The International Istanbul Gastronomy Festival
The majority of entrants, however, were aged 16 to 22 and from culinary schools across Turkey, many of whom were competing for scholarships and to make the right impression for landing an internship with one of the judging chefs. These green burner-jockeys came ready to chop and grill, stone-cold expressions locked on their mugs, knuckles cracking in anxious anticipation for the time-keeper to give the indication to begin before every cooking competition. You couldn’t quite smell their fear because the aroma of herbs and onions from previous contests lingered strong, but you could certainly feel it when you glanced at them frantically doing last-minute checks to their stations.
The festival was held inside a large chunk of the Tuyap Convention Center, a massive space in Istanbul’s Beylikduzu section. One half was devoted to the majority of the cooking competitions, with a squared U-shaped row of 20-plus makeshift kitchen stalls set up on the far side, and a blockade of tables set up across the U’s ends to keep back the crowd of viewers, mostly friends and family supporting the entrants. And these were some passionate fans. Groups came with enormous Greek, Pakistani, and (of course) Turkish flags, and there were homemade signs with cut-out letters from different alphabets, complete with hilarious photos of the chefs they came to cheer on. Sections would break out into patriotic songs during international competitions (as some were solely for Turks), often at the same time, in a bid to sing over one another. It was controlled chaos in the best of ways, everyone smiling and enjoying the friendly rivalries.
As a member of the media, I was one of the lucky few who got to sneak behind the barrier of tables (which kept guests at a rather far distance from every station except for the ones at the ends of the U on each side) for an up-close glimpse of the chef-testants in the timed cooking competitions. Walking from end to end of the kitchen stalls, which were each equipped with a stove, prep surfaces, oven and sink, you could see in every competitor’s eyes the desire to outdo his or her peers, to prove to the esteemed panel that their dish and their ideas for flavor profiles reigned supreme. Some cooks handled the pressure with a cool calm, confident expressions plastered on their faces; others made it was easy for onlookers to discern their nervousness by tapping knives on their cutting boards and humming familiar melodies in hope of conjuring relief before having to scramble.
Even with tensions running high, there was never any animosity between entrants, save for some teammates getting frustrated with one another during a group event, and the good vibes carried over to the diverse group of fans. A major reason for this was because of the way the competitions were judged. Instead of one winner claiming first-place (and subsequent bragging rights) in each category, there could be multiple gold, silver, bronze, and “merit” winners -- or no winners at all -- for each event. Upwards of five judges analyzed each individual’s or team’s entry according to a detailed set of criteria for each contest -- be it plated sweets, a lamb dish, or Asian cuisine prepared against a clock -- tasting, evaluating creativity, technique and plate presentation, and making sure each contestant abided by the utmost standards in sanitation and organization. In the end, this meant that some competitions would have no gold winners at all (like the Best High School of the Year competition) or several silver winners, and there were even events where the highest honor given out was bronze.