Kelsee Newman does not play volleyball. She is not a pole-vaulter, gymnast, hurdler, sprinter, or curler. In fact, she is not an athlete of any kind. However, the 21-year-old Evansville native has the unique pleasure of calling herself an Olympian.
A culinary Olympian, that is.
Newman is one of only four students at Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky., who were chosen to compete in the prestigious worldwide Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany, on Oct. 4-11. Newman, who was homeschooled, competed against more than 1,600 of the finest culinary professionals in her field from more than 32 countries. The competition rivals the grandeur of this summer’s Olympic Games, complete with an opening ceremony, the promise of gold, and the feeling of sweet victory. Possibly even sweeter victory for Newman, whose area of expertise is working with chocolate. “I enjoy the science of it more than the art,” says Newman. “I’m no artist. That is the part I have to work hardest at.”
The process of tempering chocolate (getting it back to its original state) to make it suitable to work with is complex. Explaining how to get beta and alpha crystals to form a homogenized mass is like a second language to the budding pastry-extraordinaire. Luckily, Newman has had hands-on guidance from her teacher and mentor, Chef Derek Spendlove, a 1988 culinary Olympian and instructor at Sullivan University for 23 years.
“It is great to see a young person like Kelsee have so much drive and passion for what she is doing,” says Spendlove. “She will make an incredible pastry chef; you can see it in her level of dedication.”
Newman also receives one-on-one training with her chocolate coach, Chef Scott Turner, the associate chair of the baking and pastry arts department and an instructor at Sullivan University for nearly 12 years. “He is always pushing me to work cleaner and to strive for perfection in every detail,” she says. “It’s not always about going bigger, but making sure that each flower petal or leaf is perfect.”
In preparation for the competition, Newman says she spent about 10 hours each day, six days a week for six months practicing her culinary skills. Part of that preparation included hand-crafting each flower for Japanese-inspired “Ikebana” Olympic piece, a skill that most seasoned professionals still cannot easily master. She has recreated this piece several times before leaving for Germany, to ensure she can build her entire sculpture in the 48 hours allotted in the competition.
Because Newman and her team will transport pre-made parts of the piece on the 14-hour flight to the competition, she and coach Spendlove have run through several “worst case scenarios” to prepare. “More than anything, this is a learning experience,” says Spendlove. “I want everything bad to happen, so that she can know how to handle it in the future.”
Along with preparing for the show, she also works as a teaching assistant for Sullivan University. Surprisingly, in the rare event that she has free time, Newman prefers to stay in the kitchen. “This is my hobby. I love doing it. I know this is what I want to do.”