Meet two UAE gold medallists of the IKA Culinary Olympics 2004.

Think again the next time you brush off airline food as bad. Thomas Ulherr, executive sous chef at the Abu Dhabi Airport Catering and Duty Free that supplies nearly 15,000 meals a day to airlines, has just returned to the UAE after winning three gold medals at the IKA Culinary Olympics 2004 held in Erfurt, Germany, last month.

Two were in the showpiece category and one in the finger food category.

The reason for his success in the latter was his use of the “multitude of flavours” found in the United Arab Emirates in his entry, says Thomas Ulherr, 37, a veteran chef who has worked in hotels in Germany and Abu Dhabi since he was a teenager.

This German chef, a resident of Abu Dhabi for the past nine years, believes that although the judges spent just a few minutes at his display, he received the required points for a gold medal largely because his finger food entries like the “Zatar bread spoon with lamb fillet in falafel crust” and the “Sumaq bread spoon with quail breast in spinach fig blanket” (among others) contained a combination of Asian, Mediterranean and European flavours.

“No other country participating in this international culinary event could have come up with such a variety of flavours. Everyone knows sushi, Italian and Chinese but few in the West are familiar with Arabic cuisine. I believe mixing Arabic, Asian, Mediterranean and European flavours found in the UAE worked in my favour. It is a winning concept,” he adds.

For example, he had mixed local ingredients such as quail, hammour, falafel crust, and flavouring agents like Sumaq with European food in his entries, he explains.

The tall and burly Ulherr was “nervous” and “overwhelmed” about being judged on par with competitors from around 40 nations, many of them working as 20-30 member national teams. (Ulherr did not have to pitch his culinary skills against another competitor in the categories he had entered. His entries were judged on their individual merit and marked according to different criteria. The contestant wins a gold medal when his or her entry gets the maximum 80 points.)

Recounting his first experience of this event, Ulherr says, “The Japan team’s entry was awesome - their display itself was so perfect and precise, while other competitors had used lighting systems and smoke machines to make their displays attractive.

"We also had the Koreans, Hungarians, the Russians and an American with 15 different showpieces. The latter won 11 silver and four gold medals and got a standing ovation. He really deserved his medals.”

There were snags before the competition. Ulherr’s luggage was lost at the Munich airport and he had to rewrite his menu for his finger food and cook them in smaller quantities. He entered the IKA Culinary Olympics 2004 in the cold food showpiece category as well.

Ulherr knew he wanted to become a chef when his grandfather taught him how to make caramel sweets as a child. A leg injury in a road accident prevented him from indulging in his first passion - sports. So he learnt to make artistic food showpieces from a Sri Lankan kitchen artist, Jagath Perera, in Abu Dhabi.

“I thought he was brilliant and learning this art kept me occupied after work,” he says.

The kitchen artist taught him a salt dough recipe to use for showpieces, as well as recommended tools, colours and techniques for painting. Thomas Ulherr graciously pays this artist a high compliment by saying, “I would not have won the medals without his help.”

He adds, “I started to work on an Arabic dhow, a crab and two falcons - one with a hood and the other ready to fly. I used to put in a few hours a day on these showpieces. I had no intention of entering them in a competition at that time.”

Ulherr has participated in a number of international competitions in Germany and has collected a few medals along the way. His yet unrealised dream competition is “The Great Prize in Gold” in Germany after which he will hang up his apron as far as competitions are concerned, he says.

He was encouraged to take part in the IKA Culinary Olympics 2004 by fellow German Konrad Bosel, the head of the German national chef’s team.

Ulherr was understandably nervous. “I was to be seen along with the best chefs from around the world,” he says. But, he was happy when his name was announced as a gold medal winner.

Even as he returned to his seat clutching his medal and certificate with happiness, the organisers called him again for winning another gold medal. I became very, very happy, remembers Ulherr, smiling as he proudly puts his three gold medals around his neck for the photograph.

Another UAE winner

Chef Indika De Silva, kitchen artist, Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, was the winner of three medals - one gold, one silver and one bronze - for his entries in the pastry and the open showpiece category at the Culinary Olympics.

De Silva makes it a habit of participating in international competitions since it gives him the opportunity to display his creative skills and bring home medals.

Having just returned from winning a gold at Food Asia in Singapore, De Silva decided to participate in the king of culinary events - the IKA Culinary Olympics 2004.

He was told about the competition by a senior Sri Lankan kitchen artist. De Silva started to work on his showpieces two months ago and was supported by the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht club in his endeavour.

He worked on three pieces: a salt carving of an old Arab gentleman sitting by a date palm tree, a sugar carving of a violinist with a woman by his side and a pumpkin carving of two peacocks. “I did not work from a picture but improvised my ideas as I went along,” he explains.

The salt carving turned into a group of old Arab gentlemen relaxing under a tree. This competition unlike others, allow contestants to use a wire structure on which they can construct the showpiece.

“I used salt dough, gelatine, and flour in hot water, Nescafe for edible colouring and icing sugar,” explains chef De Silva. His extreme detailing, his imagination and hard work got him a gold medal for this entry at the IKA Culinary Olympics this year.

Unfortunately for De Silva, his sugar carving was damaged on his air and rail journey to his destination and he managed to notch up points for just a bronze medal. His peacocks in pumpkin got him a silver medal.

The IKA Culinary Olympics is a daunting prospect for any chef for the first time. The event was founded in 1896 by a group of German chefs to bring cooks from around the world together to exchange knowledge about indigenous cuisines. Approved by the World Association of Cooks Societies, it attracts 1,200 chefs and 40 nations.

Says chef De Silva, “It was such a big event. I had never seen anything like this before. I was an individual participant while countries had sent their teams with plenty of ingredients and the latest tools, while my display stand was very basic.”

Despite these obvious drawbacks, he returned to the UAE successful.

This unstoppable kitchen artist is now sharpening his artist’s tools for another competition, the Emirates Salon Culinaire 2005 in the UAE.