Big Weekend: S.Pellegrino Cooking Cup In Venice, Italy

Massimo Bottura, the chef/owner of Osteria Francescana in Modena (the fifth best restaurant on the planet, according to S.Pellegrino's Top 50 Restaurants in the World list) is standing next to me on a boat. As the mid-day sun shines off Venice's campanile and bulbous domes in the distance, our conversation moves from the challenges of elevating Italian cuisine to his favorite chefs operating in New York — Batali, Ducasse, Boulud.

But we're interrupted by the presence of another boat that has suddenly hitched itself to us. Our crew frantically goes into action. But these aren't pirates about to take over our ship. Nor are they a band of foodies looking to chap-nap one of the world's best Italian chefs. They're a kitchen crew. And within seconds they're transferring onto our deck several bottles of wine and a platter of what looks like gnocchi and pesto and some sort of fish.

Welcome to the S.Pellegrino Cooking Cup, now in its 12th year, which took place June 22-23 in Venice. When I first heard about the idea, I have to admit, I thought it was going to be as exciting as a menu at a vegan restaurant. I imagined a bunch of well-fed billionaires on boats standing around discussing things like equity, private jets, and their shared hatred of paying taxes.

But, it turns out, this has to be one of the most bizarre (and fun) cooking competitions anyone has cooked up. Dig, if you will, the picture: a cooking/sailing crew from 10 different countries competing in a 12-mile regatta around Venice's lagoon, all the while an under-30-year-old chef in each boat is cooking up a meal, all using the same pre-determined ingredients. The winner of the competition is based on the boat's final place in the race as well as the judges' scores on the meal. As ganja-induced as it sounds, imagine putting Top Chef on high-speed sailing yachts in Italy and you pretty much have an idea what the Cup is all about.

Which is where Bottura comes in. He's one of the judges. And as our boat bobbed in the lagoon, each team pulled their boats up to ours to deliver their goods so the 10 judges could weigh in. The wining chef/reluctant sailor will be crowned 2012 Aqua Panna & S. Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year.

The two-day Cup kicked off the night before at the opening reception at the Hilton Stucky where each of the 10 young chefs cooked their signature dish for media and industry people. Those in attendance each got a vote, the evening's winner prized with the "People's Choice" award.

During the introductions the chefs were given rock star treatment, one by one entering the ballroom carrying the flag of their country with a snippet of loud music for their procession to the stage. From what I could tell, there wasn't much sense behind the musical choice and the chefs' background (I later learned the chefs didn't pick the song they strode into the room to) — the Belgian chef entered to Nirvana, the Australian to The Rolling Stones, and the Swede to some form of Eurotrash (well, okay, that makes sense).

When Chinese chef Cai Chen was introduced, though, he entered the room to the sounds of Cee-Lo's cover of "Kung Fu Fighting" (to be generous, someone has a bad sense of humor). Soon after, each chef went to their individual stations to serve up their dish to the voters. Some of my favorites were:

• Jouni Ibrahim, who cooks at the Lebanese restaurant Li Beirut in Dubai, dished up a lemon-zest-topped scallop with caraway foam.

• A cured wild salmon with spruce shoots in aquavit by Jacob Holmstrom from Gastrologik in Sweden. The plate had a supporting cast of pine shoots, onion flowers and Swedish yarrow, an herb that had such a strong sweet and citrusy taste profile it threatened to overwhelm the dish. "I just picked it this morning," he told me.

• David Frankel, from Pronto in Tel Aviv, was handing out plates of seared langoustine. It was a textural wonder with the softness of the langoustine buttressed against the crunch of toasted quinoa and the smoothness of puree of salicornia. (It got my vote.)

• Australian Richard Ousby, who works in the kitchen at Quay in Sydney, dished up a very satisfying lardo and prawn dumpling with shaved asparagus and clams.

• Lorenzo Cogo, who works at El Coq near Vicenza, Italy, presented a dish called "The Globetrotter." "It's all my travels in one dish," he said. See if you can guess where he's been: king crab topped with an almond gazpacho and an olive oil meringue, all sitting on an olive oil sponge cake. (It doesn't sound like he's gotten out of the Mediterranean.) Lastly, the chef crisped the crab with a hand torch. Cogo was the rock star of the "young chefs." "He's a big deal," one of the Italians involuntarily told me, as a group of (mostly Italian) onlookers gawked at Cogo plating his food.

The other chefs in the competition were Martin Volkaerts from L'Air du Tempts in Novilles sur Melhaigne, Belgium; Cai Chen from Langham Restaurant in Shanghai, Joel Schaeffer from Merterthe in Luxembourg; Dennis Von Dop from Hofstede Meerzigt in Zoetermeer, Netherlands; and Anatoly Kazakov from Bon in Moscow.

The following day, Saturday, was the main event. The boat race/cooking competition. In the morning, the chefs were given the ingredients of the "mystery basket," the only ingredients they can use in concocting their dish during the race: blue fish, rice, herbs of their choice, a legume of their choice and a maximum of four ingredients from this list: eggs, flour, celery, bread crumbs, raisons, tomato and zucchini.

I was on a 100-foot Missoni-owned boat with the jury: Massimo Bottura, Maura Colagreco (Mirazur restaurant, Menton, France), Johnny Gu (Le Sun Chine, Shanghai, China), Luke Dale Roberts (The Test Kitchen, Cape Town, South Africa) and Francesca Barberini (TV host on the Gambero Rosso channel), among others.

As the competitors pulled up to our vessel to deliver what each chef had just concocted on the boat during the race, the jury went to work, sampling each dish. They were eventually sequestered away to hash out a victor.

That winner was announced at a gala dinner that evening on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore across the water from Piazza San Marco. The "People's Choice" award went to David Frankel of Israel for his seared langoustine dish. And the winner of the Young Chef of the Year award was ... Richard Ousby of Australia. The judges were impressed with his mackerel in a garlic custard, split peas, onion and roasted rice.

When asked on stage how he felt about winning, I think he spoke for us all when he said: "I've been on a boat for a majority of the day, so all I feel right now is like I'm swaying back and forth."

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