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Culture

Ready, Set, Cook!

Germany is hosting a different sort of Olympics -- one where the disciplines include sauces and pastries and the "athletes" wear tall white hats. All the more proof that cooking is becoming the new national pastime.

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Cooks from 38 countries are going for culinary gold in Erfurt.

Unlike Paris or New York, Erfurt in eastern Germany is not one of the world's best-known gastronomic centers. But from Oct. 17 - 20, Erfurt is hosting the biggest assemblage of food professionals ever, as chefs from 38 nations bake, baste and braise their way to gold in the 2004 Culinary Olympics.

"The concept was born here in Germany 104 years ago," Reinhold Metz, President of the Association of German Chefs told DW-WORLD. "First, it was known as the Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung, or IKA. But later on, when the Americans started participating, the phrase Culinary Olympics began circulating. We liked this, took it, and said we'd turn it into an Olympic event."

Essen für Olympia

The Culinary Olympics takes place every four years in Germany. In true Olympic style, national teams of chefs compete in different disciplines, whipping up appetizers, main courses, and desserts in glass kitchens under the watchful eye of the judges. There's also a restaurant of nations, where the teams prepare national specialties, as well as separate events for junior chefs, pastry chefs and even military chefs -- out to combat old notions of mystery mush unceremoniously ladled onto metal trays.

Participation is everything

The teams are judged on speed, cleanliness, and of course, taste, said Metz. And he added that while the competition for the gold medals is intense, the Olympic spirit is alive and well in Erfurt.

"More than winning medals, the event is about learning, learning, learning," he said. "The contestants can share their knowledge with each other, look at the show platters and buffets, take photographs. For them, it's a great opportunity."

"I'm a veteran in the culinary arts, but a very important exercise for me was translating the menus from the national teams into German. There were things I'd never heard of before, and I had to ask for explanations," Metz added.

This year, the Culinary Olympics couldn't be more timely. Germany is fast becoming a nation of food enthusiasts and hobby chefs, with an explosion of courses, TV shows, books and magazines all dedicated to the culinary arts.

British invasion

Britt Lippold, who owns Kochlust, a shop offering cookbooks and cookery classes in Berlin,

Jamie Oliver Koch bei BBC

British chef Jamie Oliver

said the boom can largely be attributed to the popularity here of Britain's Jamie Oliver, otherwise known as the Naked Chef.

"We're a small store, but for a while, we were the store in Germany that sold the most Jamie Oliver books," Lippold told DW-WORLD.

Lippold shares Oliver's approach to cooking, which she describes as honest and down-to-earth.

"I'm not a traditionalist by any means, but I believe in old values in the positive sense, bringing people together, and bringing different cultures together through food," she said.

Oliver's success in Germany has spawned homegrown copy-cats, such as star chef Tim Mälzer, who has a very Oliver-esque show on German broadcaster, VOX.

Maggi Cook with friends Pressebild

Maggi is encouraging young Germans to stay in and cook

Even Maggi, a popular brand of ready-made soups and sauces in Germany, has jumped on the bandwagon, launching a new Web site encouraging young German singles to forgo bars and discos in favour of a night in, cooking with friends.

Reinventing the classics

The result could be a new lease on life for German cuisine, typically thought of as stodgy fare involving plenty of meat and potatoes. Lippold said her updated versions of classic German dishes are sought after by course participants. And Metz, too, stressed the role the Culinary Olympics places in reinventing national specialties.

"It's very important to remember the old style of cooking, but also to find ways to prepare those old recipes in a modern way," he said.

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