I think I only read past the first few lines and I knew it was a Yes. The email invite to the 2018 Pasta World Championships by Barilla definitely had more information but I didn’t need the details to know that this was an experience and a trip worth making. This was the perfect combination of so many things I love. Pasta (check); Barilla (lemme see: their sauces and pasta fill up my pantry, quite literally the only pasta brand I’ve bought for years now), Italy (check); Milan specifically (Yes and yes).
So what felt like an eternity later (which is always the case when I’m excited for a trip), I found myself getting on a flight to Milan- my second time ever visiting the city.
Milan was uncharacteristically and unseasonably warmer than usual. I could, of course, worry about the environmental implications of 80-degree weather in October, but I was just so happy to have great weather over the course of the three days of my stay and the two days of the competition.
The competition this year was at La Pelota, a beautiful historical space located in the center of Milan, at it’s very most fashionable center, in the Brera district. Brera is synonymous with the artistic heart of the city and a perfect setting for the competition. You just get in the mood for creativity when you stroll along the cobblestoned streets of this old district.
Now in its 7th year, the competition pits chefs under the age of 35, (some as young as 20), from all over the world to be judged by a panel of Michelin starred judges. 18 chefs were scheduled to compete, but one chef, unfortunately, did not make it at the last minute. Representing the USA was Chef Carolina Diaz from Terzo Piano at the Art Institute of Chicago. She is also a professor of culinary arts at Triton College.
On Day 1, I got to see Chef Carolina in action. She seemed to me to have the most effervescent spirit, she smiled as she cooked, taking time to taste everything. She was also laughing and in a joking mood. I’m not one to speak about dealing with the pressure of competition. I could see that every chef reacted to it in a different way. Some were super focused, stoic even, others showed some nerves, others didn’t even break a sweat and some engaged the cameras, while others never looked at anything other than their ingredients and their tools. They all deserve so much credit for not only competing but competing with so many cameras, and I mean big cameras, small cameras, phone cameras and the lights and the commotion and all of this while focusing on making the perfect dish that could lead to their being crowned Master of Pasta.
The head to head duels were the best part, it actually made me realize that cooking is an art and a sport and that chefs don’t get nearly enough credit for the magic they create with everyday ingredients that most of us can so easily take for granted. A tomato in my hands is not just a tomato in their hands and in their pans and on the final plate.
With each round, a chef was crowned winner to cook another day and another an almost equally deserving chef was out of this competition but they only seemed to let their disappointment show for just a minute and then it was the realization of being in a space with so many people who love food and who respect their talent. And so it was laughs and chatting and photos and more drinking and more eating.
The press and influencers at the event got to taste the food, we got to talk to the chefs and we all took so very many pictures. There were also recipe cards available so we could kid ourselves into thinking that we would recreate the masterpiece dishes that had been featured . If I learned anything, I learned a few tricks on plating pasta- my next pasta dish will never look the boring all same.
By Day 2, we were familiar with every turn of the competition, we all had our faves and I got a chance to sit down and properly chat with Chef Carolina. She shared how she initially thought she would be a psychology major, but food/cooking/gastronomy pulled her in. She was so candid and fun about her love of cooking and how she found herself in Milan, closing in on being Master of Pasta. It was part work ethic, part dedication, all passion. And it was in that moment that I knew she was going to win it all.
And win it she did. We closed the night, cheering, celebrating, feeling supremely exhilarated. There was jazz, there was food, wine and best of all, there was more pasta, loads more Pasta.