One of the most interesting perks of my job is being asked to help judge awards. Late last year, one such invitation took me to Lithuania to judge a dessert and wine pairing contest, and I’ve also been lucky enough to help judge both the Academy of Chocolate and International Chocolate Awards.
But an invitation to be on the jury for the UK & Ireland selection of the World Chocolate Masters really got my attention. The World Chocolate Masters is a different kind of chocolate competition that aims to find the best chocolate individual “creator” in the world.
For the UK and Ireland national final, contestants had to create four chocolate works over the course of a day; a chocolate sculpture, a filled praline, a piece of patisserie and a concept for an “on the go” concept chocolate dish that could be served like street food.
The contestants, Richie Heppell, Mary Reid, Norma Kelly and Alistair Birt are all professional pastry chefs at the top of their game, but the pressure was on with everything having to be created and judged on the day. For the showpiece sculptures, individual parts could be moulded in chocolate beforehand, but everything had to be assembled in front of judges.
The World Chocolate Masters is a highly technical competition, and there are strict rules for each round. Additionally, the overall theme for this year’s competition is “Inspiration From Nature”, and that had to be reflected in each of the contestants’ creations. With just four contestants and twelve jury members, its safe to say that it’s one competition where you just can’t hide even the smallest mistake.
The incredible chocolate showpieces were judged by a technical jury, made up of past UK Chocolate Masters Ruth Hinks, Mark Tilling and John Costello. The pieces are the main attraction at the World Chocolate Masters. Made entirely from chocolate, they are as delicate as they are stunning and the slightest mishap can completely destroy them. Thankfully all the sculptures made it through to final judging in one piece!
After presenting their showpieces, contestants had to produce two layer pralines (filled chocolates), using at least one local ingredient and taking their cues from the Inspiration From Nature theme. I’ve judged plenty of filled chocolates in my time, but this is the competition where I had to be most critical. Every aspect of presentation, flavour and texture was considered and of course every piece was checked for strict adherence to the rules.
Next up was the “Pastry Of The Day” round. Contestants had to produce a bespoke piece of patisserie from scratch using fresh ingredients. The quality of the work was stunning, but by this point there was one contestant in my mind whose work was leading the field.
The final round was a new “Chocolate On The Go” category. Contestants produced a chocolate dish complete with packaging that could be consumed on the go like street food. This was the most fun to judge and all the contestants produced fantastic results.
It was Alistair Birt’s entry that was a clear winner for me though. His beautifully made Earl Grey, Mandarin & Coconut pastry was presented in a custom made wooden box and tasted as good as it looked. Judges all scored each round privately and the numbers were crunched. Finally, at the end of the day and in front of a big crowd, Alistair Birt was awarded the title of UK Chocolate Master by honorary head of the jury, chef Michel Roux. A fantastic end to a wonderful day and a worthy winner.
Congratulations to Alistair who will now go on to represent the UK and Ireland in the World Final at Salon du Chocolat in Paris this October. I can’t wait to see how he gets on in this amazing competition.
Photos: Cacao Barry / World Chocolate Masters