to come along – well it was either that or I was the only person with a free schedule at the school. Either way, this is where I began to feel that I was going to witness something great that very few people might ever get a chance to witness in their lives.
We packed the car and hit the road, and Chef Maddie drove for the entire 8 hours to Kansas City, Kansas. Once we unloaded all of the food into the hotel room, Maddie did not even take a second to sit down as the work began.
Not only did she have to cook all of the proteins, cut all of the vegetables, prepare her meringue, and so much more – she had to stick to a very tight timeline to ensure that her items were all glazed properly.
Something that you have to understand about a cold food competition is that it truly is all about appearance. It’s becoming a lost art form because of the difficulty level of gelatinous dipping. Each individual item, from the pork sausage to the diced carrot, had to be meticulously dipped 2-3 times in gelatin.
A part of the grade that the judges give on each plate is focused on how even the gelatin looks (no air bubbles) and how shiny it is. So, after waking up at 6am, spending an hour and a half packing the car at the school, driving eight hours to Kansas City, and cooking from 7pm to midnight, Maddie now had to have laser focus as she dipped each individual item that would be on her plates.
While keeping this focus, she also had to direct me around as I helped the best I could by ironing her table runner or polishing the plates or picking out individual beans that could work for service. It was amazing how everything that she did or asked me to do was all stored in her head and on her lists. She knew exactly what needed to be done and when it needed to be done.
Around 3am, the stress started to kick in for Chef Maddie.
“I cared so much about this competition because I had put so much effort into it,” Maddie said. “I felt like everybody expected me to win gold, so I really didn’t want to let them down.”
Instead of pushing through the stress which could have actually ended up hurting her later, Maddie knew that it was time for a quick break. After an hour of showering and a sleepless nap, she was ready to get back into competition mode. And that’s when everything kicked into high gear.
She finished plating her consommé, hand whipped a meringue that had been giving her troubles all night, began packing all of her items, and then before we knew it, it was 6am (a full 24 hours since Maddie had last slept) and time to head to Johnson County Community College for the competition.
After arriving at the school and unloading all of our equipment, Chef Maddie had an hour and a half to plate all of her food starting at 6:30am. It was truly like watching a great artist work as Maddie had tongs in one hand and a towel in the other. She picked up each individual cube of carrot or leaf of lettuce and placed them exactly where they needed to be on each plate. As she was doing this, she was also wiping off little smudges or runs of sauce from the plate.
As the clock ticked on, I felt like I was watching the Yankees in extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series. I was sweating, my heart was racing, and I was literally pumping my fists when things were plated properly. I also felt crushing defeat when something didn’t go exactly as it was planned. And this brings us back to 7:36am on November 1.
After spending around 15 minutes plating up her salad and cracker exactly how she wanted them, all Maddie had to do was add her quenelle of pomegranate sorbet vinaigrette and the plate would be finished. However, due to some heat in the kitchen, the sorbet had slightly melted, and the quenelle just plopped down all over the plate. It was unusable, and I (playing the role of a fan at this point) was crushed. I remember saying, “It’s okay, you have time,” while truthfully unsure if she did or not.
But this is what was truly amazing. Maddie didn’t panic. She didn’t curse. She didn’t put her head down in defeat. She simply removed everything from the plate and started over. And the second time she did it, the quenelle didn’t come out flawless. But it came out passable as she made an adjustment to use a smaller portion of the sorbet. It was in this moment that I knew she had won the gold.
“It takes so much to know that you’re doing something wrong and then be able to refocus and reset yourself,” Maddie said.
The composure that Maddie kept during this ordeal was what separates good from great. It’s what helped Michael Jordan score his 45 points against the Jazz to finish off a long and hard-fought series. Not everybody has that in their DNA. In fact, most people don’t. While the plates were all beautiful and ended up blowing away the judges, that moment of peace and clear mindedness is what will forever stick with me about this competition. It’s something that I will always feel honored to have witnessed.
Even though this was a pivotal moment in her competition, it was not yet over for Maddie. She still had to finish her final two plates, and she only had around 12 minutes to get it done (and a little bit of added time from an understanding competition moderator). While everything didn’t turn out exactly as she had hoped, Maddie left the table feeling proud of the five course French meal that she had served.
“I was worried that my entrée would bring me down to a silver because it wasn’t exactly how I had wanted it,” Chef Maddie said. “But I was really hoping that everything else was enough for me to leave with a gold.”
We left Johnson County Community College at around 9:30am, went back to our rooms, got some sleep, and returned for the judge’s critiques and the awards ceremony at 3:30pm. For Maddie, the critique ended up being a lot of what relieved her anxieties.
“I felt a lot better about my chances at gold after those critiques,” Maddie said. “A lot of what they criticized was opinion and not as many things that were done technically wrong.”
And, she was right to feel the confidence that she did after the critique. Not only was she awarded gold, but she was also given first place for the entire competition. I went back to being a fan and pumped my fist with excitement when they made the announcement. For Maddie, she said that it almost brought her to tears.
“This gold was a true testimony to being tenacious,” Maddie said. “When I was up at 3am and my back was hurting and I was tired, persevering through that made me very proud.”
Maddie now has five golds, but they don’t display openly in her house. They are in a box somewhere, taken out every once in a while to show family or friends. Displaying her accolades is not what this is about for her. It’s about the love of competition and the respect of the art of plating and cooking and everything else involved with creating these dishes. It’s about teaching the next generation of cooks what it takes to be a chef and guiding them along throughout that process.
For Maddie, this gold is the one that she is currently the proudest of because of all of the hard work and effort that went into it and the lead up of missing out on gold twice in the past. But it’s not the one that she hopes to be proudest of in her life.
“It took me 9 and a half years to get to this point, and I am very proud of that,” Maddie said. “I can’t wait to coach a student to a gold one day and see this whole thing come full circle. That is what I am most looking forward to.”