WMU chef earns two bronze medals at culinary Olympics

contact: Jeanne Baron
| WMU News
Photo of Thomas Giles receiving a bronze medal.

Giles receives a bronze medal

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A Western Michigan University chef has brought home two bronze medals from the world's most elite culinary competition.

Chef Thomas Giles, manager of culinary operations for WMU Dining Services, earned the honors during the 2016 Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung—International Culinary Exhibition—held Oct. 22-25. Commonly known as the IKA/culinary Olympics, the competition is staged every four years in Erfurt, Germany.

"I've dreamed of doing the competition for 30 years. It's the pinnacle of what you do, and especially if you medal, it's so rewarding," Giles says. "This was definitely the toughest competition I've ever participated in. I was humbled to be part of this phenomenal display of culinary passion and perfection."

Culinary expertise and innovation

The IKA/culinary Olympics is the largest international professional competition for top chefs, cooks and pastry chefs from around the globe. Founded in 1896, it showcases culinary expertise and innovation by national teams as well as youth, regional and caterer teams that compete to be Olympic champions in their discipline.

Giles competed as part of Michigan's four-person Great Lakes Culinary Team, and he was the only member of the group not from the Detroit area. He and his teammates, Chefs Jeremy Abbey, John Piazza and Matt Schellig, were among some 2,000 chefs from more than 50 countries who participated.

The WMU staffer earned a bronze medal in the Culinary Artistry Category for a chocolate carving of Abraham Lincoln and a bronze in the Culinary Art Category for his five-course tasting menu. Teammate Abbey picked up a third bronze, also in culinary art.

Olympic training

Photo of plated appetizers.

Award-winning tasting menu

Getting to the international event was a grueling road for Giles, who came to WMU in 2014 after nine years with Bronson Healthcare Group and a career in food that began with the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. He hadn't participated in a culinary contest for two decades, but decided to get back into the competition arena in 2012.

"I began entering competitions locally and around the country," he says, "but didn't realize how much food had changed."

Giles entered competitions frequently and started bringing home numerous awards, including a bronze medal as part of the team that represented Michigan at the 2014 Villeroy & Boch Culinary World Cup in Luxembourg.

He also had to compete to gain a spot on the Great Lakes Culinary Team. He was interviewed and had his previous competition record scrutinized to make sure he was serious about getting to the 2016 IKA/culinary Olympics. Then, he and his team members spent two years practicing their skills and learning to work together in order to perfect their chosen creations for their Olympics debut.

"After a year, we started feeding off of each other and we knew how to help out one another," he says, adding that his wife, Anne, food and nutrition manager at Allegan General Hospital, and teammate John Piazza's wife, Julie, also are chefs. "Our wives worked with the team as assistants and were a big help when we got to Germany."

Unusual decision

Photo of chocolate carving.

Award-winning sculpture

During the competition, team members vied individually in their chosen categories. Their scores were combined to create a team tally. Although the Michiganders didn't medal as a team, one of Giles' awards was nothing short of remarkable.

"I decided to do a chocolate carving in the Culinary Artistry Category. I've carved ice before, but never done sculptures, which is completely different," he says. "You don't want to go to the Olympics and do something you've never done before. But I wanted to try and did it for my own benefit."

Judy Gipper, director of WMU Dining Services, notes that Giles is putting that passion and commitment into his work at the University.

"Chef Tom has not only stretched his culinary skills to new levels of achievement with his Olympic medals," Gipper says, "he's taking WMU Dining Services to the next level of culinary delivery at our new Valley Dining Center and throughout all of Dining Services."

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