Inside The S. Pellegrino Cooking Cup In Venice, Italy

VENICE, Italy – Ink-black clouds gather over the iconic Floating City, poised to roll across the lagoon. From our aquatic position, somewhere between the Lido and Giudecca islands, we can see the approaching wall of water.

“Everyone, below decks. Get below decks…Now!”

I’m aboard the Timoteo, a traditional Venetian burchio, a medieval wooden barge owned by fashion executive Vittorio Missoni. With me is a jury comprised of ten of the world’s leading chefs. We’re in the middle of the S. Pellegrino Cooking Cup, a combination sailing and culinary competition, and we’ve just been hit by a storm.

On Saturday, June 24, 2012, the 12th edition of the S. Pellegrino Cooking Cup took place along an exhilarating 12-mile course from the Lido of Venice to S. Giorgio Island.

As accomplished sailing teams raced their boats toward the finish line, ten young rising culinary stars battled below decks – against time and gravity with limited ingredients – to create a winning dish. Imagine “The Amazing Race” meets “Iron Chef” in a unique gourmet regatta set against the stunning backdrop of Venice, Italy.

The Cooking Cup

Here’s how the scoring works: the S. Pellegrino Cooking Cup Trophy is presented to the boat with the best combined sailing time and culinary performance. The dishes are judged on four criteria: presentation, difficulty of execution, taste and proper pairing with wine and water.


The Chefs:

Richard Ousby, Quay Restaurant, Australia
Martin Volkaerts, L’Air du Temps Restaurant, Belgium
Cai Chen, The Langham Xintiandi Restaurant, China
David Frenkel, Pronto Restaurant, Israel
Lorenzo Cogo, El Qoc Restaurant, Italy
Jöel Schaeffer, Jöel Schaeffer Restaurant, Luxembourg
Dennis Van Dop, Hofstede Meerzigt Restaurant, Netherlands
Anatoly Kazakov, Bon Restaurant, Russia
Jacob Holmström, Gastrologik Restaurant, Sweden
Jouni Ibrahim, Li Beirut Restaurant, United Arab Emirates

Chefs are limited to the ingredients selected by ALMA International School of Italian Cuisine – presented as a “mystery basket” and revealed just three days before the race. Four ingredients (rice, blue fish, legumes, fresh herbs) are obligatory. Four more items are selected from a list of eight, including eggs, breadcrumbs, celery and wine. Basics like salt, pepper, oil, garlic and onions are deemed “free use.”

Given only three days to strategize, the chefs must take into consideration uncertain weather conditions and a cooking time dependent on wind speed. With a volatile ingredient like rice dominating the dishes, this year’s Cooking Cup was designed to put the chefs’ skills to the test.

Race Day

7:30 a.m. – Venice is quiet; the city is suspended in a peaceful stillness. An early morning sun casts pools of golden light onto the Grand Canal as our water taxi passes beneath the majestic Rialto Bridge.

We’re on our way to the Rialto Market – a collection of covered stalls specializing in local produce and fresh, line-caught lagoon seafood – one of Venice’s go-to destinations for food lovers, with a history dating back to the 11th century.

Here, the chefs – paired with Italian translators/crewmembers – have less than one hour to purchase all competition ingredients before heading directly to the boats.

Once docked, a mad dash ensues. Teams speedily navigate the market’s narrow alleyways and aisles stacked with silvery fish and pyramids of brightly colored fruit.

Sweden’s Jacob Holmström, coached by his crewman, wraps his mouth around the Italian word for tarragon, “draaaagon-cello,” while gesturing at fresh bundles of the spiky herb.

The Australian team, led by chef Richard Ousby, finishes early. I catch them at a corner bar, gathered around a table littered with empty espresso cups, drinking Venetian Spritz – a bright orange, fizzy cocktail made with prosecco and Aperol.

The chefs grab their grocery bags and head to the island of S. Giorgio where they’ll board their boats and proceed to the starting buoy.

12:30 p.m. – The race begins. Today the winds are strong and the sea is rough. The boats hurtle around the length of Lido Island, expertly guided by their crews, tipping dramatically into the turns.

Down in the galleys, the chefs face the challenges of a moving kitchen. According to multiple crews, pots and pans went flying as the boats tacked into the wind at 45-degree angles. Israel’s David Frenkel later described how he managed to slice his fish – with one leg up, braced against a wall.

From start to finish, the entire race takes less than an hour. In the past, the race has taken up to three hours to complete. Across the finish line, the sails are dropped and chefs plate their dishes, to be passed directly to the awaiting jury.

The Jury

The 2012 Cooking Cup jury is a veritable “who’s who” panel of international culinary heavyweights, headed by Italian television personality, Francesa Barberini (Gambero Rosso food channel). Members include 2011 Acqua Panna & S. Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year, Daniel Berlin, and World’s 50 Best Restaurants chart toppers: Massimo Bottura, Sergio Herman, Mauro Colagreco, Luke Dale Roberts and Dmitry Shurhsakov – ranked #5, #21, #24, #74 and #99, respectively. Rounding out the jury are China’s Johnny Gu and Italy’s Davide Scabin and Franco Favaretto.

One by one, the sailboats pull alongside the Timoteo. Members of the jury crowd around a table, digging into each meticulously plated dish with gusto.

“This is [expletive] terrible!” The shout is accompanied by grimaces and followed by the swishing and spitting of wine.

It’s evident that rice is the make-or-break factor in this competition. Where some chefs fall short with gluey risotto, others excel by focusing on fresh seafood and creative flavor combinations.

A black veil suddenly drops over the city. All boats are called into shore; judging is temporarily suspended. Soaking rain slams the Timoteo. We dive below deck, climbing down steep, slippery stairs. The wooden boat lurches from side to side back to S. Giorgio Island, where the remainder of the judging occurs behind closed doors.

The Winner

With a strong finishing time and a dish that wowed the jury, 29-year-old Australian chef, Richard Ousby crushed the competition. Not only did Australia’s boat win the S. Pellegrino Cooking Cup, Ousby was separately awarded as the 2012 Acqua Panna & S. Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year.

The winning dish: charred mackerel with garlic custard, roasted onions and split peas served with a rice-infused tea.

Elyse Pasquale is a food and travel writer on the adventure of a lifetime. The objective: to fly 100,000 miles for 100 of the world’s best local meals in one year. With a philosophy that food is “living history,” Elyse believes the best way to understand and experience a new culture is through the cuisine. With two years of more than 50 food-filled journeys to 25 countries and counting, she takes culinary tourism to a new, mouth-watering extreme. Follow her adventures online at