I must admit before this story I had no idea about the existence of a Culinary Olympics. Yet it is among the oldest, largest, and most diverse international culinary arts competitions in the world. Having begun in the 1900s, this competition, much like the Olympics, is conducted once every four years. What started as a competitive exhibition has developed into an international event, and this year, before the coronavirus pandemic was declared, there were close to 2,000 chefs participating from across 59 countries.
Representing India at the Culinary Olympics 2020, which was held in Stuttgart, Germany, in February 2020, Yeshwanth Kumar Umashankar (16) won four silver medals.
Inspiration at home
For Yeshwant, an interest in cooking and culinary arts began rather early. He says that seeing his father, Chef Umasankar Dhanapal, work was what inspired him. “From as early as I can remember I have seen my father carve fruits and vegetables and prepare food that always looked and tasted amazing. I knew I wanted to do the same,” he says.
As a nine-year-old, when most other kids were playing with cars and spending time outdoors, Yeshwanth would watch his father at work.
He says, “I developed this interest by watching very closely how my father worked. His specialisation lies in food sculptures such as fruit carving, vegetable carving, ice carving, chocolate showpieces, sugar showpieces, etc. and it was always fascinating to see how he made things come alive.”
Yeshwanth’s father, chef Umashankar, himself represented India at the culinary Olympics in 2012 and 2016 and won bronze at both events.
Cooking up a storm
Yeshwanth participated in four different competitions and speaking about two of them, he says, “Each participant is given three hours of time in which we had to do a live carving and showcase our knife and design skills. As the youngest participant at the competition, there was pressure and immense excitement of being there.” The other event that Yeshwanth participated in was the classical fruit and vegetable carving competition which had no time limit and allowed the participants to come up with their design and present it before a jury.
The brief given to the participants for this category was to ensure that the carvings were intricate and ideally meant for a grand gala buffet display piece. The second category was a live category which is timed and the fruit or vegetable that needs to be used is also specified just before the start of the competition. There are various qualifying rounds before one can make it to the finals. “More than nervousness, I felt a lot of excitement at being able to compete,” says Yeshwanth.
Adding to this, chef Umashankar says, “For the live carving the theme that was given to the participants was floral ecstasy and Yeshwanth chose to do Thai carving, which is a rather difficult way of carving.” When working on the Thai style only one knife can be used for all the carving and no other tools are made available.
‘His work will speak for itself’
While Yeshwanth is representing India at this competition, his father, chef Umashankar, speaks about how there is no financial assistance that is forthcoming from the government. He says, “Up until now I have spent close to Rs 20 lakhs on these competitions and while I have no regrets about it, having help from the government would certainly make life much better.” Yeshwanth also had to drop out of regular school and appeared for his Class 10 board exam under the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS).
“I knew that my board exam dates and the competition dates would clash and the only option was for me to appear under the open schooling system,” he says. When asked where he sees himself a few years from now, he says, “Working in the culinary field for sure. There is so much to learn and for me this is just the beginning.” Yeshwanth wishes to go to Sri Lanka and learn from chef Dimuthu Kumarasinghe, whom he considers his idol.
While accolades have been pouring in, there is still no financial support that has been made available to Yeshwanth. Chef Umashankar, who is visibly proud of his son’s achievements, says, “We will support him as much as we can and hope that his work speaks for itself and the government comes forward to help him.”
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)