A ‘labour of love’: Team NAIT wins silver at IKA Culinary Olympics

by | Feb 9, 2024 | News

Days before the IKA Culinary Olympics in Germany, NAIT’s first all-woman Community Catering team of Culinary Arts professionals are ready for anything. The team of seven Culinary Arts students and recent graduates would go on to bring home a silver medal in their category after competing on Feb. 4—but they already anticipated a spot on the podium. According to Crystal Higgins, the team’s captain, their last practice before heading to Stuttgart “couldn’t have ended on a better note.”

They did a final test of the menu the team would end up presenting during the competition. It’s full of fresh Alberta ingredients that rendered the team’s coaches speechless during the team’s final menu run-through, even though they’ve tasted it before. 

Higgins has waited years for the IKA Culinary Olympics, which occurs every four years. After spending most of her career as a Project Accountant in oil and gas, she enrolled in culinary school at 35. “I said screw this, I’m going to do what I love to do,” said Higgins. She remembers seeing the photo of the last culinary team during her first day at NAIT.

Two years later, after graduating with honours in 2021, Higgins jumped at the chance to be on the team when she saw the application open. The first round of candidates went through a rigorous selection process; the coaches needed to ensure the team worked well together and was ready for the level of commitment necessary to compete. On top of working full-time jobs, the final team was putting in around 40 hours per week into preparing for the six-and-a-half-hour community catering service.

As numbers got smaller, seven women remained. Crystal Higgins, Miranda McElwain, Veronica Martens, Suzanne Boulet, Danielle Parjan, Aimée Rossetti and Jillian Sampson.

“The fact that we’re all females was really just a coincidence,” said Higgins. The women don’t necessarily want this to define who they are as cooks but are still determined to break down stereotypes.

“Being in industry, being a sous chef, and as silly as this may sound, being someone who likes to wear makeup and be a certain way every day, there’s definitely been stereotypes and judgements put on me that I’ve had to show through my hard work and determination that I’m not just a face. I’m here to do well and be the best and bring the best out of everyone around me.”

(image credit: NAIT)

As a sous chef at the Royal Glenora Club, Higgins is used to working in a fast-paced environment. She hopes her leadership at work and with the NAIT Culinary Team can show newer generations of cooks that a stressful environment doesn’t mean there’s no love and respect.

“It’s not the Gordon Ramsay, you know, yelling at each other, screaming at each other—what everyone wants to see on the TV, and that’s even what I’m trying to bring out into industry. I get a lot of females now that are very broken down, feel beat up, that they love to cook and they love to be in it. But every day they go to work, it just sort of swallows them up, and that makes me really sad,” she said.

“And so, if this team can show that, you know, we can do this, we can be respectful. We can treat each other with integrity.” As recent culinary grads, the women still have the passion to make changes in the industry—though it can be difficult to hold onto when older generations are “used to behaving and learning in a certain way.”

“If we can shed light on how it’s a new age for the culinary industry, then all the power to us and I’m proud to be a part of that.”

 Leading up to the team’s community catering silver medal win, Higgins admits it hasn’t been easy. The team is not unfamiliar with disagreements, tears and hugs—that’s just how it is, she said. But the team’s ability to communicate and ask each other for help when they need it would help them stay calm under the pressure of a global competition with thousands of people around. “We’ve done this 100 times. We know what we’re doing. We just need to have faith in ourselves,” said Higgins. 

“These are six of the most talented, most badass girls I have ever met in my life, and we do have a different way of working in the kitchen,” said Higgins. “We’re a well-rounded, extremely knowledgeable team that can go into anything and crush it.”

(Spoiler alert: They crushed it.)

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