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The Real Top Chefs: Six Elite Cooking Competitions

Forget everything you thought you knew about cooking. In fact, you can forget about calling it “cooking,” because preparing food at its highest levels should really be called the “culinary arts.”

The TV dial may be filled with reality cooking shows—Top Chef, Iron Chef, Master Chef, The Next Food Network Star—but those flash-in-the-pan contests are little more than blips on the radars of the world’s oldest and most prestigious culinary competitions. These tests of digestive prestidigitation uncover which chefs really are le grand fromage.

1. Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung (IKA)
In 1900, the IKA consisted of four chefs in a cook-off at the Frankfurt fairgrounds. Fast-forward to a century later, and it’s considered the Olympics of the culinary world; it’s attended by over 750 chefs from thirty-one countries, and awards prizes for best national teams, individuals, student competitors, and military teams. The event (whose name translates to “International Cooking Exhibition”) is held every four years and was originally intended to promote the sharing of culinary techniques and trends among chefs from around the world, as well as to educate people about the quality of each country’s native cuisine and spur tourism.

2. Bocuse d’Or
When it was first conceived in 1987, the Bocuse d’Or was the first culinary competition where the action took place in an open kitchen, in plain view of an appreciative audience. The biennial event has grown into one of the most prestigious contests in the culinary world, with each team presenting one meat dish and one fish dish. The teams, each representing a different nation, consist of a sous chef from one of the country’s finest restaurants, an assistant chef, who the rules stipulate cannot be older than twenty-two, and an older, more experienced chef to act as a coach. Training for the competition is grueling, owing to the elaborate presentations, sophisticated techniques, and high level of showmanship required. Named for renowned French chef Paul Bocuse, the event’s brand has expanded in recent years to include the Bocuse d’Or U.S.A. and the Bocuse d’Or Asia.

3. American Culinary Classic
This contest, held every four years at the National Restaurant Association’s Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago, is put on by the American Culinary Federation (ACF), a professional group for chefs. Competitors come from all over the world for the classic, and prepare entries like a three-course meal including dessert, a selection of hot or cold finger foods, a menu of the day, a “festive” banquet menu, and pastry. The team that represents the United States in the classic is usually the standing team assembled by the ACF, comprising executive and master chefs and chef instructors from across the country and competing together as a team at culinary events all over the world.

4. Salon Culinaire Mondial
Held every six years in Basel, Switzerland, this contest is also part of a trade show, an international convention for hoteliers, caterers, food service providers, and other related industries. The contest features teams from thirty different countries competing in categories like Culinary World Masters, European Culinary Challenge, and Culinary Art Show. All entries, whether for cold or hot food dishes, are judged on criteria like their nutritional balance, impeccable presentation, classical techniques used in preparation, and proper service.

5. Culinary World Cup
Sponsored by ceramics manufacturer Villeroy & Boch, this competition is held every four years. National, regional, and apprentice teams from all over the world assemble to compete to be named the Best National Team, the Best Youth Team, Best Military Cooks Team, and Best Individual Competitor in categories like Cooking Art, Culinary Art, and Pastry. Registration for national teams is limited to only those teams officially certified by and registered with the World Association of Chefs Societies.

6. U.S. Army Culinary Arts Competition
The nation’s largest culinary event has been held almost each year since 1973, except for the wartime years of 1991 and 2003. In this contest, chefs from all branches of the U.S. military compete in events similar to those in international professional competitions. The contest features over five hundred judged events, including the Field Competition, Practical and Contemporary Cooking, and the Culinary Knowledge Bowl. The audience watches as entrants test their skills in events such as the Student Team Skills Competition, in which apprentice chefs are challenged to a Top Chef–style relay race to perform proper knife cuts, butcher meat, and display classic pastry techniques.

Being a chef is about so much more than just cranking out food during dinner service. The chefs who compete at these elite events may not pop up on our favorite reality shows or start their own lines of cookware, but they are nonetheless at the foreground of culinary tastes and trends, pushing the boundaries of how we think about food. Although the competitions aren’t usually open for the public to taste the latest epicurean developments, don’t worry … the prizewinning ideas will make their ways to restaurants soon enough.

Allison Ford

Allison is a writer and editor who specializes in beauty, style, entertainment, and pop culture. She was part of the editorial team at DivineCaroline (now for more than three years. She loves makeup, sparkly accessories, giraffes, brunch, Matt Damon, New York City, and ice cream.