Greg Mueller loves the thrill of competition.
For him, nothing compares to wowing judges armed only with a basket of ingredients, a couple of hours and his imagination.
On July 14, he won’t cook a thing, but the award he will compete for will mean more than a medal bestowed for his culinary skill.
Mueller is one of four chefs nationwide who are nominated for the national American Culinary Federation’s Chef Professionalism Award. The winner will be announced at the 2012 ACF National Convention in Orlando, Fla..
“I think it would mean more than a cooking competition because it’s voted on by your peers,” he said. “It’s voted on by the people that I respect and look up to. It’s extremely humbling just to be a part of it.”
In February, Mueller was awarded the Chef Professionalism Award for the Southeast Region.
This competition is about promoting the profession, and about the chef he is day in and day out.
A chef does more than just cook food. He trains his staff and is constantly improving himself. A chef is a leader and a manager, he said.
He also mentors other chefs from around the country. He believes teaching is important to the profession.
“If you’re not going to pass on your knowledge, what good is it going to do?” he said.
Mueller said he believes his chances of winning the national award are small. At 29, he is competing against chefs who are more than twice his age. And at least one of them is a master chef, which is an elite group of only about 70 top chefs in the country.
“They’re on a whole different level on how they look at food and how they do things,” he said. “They don’t care about cost. They don’t care about fat. It’s all about flavor.”
Mueller is an executive chef with Sodexo Health Care Services at Doctors Hospital. As such, he does worry about cost and fat content. He is in charge of creating dishes for patients, doctors, administrators and visitors.
It gives him a sense of satisfaction to bring joy to the hospital’s patients and staff.
“The highlight of (the patients’) day is their lunch. So if I can make it better, great. Nurses, the same way. If they’re having a bad day, they can come down here and enjoy lunch. That’s great,” he said. But competitions give him a chance to use skills he doesn’t get to use every day.
Mueller has won 20 medals and was named the ACF Augusta Chapter Chef of the Year and was a finalist in the ACF Southeast Region Chef of the Year in 2009.
He competes three to six times each year.
He loves showing up at a competition not knowing what he will be asked to make. When the chefs he admires compliment his work or encourage him to do better next time, it adds fuel to his passion.
Then there’s the opportunity to cook in a style he can’t use in his day job.
“It’s all about flavor. It’s all about innovation. It’s all about trying to do something that hasn’t been seen,” he said.
Many of his signature dishes grew out of a competition entry, he said.
Working in the healthcare industry affords him the opportunity to compete in a way that a working restaurant could not do.
There are no dinnertime rushes, and no influx of reservations that would require him to be at the restaurant every day.
His days are planned out a week ahead, his staff has been well trained to carry on in his absence, and his workload is relaxed enough to allow him time to practice and develop new recipes.
Mueller does enjoy bringing the unexpected to hospital dining, especially for the doctors and administrators. He can be more creative when cooking for board meetings and other events.
For instance, no one would expect ice carvings at a hospital function. But that’s when Mueller brings his nine years experience at Aiken’s Green Boundary Club to the table.
“I make the joke that I bring the country club to the hospital,” he said.