The art of chocolate
Chef Stafford DeCambra goes for gold at the international Culinary Olympics
Pensacola News Journal
Julio Diaz • firstname.lastname@example.org • October 15, 2008
Most people see chocolate as a sweet treat. For Stafford DeCambra, it's a medium for art. DeCambra, the director of culinary operations and corporate executive chef at PCI Gaming in Atmore, Ala., is an award-winning sculptor in the competitive world of food art. And he's getting ready to show his work on one of the culinary world's biggest stages. This week, he takes his intricate chocolate sculptures to Erfurt, Germany, where he will compete in the 22nd IKA Culinary Olympics. The competition opens Saturday and runs through Oct. 22.
Competing against some of the world's top chefs is challenging enough. But DeCambra is entering the competition while he's in the midst of launching five new restaurants as part of PCI's new Wind Creek Casino & Hotel, opening in January in Atmore, just 50 miles north of Pensacola, in addition to overseeing kitchen operations at PCI's existing Atmore properties.
To most people, that would sound exhausting. But to DeCambra, it's energizing.
"For me, it's about passion and love," DeCambra says. "I have a very strong passion for my profession and a love of the culinary arts. It's like getting my batteries charged. When I come back, I'll be charged and ready to do the best I can do. I just can't wait!"
Jay Dorris, president & CEO of PCI Gaming, couldn't be happier to have DeCambra on his team.
"We can't overstate the importance of having Chef Stafford at the center of our culinary efforts," Dorris says. "He is an award-winning, world class chef with years of experience. He exemplifies everything we are working to bring to the Wind Creek operation — excellence, experience and a dedication to having customers feel they have been offered something really special."
DeCambra says that creating a piece of chocolate art is in many ways no different than sculpting in other media: It takes a spark of inspiration and a whole lot of work.
"First, I look at a theme or a concept depending on where it is I'm going to go for a competition," he says. "I try to do something that is unique, individual, and think about a sculpture that has some motion to it."
"Once I have a vision of what it is I want to create, I will create the armature," he says. "I shape the sculpture into the desired shape, and once I have that base to work from, I begin taking a recipe I have for making chocolate tallow, and apply it to the pieces. It's like shaping a big block of clay. Then I scrape it with my tools and work it by hand to apply it to the armature. Once I have that coat on it, I can begin building up and starting the sculpting, or work with smaller pieces to design the intricate parts."
A native of Hawaii, DeCambra names his sculpture of three hula dancers as the most personal piece he will present at the Culinary Olympics.
"It was important to me, going to this competition, to reflect some of my history and that Hawaiian culture," he says. "I thought of the ancient hula, and the different poses in the dance of hula, so I wanted to show three of the different poses, and within that, where the placement of the legs and hands needed to be. It was also important to me to have a male dancer as part of it. It took me about 6 months to complete all three of them to where they are today."
Handle with care
Where they are today may not be exactly where they were when DeCambra sent them ahead on their journey to Germany. The danger of damage and the logistics of careful packaging are major concerns. As DeCambra says, "It can be a nightmare if it's not executed correctly."
DeCambra teams with two carpenter friends to build his own bases for his sculptures, and then to build the shipping crates around the sculptures. The insides are carefully sealed with plastic to keep out dust and dirt, and everything is made as secure as possible. Then, the sculptures make a long journey by refrigerated truck, first to Virginia, then Delaware before finally flying to Germany.
"Once it left the truck, it was out of my hands," DeCambra says. "There was some nervousness, and even some sadness. It's like my kids left on a trip, I can't wait to see them again."
DeCambra says he has heard the sculptures took "a little damage" in transit, but "it's not a major concern."
"I can bring them all back to life. When I get to Germany, I'll be doing the finishing touches. It will look and smell like chocolate, yet you'll see the art and creativity I'm trying to present within it."
DeCambra has six days before the start of competition to work on the pieces. And if the sight of all that chocolate has you thinking about a major binge at the end of the competition, think again: DeCambra's works may look and smell delicious, but they aren't intended to be eaten — the chocolate tallow is not edible.
No matter how he does in the Olympics, DeCambra will return to more challenges at home in Atmore. And he is already planning his next sculpture, a tribute to his current employers.
"My next piece I have in mind, if I have the time, is a life-sized Indian doing a pow wow," he says. "That's something I'm seriously considering for the lobby of the new hotel when that opens up. Eventually I would like to do that, a representation of the Porch Creek Indians out of Alabama."