Sweat, tears, and semolina
In the packed venue space in the middle of Milan’s trendy La Brea district, Carolina Diaz looked at the timer and yelped. The 34-year-old chef from Chicago fiddled with the burners in her makeshift kitchen, keeping an eye on the flashing red numbers counting down across the digital clock. A giant pot of boiling water bellowed wafts of white steam, ready for a batch of spaghetti to be dunked in. Then, when the final seconds ticked down, the room erupted into cheers, as rowdy as any sports stadium.
It was the final round of the two-day Pasta World Championship, sponsored by pasta makers Barilla, which brought 17 young chefs from around the world to Italy late last month. During multiple challenges, they competed before a panel of judges—reality cooking show-style—to walk away with the title of pasta all-star. With over a dozen countries in competition, identified by the colorful flags placed at each cooking station and raised by the judges when casting their votes, the event felt a bit like the pasta Olympics.
After serving up a zesty spin on a classic spaghetti al pomodoro, it was Carolina Diaz, the American star of Terzo Piano, the on-site restaurant at the Art Institute of Chicago, that won top prize. The only female winner in seven editions of the annual competition, Diaz brings a much-needed dose of diversity to an industry often tagged as a boys’ club—and an all-white one, at that.
“A lot of people when they see me hold my American flag, they’re like, ‘You’re American? You’re representing America?’” said Diaz, who grew up in a large Mexican-American family, on the first full day of cooking challenges. “Yes, we’re going into a new America,” she continued, facing the judges with her intricately plated spaghetti and tomato sauce. “Different races, different ethnicities… The United States is a melting-pot, and I want to show that.”
“So you can reinterpret the classic because you’re a reinterpretation of the classic?” quipped John Dickie, a British historian and Italian Studies professor, who was tasked with MC duties during the event.
“That’s right,” Diaz shot back.
Diaz drew praise from the judges—Italian chefs Lorenzo Cogo, Viviana Varese and Luigi Taglienti, German nutritionist Holger Stromberg, and American food Instagrammer Brittany Wright—for her unique flavor profile. A fierce sustainability advocate, Diaz repurposes pasta water in her home and puts every scrap of waste to use—like onion peels, which she baked and crumbled onto one of her creations as seasoning, and even a bit of tomato leaf. “It gets a very sweet, charred flavor,” she explained, which offsets the pasta sauce’s more peppery notes. “I’m Mexican, so I added a little spice,” Diaz added.
After the preliminary round of judging on the first day, journalists were invited to taste her first original pasta dish. Impatiently, I waited for my plate, which tasted as divine as anticipated, despite the frustratingly pint-sized portion: a few spoonfuls of rigatoni, cooked in a light, briny sauce and served with butter-soft cubes of pink tuna.
Journalists also had the opportunity to voyeuristically hover in front of the cooking stations, standing nose-to-nose with the chefs as they chopped, grated, and stirred. During the tense final round, when Diaz competed against Chinese finalist Toby Wang, Executive Chef of the Beijing Hilton, another contestant, Sabrina Fenzl—eliminated just earlier that day—stood next to me and watched in support of Diaz. Out of the 17 chefs competing, only four were women.
“I’m not sad. One of us is the winner. I’m glad about that,” said the stylish 30-year-old German chef and catering business-owner. In fact, Fenzl and Diaz cemented a fast friendship during the competition, and have even discussed potential cooking collaborations, with Fenzl already planning a visit to Diaz’s Chicago hometown later next year. “There will be more women in this business in the future,” Fenzl predicted.
The judges grew contemplative during the final deliberations. “The most important thing is yourself. Your taste, your touch, your story,” said Milan-based, Michelin-starred chef, Luigi Taglienti. It was Diaz’s uniqueness—her story—that drew them in. Later in the evening, when the winner was finally announced amid a chorus of noisy well-wishers, she received the coveted trophy graciously. “I put my heart in the plate,” Diaz told the judges. “Thank you for receiving it.”
The win was a fitting repudiation of the sexism that has come to light in the #MeToo era, and which has long marred the seemingly glamorous world of high-end food service, filled with lauded—and volatile— “auteur” chefs. Earlier this year, several titans of the industry, including Mario Batali and John Besh, were ousted after scores of women came forward with sexual harassment and assault allegations. Meanwhile, female chefs are routinely passed over for promotions or even simple media recognition, as multiple reports have shown.
“It’s really important to know that there’s a lot of strong, Michelin-starred chefs competing, and only a very few are women chefs. And I think that we need to be more vocal and be more in the forefront and say we have flavors, we’ve been doing this for years, and here we are,” Diaz declared before winning.