How a global culinary competition for students went virtual in the pandemic
The judges and kitchens went virtual but the energy was the same as participants donned the chef’s cap for the seventh edition of the Young Chef Olympiad (YCO), organised by the International Institute of Hotel Management (IIHM), Kolkata.
ABP Education caught up with the man behind it all — Suborno Bose, chairman and CEO of IIHM Kolkata, for a post-event chat.
Congratulations on pulling off an international culinary competition with 50 countries virtually. How did you make this happen?
The idea of taking YCO online first struck us in August although the journey of taking an activity-based competition online took close to five months. We were firm about conducting two rounds.
The first round would involve shortlisting all participants into two groups, with the top 10 competing as grand finalists and the next 10 as plate finalists. As we were working on our e-IIHM project for the last six months, compiling an electronic version of our courses, we had a digital team in place. We also brought in all our IT faculty from other campuses.
Finally, in December, after assembling an in-house tech team of over 500 people across India and 50 core people, we divided all countries into two broad GMT zones and formed the breakout rooms. Zoom was a huge help in this and our team of the brightest technical minds ensured that the panel of 25 international Michelin-star judges could visit any country from India to Canada in an instant.
The 5-camera setup was also a big task. We asked contestants to install cameras above the table and in front of it, along with two cameras on each side. There was an additional mobile camera, which would be adjusted according to the judges’ instructions. Considering our arrangements, it was a tech olympiad and the results were excellent. Everyone was very cooperative and we didn’t have any glitches.
To ensure transparency, we cut down marks for tasting from 20 to 10 as our judges could not travel. We invited respected chefs from the contestant’s city to taste the dishes and offer their feedback, based on which marks were awarded. Our experienced judges’ panel went a step forward, monitoring the entire tasting process, with something as minute as a contestant’s struggles to cut their gateau being noticed by them. The cameras also helped us stream the entire competition live on YouTube for the world to see.
Such a monumental task must have come with its challenges…
Certainly. The biggest challenge came when we tried to co-ordinate time zones because at that point we weren’t sure of the final participants. Countries were dropping out every day because of lockdowns and the second COVID-19 strain. The division of all countries into two broad GMT time zones proved to be an ideal solution.
The challenges did not stop there despite several dry runs. Apart from a judge in England having to wake up at 4am to get a contestant from New Zealand cooking at 5pm before the closure of college kitchens, there were several bumps along the way. It was logistic chaos. (laughs) While the lockdown in itself was a huge challenge, it also came with certain unforeseen tertiary challenges such as the unavailability of certain ingredients, a power failure, and Barbados’s impromptu lockdown announcement, forcing the contestant to shift the kitchen to her home overnight. More than me, my team or the judges, this victory truly belongs to the youth who fought with courage and resilience that epitomises the spirit of YCO.
Personally, what does this success mean to you?
Considering how uncertain we were about the execution in November, I am incredibly satisfied with the results. To pull off a virtual international culinary competition with 50 countries and 25 international judges and retain the complexity of cooking is a huge achievement. We made the world come together for real. This event was a huge morale booster, not just for all the contestants and judges but for the industry.
The bar has been set high. Where do you see YCO going from here?
A long, long way (chuckles). To be honest, we are already looking at a blended mode for YCO 2022, where we use our learnings from this year. We doubled what we did in the last six years, in just one year. The technical takeaways have made it clear that the participant’s comfort is our priority and we will make things easier to allow them to focus on cooking, rather than the cameras.
We could possibly have a virtual preliminary round and 40 to 50 countries could physically come to India following it. While we are targeting participation from 100 countries following the overwhelming response from many new countries this year, our core aim is to take the competition to a different level in terms of quality in addition to quantity.