George Castaneda, CEC, was a familiar figure to many of those involved with the ACF Culinary Team USA before he became a member of the national team. We spoke with Castaneda — an executive chef for Sodexo Corporate Services’ Healthways World Headquarters in Franklin, Tennessee, and an ACF Middle Tennessee Chapter Member — about his involvement with previous teams and how he went from assistant/apprentice to team member.
What inspired you to compete?
George Castaneda: I have always had a desire to learn and to stay current. To accomplish that, I needed an outlet to exercise my creativity. I found that competitions are a great source of information and networking, and this involvement provided me with the latest trends while making friends. One event inspired the next because I felt the need to get better and better.
How did you reach the level of competition necessary to try out for Team USA?
GC: I began at the local level in hot-food competitions, and was introduced to the concept of the culinary salon during an ACF convention. My first experience with cold food was disappointing, in the sense that I did not have experience in certain techniques such as glazing, slicing, and food layout. I had no access to that kind of information or knew anybody who could help me. In fact, when I tried out for the team the first time, I didn’t have the necessary skills, and it was obvious to the judges that I wasn’t ready. Now, I am more comfortable with my skills, but it has taken me several years to develop my own style and to really understand the judges’ point of view.
What should apprentices do now to prepare for culinary competitions?
GC: Understand the rules and ask questions, because not understanding the rules is a major source of frustration — not just for you as a competitor, but for the judges, as well. Leave little to no room for interpretation, and use the correct wording in your menus. For example, if you say something is “sautéed,” that item should show signs of caramelization as it occurs in real cooking versus something that is poached. Set goals that are measurable. Take a seafood platter from a bronze-medal level to a gold-medal level by following directions and using the judges’ critiques, making the necessary adjustments so that you can track your progress. This keeps you excited and moving forward. Find a mentor or someone who shares your passion for food competitions.
Did you have a mentor?
GC: I was fortunate that I had an entire team to learn from. Early on in my competition career, I decided that I wanted to be a part of ACF Culinary Team USA. After the disappointment of my first tryout, I stayed with the team as an apprentice and an assistant to learn and try out for the next team. I did this on my own dime and with the help of my employer.
Was it expensive?
GC: Not if you consider the return on investment. I have always had a yearly education budget. I use that money to travel to The Culinary Institute of America or another learning venue. Some years, it was as simple as buying books. I used my education funds to travel to team practices. This was indeed an education, and it paid off for me. Not only am I a team member, but in 2014, I won the Villeroy & Boch Culinary World Cup in individual cooking in Luxembourg.
Is this kind of opportunity still available with ACF Culinary Team USA?
GC: Yes, absolutely. Opportunities are available to individuals who have the passion and drive to succeed. In other words, if you are willing to ask your employer or school for time off, and set up a personal financial budget to travel to practices, you will be making the investment of a lifetime in your education and career development. Those seeking opportunities to apprentice with ACF Culinary Team USA should contact ACF.