Flossmoor man puts culinary skills to Olympian test
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org September 26, 2012 4:16PM
Tim Bucci (left), chef/culinary arts instructor at Joliet Junior College, demonstrates preparation of cherry and agar agar with culinary arts student Timothy Baran (right) in the Renaissance City Center Monday, Sept. 24, 2012, at 214 N. Ottawa St. in Joliet. Bucci is going to Germany to compete in the World Culinary Olympics. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 28, 2012 6:58AM
Like any Olympian, Tim Bucci has been sharpening his skills, perfecting his technique and whipping himself into shape for years.
Being selected to compete on the U.S. National Team is a “dream come true,” said the Flossmoor resident, who’s been packing his pots and pans and preparing to depart Monday for Erfurt, Germany, and the World Culinary Olympics.
About 1,600 chefs from 37 countries figure to be no less intense about their events in cold platters and vegetable carving than world-class athletes are about beach volleyball and synchronized swimming.
“I have worked my whole career for this,” said Bucci, 45, who lived in Oak Forest for more than a decade before moving to Flossmoor.
He’s been cooking for 28 years, serving as executive chef for many restaurants and hotels, and teaching for 16 years — the past six at Joliet Junior College, where he earned his culinary arts degree years ago.
Bucci, a father of two whose wife Celine is a pastry chef, has a lot of medals to show for his participation in 60 competitions in the past 10 years. This will be his third trip to the Olympics, but his first as part of the national team. He earned a gold medal in an individual event for show foods at the 2008 Olympics. In 2010, he was on the team that finished third in the World Cup in Luxembourg — the best finish by a U.S. team in 25 years.
Being selected as one of six chefs on the national team is an honor itself. Out of 70 chefs who applied in January 2010, half were chosen to try out by preparing foods as they will do during the Olympics.
Bucci’s national team competes in two events — hot foods and cold platters.
In the first contest, they must produce a three-course meal for 110 guests in 61/2 hours, start to finish. That means butchering their meat, cutting the vegetables and serving it all restaurant-style, while judges come in and randomly select plates to taste.
His team plans to prepare American beef and black cod.
“We’re trying to put American food on the map,” he said, cautious not to divulge any trade secrets.
The cold platters, on the other hand, are just for show, so the food items must appear “edible and enticing,” Bucci said. He plans to prepare tapas — appetizers — but all must look exactly the same.
“It’s very intense,” he said.
Since everything must be perfect, the team chefs leave nothing to chance. They will tote their own equipment and some of the food, because items such as potatoes and cream are different in Europe, Bucci said.
Practice also makes perfect, and Bucci does plenty of that with his teammates and his students.
On a recent afternoon, after class was dismissed at JJC’s kitchen in the Renaissance Center, he and his assistants practiced making tiny cherry drops to garnish his tapas, and preparing octopus and foie gras.
His goal in these Olympics is not just a gold medal — because more than one team can win a gold medal there — but to capture the overall world championship.
While there is a lot of attention on the Olympian athletes, most people are unaware of the culinary Olympics, which like the others are held every four years.
“This is very prestigious in the culinary world, but more than prestige it is about the whole learning and growing as a chef with this journey,” Bucci said. “It’s a learning process more than bragging rights. I’m much better than I was three years ago. I learn from the experience and we learn from each other. It’s an experience you will have for the rest of your life.”
It is also an experience he shares with his students — including his “lab assistants,” who are learning to compete, too.
“He’s amazing,” said student Timothy Baran, of Channahon. “Learning from him has given me a whole new insight on cooking.”
The World Culinary Olympics will be Bucci’s last competition, he said. His next step is to take the certified master chef exam in 2014 — which is “like a doctorate in this field,” he said. “You never stop learning.”