The heat is on

Hanna Claesson, 20, Matilda Ewaldh, 22, and Matilda Pylkköö,19, are the winners of the Malin Söderström scholarship, which has granted them each a spot in the Swedish Culinary Team. Photo: Per-Erik Berglund/Znapshot AB.

The Culinary Olympics is one of the world’s most prestigious cooking competitions with traditions dating back to the last turn of the century. After months of hard work, everything that the National Culinary Teams have been practicing is put to the test in one big battle of pots and pans. And in the midst of it all, at the heart of the Swedish National team, you’ll find three newcomers fighting to keep their heads cool in the heat of the kitchen.

The Culinary Olympics isn’t perhaps the worlds’ most renowned competition. But for chefs, it’s about as prestigious as it gets. This is where, since the year 1900, the best culinary teams in the world go head to head in a cook-off designed to test both individual skills, and the ability to function as a team. Singapore is defending champion, but Sweden has avictorious past, with wins in 2000, 2004 and 2012. 

This year, the competition is held in Stuttgart on 15 to 18 February and chefs from about 70 nations are traveling to Bavaria to join the battle. The objective for the participants is to gain as many points as possible from the three course meals that are being prepared in the kitchens. Everything they do is scrutinized by the rigorous eyes of the competition jury who values perfection. Adding to the drama is the fact that every plate needs to be equally perfect in execution, since the chefs don’t know which plate that’s going to be judged. 

At the heart of the Swedish competition-kitchen, you’ll find three aspiring young female chefs who have been granted a scholarship to join the Swedish National Culinary team as interns. The young trio; Matilda Ewaldh, 22 years old, Hanna Claesson, 20 years old, and Matilda Pylkköö, 19 years old, are all newly graduates from different culinary schools in Sweden. They are also all winnersof the Malin Söderström scholarship, which has enabled them the hot spot in the team.

The Swedish National Culinary team has been very successful over the years so there’s a lot of talent and experience combined in the kitchen when the team practice and compete. What are you hoping that youcan bring to the chef’s table, so to speak?

 “For me, curiosity, the willingness to learn and the notion to constantly ask questions like: What are we doing? Why are we doing this? How can I help?” Hanna says.

“I also think that we bring a youthfulness and an ability to help out with the tasks that needs to be done, but that’s perhaps not everyone’s favourite thing to do” Matilda Pylkköö adds.

For some years now, the Swedish National Culinary team has struggled with getting women on the roster. And, of course, this is no good. That’s why initiatives like the Malin Söderström scholarship has come about. But for Matilda, Hanna and Matilda, the male dominance in the restaurant kitchens, has never been an issue. And that includes getting accepted into the all-male National Culinary team. 

Would you say that a professional kitchen is a man’s world?

“I’ve never encountered any issues nor ever been treated unfairly in the kitchen. Sure, the environment can be tough and the jargon a bit harsh sometimes. But I’ve never experienced sexism or jokes on my behalf because I’m a woman” Matilda Ewaldh explains.

“I have the same experience. I guess that it in most cases comes down to your own type of personality – how you’re able to cope with certain issues – and I don’t necessary mean gender-related incidents. If you’re clear on where you’ve set your own boundaries, then it’s also easier to communicate if they’re about to be crossed” Matilda Pylkköö concludes.