At the Olympics of pasta, there is no medal—only glory

Graphic: Libby McGuire
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“The pasta touch all the people in the world,” Edouard Chouteau, a French chef competing at last week’s Pasta World Championship in Paris, told me. Though Chouteau has a universalist’s view of pasta, his signature “pastatouille” didn’t advance past the first round. Still, he is in good spirits and happy to represent his country at what is referred to as the Olympics of pasta.

Barilla’s Pasta World Championship originated in 2012, and was the first pasta championship of its kind. It was also an effort by Barilla to celebrate the cultural relevance of boxed pasta and the culinary possibilities the medium allows. Though the competition’s format is still evolving, the title has become a formidable feather in the cap of talented young chefs with major culinary aspirations. Last year’s winner, an American named Carolina Diaz, is now the chef di cucina at Chicago’s Terzo Piano, working under acclaimed chef Tony Mantuano.

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This year, 18 chefs representing 18 countries engaged in heated pasta competition in a pop-up Pasta Stadium in Paris’s Pavillon Cambon, an opulent bilevel former bank equipped with four double-cooking stations, decked out with shiny Smeg appliances and spacious countertops that allowed for plenty of ogling by five judges and hundreds of spectators. Chefs cooked off head-to-head; the winner of each bracket, plus a wildcard contestant, progressed to two additional rounds of competitions, one focused on Barilla’s line of healthier pastas, and the other on refining a signature pasta dish from the first round, based on judge’s critiques. (These included everything from “I would never order this in a restaurant” to “Where’s the acid?” to “Why is there so much acid?”)

This was the first year the competition had been held outside of Italy. Appropriate to this year’s theme, The Art of Pasta, many of the plates presented to the judge’s table resembled pieces hanging in the Musée d’Orsay or Centre Pompidou—only edible.

The chefs paraded into the stadium by country, waving their national flags Olympics-style. Following the fanfare, the cooking began. Each chef had two minutes for prep and then 50 minutes to prepare his or her dish.

During each round of the competition, eight cooks worked simultaneously. Hungry spectators surrounded their stations inhaling the scents of caramelizing onions, leaning over pots of simmering cubed butternut squash, and fidgeting in anticipation as the chefs started testing their al dente pastas, twirling long noodles for the perfect spiral or arranging shorter noodles meticulously. And yet, the competitive atmosphere was as intense as a sporting event: Heaven Delhaye of Brazil, the first contestant to win her round, immediately lifted her phone in front of her face and began hopping around and dancing while chanting “Brazil! Brazil! Brazil!” in celebration with her 422,000 Instagram followers.

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Contestant Zora Klipp of Germany prepares her second dish, penne with butternut squash sauce.
Photo: Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner

Representing the United States was Sean Turner, chef at Louie in Clayton, Missouri, just outside St. Louis. He beat out the rest of our nation’s competitive pasta cooks at semi-finals held in Pebble Beach, California this April. A bright red St. Louis Cardinals cap that one spectator dubbed “très Americain” (U! S! A!) obscured his face as he pounded fresh basil, parsley leaves and toasted pistachios in a basketball-sized mortar and pestle. His girlfriend, parents, and sister eyed his progress. Meanwhile, his competitor, Christian Carrieri, an Italian representing the United Arab Emirates, crafted a “masterpiece” rigatoni in red, green and white sauces representing the flags of both his countries. It knocked Turner out of the competition.

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With the USA gone, it looked like North America was out altogether until Kshitiz Sethi, a young Canadian chef just two years out of culinary school, rebounded as a wildcard: His pasta con le sarde, a “multicultural” rendition of a classic Sicilian recipe, impressed the judges tremendously. Growing up in New Delhi, Sethi wasn’t super familiar with pasta, but his first job out of school as a pasta cook educated him in the versatility of the noodle.

At the start of day two, the remaining competing chefs once again paraded into the arena waving their national flags. The atmosphere was becoming increasingly tense. I watched Delhaye lift a ring of vegan pesto on a white plate, inhaling sharply along with many antsy viewers as some herb infused oil splattered on her plate. She wiped it off. A save!

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While goals and baskets and triple axels are precise and measurable, taste is, and will always be, subjective. Still, the competition reminded Austrian chef Sebastian Butzi of his days growing up playing American football. “I like to compete, you can find out who is best,” he says. “You have to show your best when you’re competing. It doesn’t matter if you were good an hour before or after, you have to be good at the exact moment.” In a restaurant, he says, preparation for service is like preparing for a match; once the tables are seated, it becomes like a full on competition. Cooking at home is completely different. It’s relaxing, something fun he can do with his friends and girlfriend: a hobby instead of a club sport.

For the championship, Butzi elected to chef-up what he called a “poor man’s dish” with “good, basic flavors” to impress the judges. His first-round linguine had wowed them, thanks, perhaps, to his timed cooking drills in his restaurant’s kitchen, but his deconstructed eggplant Parmigiana in the second round did not.

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Italian Matteo Carnaghi zipped through skinning potatoes to turn into a cream sauce for his signature pasta e patate, reinvented with raw langoustines, breadcrumbs, and shells. He’d also trained intensely, drilling his signature dish daily in advance of the competition, a move which earned him five unanimous votes from the judges after they tasted his unique riff on an Italian classic.

“Pasta is the best thing you can make for your friends,” he tells me. His deconstructed pasta alla norma didn’t beat Delhaye’s vegan pesto in the next round, though, so one may predict he’ll be skinning a lot of eggplants and roasting a lot of cherry tomatoes to defend his second dish to his friends (he confirms this is likely). A third Italian, Nicola Pelligana, competing for Australia, also progressed to the second round, honoring his grandmother’s mandate to cook “with love” though he didn’t make it to the final.

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A server carries Delhaye’s final dish to the judges’ table.
Photo: Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner

In the Gran Finale—Japan, Canada, Brazil, and Switzerland—all four chefs cooked simultaneously, staggered by just a few minutes so each signature plate would hit the judges’ table seconds after plating. Guests sipped Aperol spritzes while crowding around the finalists, some offering advice based on earlier feedback: “Remember portion size!” No wooden spoons were slammed down. There were no major kitchen mishaps. Nonetheless, the suspense grew. After a short respite to refill everyone’s drinks, the 2019 World Pasta Champion was crowned.

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Japanese competitor Keita Yuge, who did not make it past the first round in the 2017 competition, had impressed the judges with his Penne al Gorgonzola with Oysters and Japanese Aromas, a complex, saucy, silver melange of seaweed, oysters, sake, prosciutto, cream, and some uuzu for garnish. Instead of a medal, he received a bronze pasta die, emblazoned with his title, and a bottle of Champagne. To celebrate, Yuge did what he enjoys most: He cooked the silky bivalve coated penne for the crowd.

I tasted it. Reader, it deserved a medal.


Vivaldi’s Spring Movement by Sean Turner

Bucatini with Pistachio Pesto

serves 4

Cooking Time: 35 min

  • 8 oz (240 grams) bucatini pasta
  • 5 oz (150 grams) pistachio, shelled
  • 1/3 cup (80 grams) shallot, diced
  • 5 oz (150 grams) Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
  • 3 tbsp (50 grams) lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 C (340 mL) extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup (120 grams) basil
  • 1/3 cup (75 grams) flat leaf parsley, fresh
  • 1/3 cup (75 grams) fennel fronds, fresh
  • 2 tsp (10 grams) kosher salt
  • Additional Parmigiano Reggiano as needed to garnish
  • Additional roasted pistachio as needed to garnish

Roast the pistachios in the oven at 325°F. Move them to roast on all sides after 5 minutes. Then, after another 5 minutes, let them cool.

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In a food processor, pulsing and scraping the sides with rubber a spatula, blend the herbs, lemon juice, kosher salt, and diced shallot to obtain almost a paste. Reduce all large chunks.

Add the pistachios, retaining a few for garnish, and cheese and salt, and pulse until pistachios are finely reduced.

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While running the food processor, drizzle slowly the olive oil. Adjust for seasoning.

Boil water for pasta in a large pot. Cook the pasta al dente and strain, retaining a cup of water.

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In a pan combine pesto with pasta. Add some pasta cooking water, if needed, in order to obtain a creamy sauce. Toss until well coated.

Top with fresh grated Parmigiano Reggiano and crushed pistachios.

Recipe courtesy of Sean Turner

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