Chef Corey Siegel, youngest member ever to join ACF Team USA, recalls his journey to the 2016 IKA ‘Culinary Olympics’ in Germany.
In 2012, a day before his 23rd birthday, Chef Corey Siegel received a letter in the mail welcoming him to the ACF Culinary Team USA, meant to compete at the 2014 Villeroy & Boch Culinary World Cup in Luxembourg; the 2015 American Culinary Classic in Orlando; and the 2016 IKA “Culinary Olympics” in Erfurt, Germany.
The letter also congratulated him for making history as the youngest person ever to be accepted onto Team USA; thus, fulfilling a promise he made to his high school culinary instructor eight years prior, when his New York vocational school flew to Las Vegas for the ACF National Convention. “We were in this seminar presented by Ed Leonard, the manager of Team USA at the time,” says Siegel. “My instructor leaned over to me and said, ‘You’re going to be the youngest person to ever make the team.’ And I was like, OK, I have no idea what that means, but sure.”
He may not have known it at the time, but that motivation and Siegel’s current mantra, “Stay excited,” propelled him to earn 15 medals from both national and international competitions by the time he was 22. His dedication led him to study at the Culinary Institute of America, and his determination was evident when he enrolled in a rigorous and demanding three-year apprenticeship at Westchester Country Club in Harrison, New York, under Chef Leonard himself.
Now with his personal goal under his belt, Corey set his sights on a bigger aim: to represent America on the culinary world stage and present its fare as some of the finest cuisine on the planet.
“I think (other competing countries) would view us as a lack of cuisine; a fast-food nation is definitely a huge notion, and I think a little bit of arrogance as well because we’re such a big country compared to a lot of these other competitors,” he says. “So I wanted to help put our name on the map, and I know when we put our jackets on and step into that arena, we’re representing every chef in the USA, from the Michelin to street food to whatever—everyone in the world will see U.S. cuisine as what we put out.”
It’s an unimaginable amount of pressure, but Team USA came through for the United States by squeaking out a third-place finish (out of 29 countries) and securing the highest score in the cold food competition at the ’14 World Cup in Luxembourg. Then, it snagged first place (out of 12 teams) the next year at the American Culinary Classic. At the 2016 IKA “Culinary Olympics” in Germany, they placed an astounding fourth out of 30 countries, earning three gold medals in: Culinary Art, hot-food kitchen and cold-food display.
The talented crew represented the very best of America, from coast to coast: Ben Grupe (Missouri); Joseph Albertelli (Florida); George Castaneda, CEC (Tennessee); Andy Chlebana, CEPC (Illinois); Jason Hall, CMC (North Carolina); Susan Notter, CEPC (Pennsylvania); and Matthew Seasock, CEC (Texas); and Corey Siegel, CEC (North Carolina). While holding down full-time jobs, they all signed onto a fouryear commitment to train as much as possible on their own, and then fly to either the Electrolux headquarters in North Carolina or TurboChef in Texas for a monthly team practice.
“When we left, I don’t think we could have been happier. To come home with three gold medals is huge,” says Corey, who counts the bonds of friendship created during these extremely pressurefilled situations as rewarding as the accolades. “Not only can I count on my six teammates anytime, but now I have friends in Sweden, Singapore, France, Italy, you name it.”
To train for international competition, Team USA chefs subjected themselves to endless distractions during practice, including blaring French music to limit communication and test their focus. They memorized where European electrical outlets would be located at each competition. They purposely threw kinks into their own system to experience extra pressure and problem-solving challenges amongst an already strenuous cooking atmosphere.
“Nothing really fazes me anymore. If I have to present in front of 100 of the most pristine chefs in the world, that doesn’t bother me at all—I have a much better comfort level because I’ve literally been cooking on the world stage for millions of people to see all across the world; it’s pretty insane,” he says.
But no matter how prepared one feels, or how many hours spent in the kitchen, what Chef Siegel ultimately learned is: something will always go wrong.
“The biggest thing is you just can’t freak out, you really have to not be scared of those challenges and accept them and say alright, how am I still going to pull this off?” Siegel says. “You got to be so prepared walking into these competitions that any adversity that comes up, you’re able to handle it calm and collective and be able to really process and do the right thing.”
Anything can happen—and has happened—to Siegel, including a loss of power at the final moments of competing in Luxemburg, which means no heat lamps while plating and no burners. Luckily, he recalled his days at Westchester in North Carolina, a luxurious but older hotel with sporadic power outages. One occassion caught Siegel resorting to the wood-burning pizza oven to boil water and cook the last few orders of the night.
“There’s always going to be adversity; you just have to be so prepared,” he says. “And, for me, it was just finding something I was passionate about and surrounding myself with people who are better and more passionate than I am. You just really have to stay excited and dedicated every day.”