Two years on: news from 2009 champion
Grand Hyatt Tokyo sous-chef Shigeo Hirai was crowned World Chocolate Master 2009. Born in 1970 in Ichikawa City, to the east of Tokyo, Shigeo Hirai graduated from Japan’s prestigious Tsuji Cooking Academy in 1994. Like many chefs, he moved to France in 2001 to pursue his training. After two years working in French pâtisseries and restaurants, he returned to Japan to join the staff of the luxury Grand Hyatt Tokyo as a sous-chef in the hotel’s Fiorentina Pastry Boutique. Today, he is Vice-President Chef in the Pastry department.
The Finals were an unusually testing experience, he recalls. “The most difficult thing was to perform as usual under high pressure in front of an audience and in different conditions. The temperature in the venue was getting high during the competition so I had to worry about that as well!” As it was, he came through with flying colours. The delicacy and refinement of his remarkable showpiece in the form of a mannequin posing for a photographer stunned the jury.
So how has the World Chocolate Master title changed Shigeo’s life?
For a start, his success in the competition brought him lots of media coverage. Through it, he has met many influential chefs who have helped him to develop his international career.
Today, some of his winning creations are sold at Grand Hyatt’s smart Fiorentina Pastry Boutique, where sales have risen by 30% since he was crowned World Chocolate Master! As part of his new international profile, he has become a Cacao Barry Brand Ambassador. He is often asked to do chocolate demonstrations and to speak about his work, though he frequently has to decline such invitations because of his professional commitments. All of this is paving the way for the realization of his ultimate dream, which is one day to open his own business.
Who will Shigeo Harai be supporting in this year’s Final?
That’s a question that hardly needs asking: it has become a Japanese tradition at the World Chocolate Masters Final for winners to pass on advice and support to the next Japanese contestant. Before the 2009 contest, Shigeo received tips and training from the winner of the 2007 contest, Naomi Mizuno, who had himself received similar support from the 2005 third-place finalist, Kouichi Izumi. Naturally, Shigeo is delighted to follow this tradition by sharing his skills with Yoshiaki Uezaki in order to get him ready for this year’s Final.
Is this the secret to Japanese success in the World Chocolate Masters? We can only wait to find out, but clearly the Japanese have found their way to make this a teamwork contest!
In the meantime, what advice does Shigeo Hirai have for this year’s contestants?
“It is impossible to show more than your ability so try to perform and present your work as you would do every day. It is a great thing that you have made it to the Final, so try to enjoy the competition, live and breathe the atmosphere, and be proud that you are representing your country. Make sure you meet as many chefs from around the world, and network with them all. I loved every moment of the competition!”