December 11, 2008 in Voices

Chef wins European silver medal

Cindy Hval Correspondent
 
Dan Pelle photo

Joshua Martin, lead banquet chef for the Davenport Hotel, won the silver medal for competing in ZAGG-The Hospitality and Catering Exhibition in Switzerland.
(Full-size photo)

There’s a new cook in town, and he’s already winning awards.

Joshua Martin, lead banquet chef at The Davenport Hotel, recently competed in the European Culinary Challenge in Lucerne, Switzerland. His polished performance and imaginative recipe in this Iron Chef-style contest earned him a silver medal.

Martin moved to Spokane from Michigan in May after his fiancée accepted a job with the Spokane County Library district. His resume attracted the attention of Bryan Franz, executive chef for The Davenport Hotel and Tower. And no wonder, the 27-year-old Martin seems to be a natural gourmet.

“My earliest memories are of sitting on the kitchen counter, rolling dumplings with my mom,” Martin said. He comes from a family of great cooks. “My grandpa owned a restaurant, and my great-great-grandma ran a stage coach stop.”

Still, as a teenager Martin was acutely aware that being in the kitchen with Mom wasn’t cool.

“I tried NOT to cook,” he said. He loved to golf and got a job at a golf course washing carts and clubs. But he didn’t stay outdoors for long. One day a kitchen worker failed to show up. “I offered to help,” Martin said. He ended up working with club cook Willie Vaughn for the next 2 1/2 years.

Martin credits Vaughn for teaching him kitchen fundamentals. “I learned how to do everything the right way from Willie,” he said, and then laughed. “Apparently, my mom taught me to do everything wrong!”

After high school Martin got a job cooking at the Detroit Athletic Club. He started as a prep cook and worked his way up the line until he was manning the sauté station. At his boss’s urging, Martin attended the Culinary Studies Institute in Farmington Hills, Mich.

As his knowledge and skills broadened, he dreamed of attending culinary school in Europe, but the cost was prohibitive. His parents surprised him by offering to pay for a semester of classes at the prestigious DCT European Culinary Arts Center in Switzerland. That’s where he heard about ZAGG, a biyearly hospitality and catering trade show, with the European Culinary Challenge as one of its main events. After the completion of his studies the head chef encouraged Martin to stay and enter the cooking competition.

Martin agreed and in 2006, he won the silver-plate award. But that wasn’t good enough for him. He wanted to return in September 2008 and do even better. There was just one problem.

“You have to train for the competition,” said Martin. And he hadn’t yet accrued enough leave time at The Davenport. However, when he told Franz about the competition, his boss was supportive and the hotel arranged for Martin to have enough personal days to make the trip.

When he said he had to train, he wasn’t kidding. “I was there for 28 days altogether,” he said. “That gave me 14 days to come up with a dish.” Each competitor is given 45 minutes to prepare an original dish in front of the judges, a live audience and a television audience. “Everything has to be timed down to the minute.”

Martin created a dish called “Central Swiss Alp Region Meets Mediterranean Potpourri.” Seventy-eight cooks competed over the course of 10 days. Competitors had traveled from dozens of countries, including North Korea, Greece, Mexico and Japan. “I was the only American,” he said.

With all eyes on him and an announcer relaying his every move, Martin created his plated dish. “I had timers everywhere,” he said, grinning.

First he lined a copper pot with hay, lemon thyme, cornflower and lavender blossoms. Then he placed a chicken breast on the bed of hay. This wasn’t prepackaged frozen chicken. He had to break apart a fresh whole chicken with its head still attached. Martin was grateful he didn’t have to pluck it.

Next he mixed up salt dough and covered the copper pot with the dough, and slid it into the oven. While the chicken steamed inside the pastry shell, Martin whipped up a batch of sausage. “I have this thing about sausage,” he said. While he stuffed the sausage into the casing, a brown sauce bubbled on the stove.

In addition, he prepared a duet of root vegetables as a side, along with mushrooms in a cream sauce, and created a tomato tatin for an edible garnish. “It’s essentially like a tiny tomato pizza,” Martin explained. He made a fava bean puree to add a splash of color and baked dark Venere rice into a crispy bar to top off his plate.

Everything went perfectly. Yet the decision between the gold and silver plate award ending up resting not on the taste of the food, but on the temperature of the plate. It seems Europeans like their plates extremely hot. “When it came down to it, my plate just wasn’t hot enough.”

Martin plans to compete again in 2010 and hopes to bring home the gold. “I can put the silver plates on either side of it,” he said. And more importantly, he’s embraced his culinary heritage. He shrugged and smiled. “I was destined to cook.”

Contact correspondent Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email