The country’s most promising chefs of the future battled it out in the grand final of the National Secondary Schools Culinary Championship this week. Alice Neville went along to watch the action.
The teenage years, so they say, are a time for experimentation, exploration and, quite often, failure.
If the reminiscing of The Spinoff team is anything to go by, this trend extended to kitchen endeavours. I, for one, nearly gassed the whole family by failing to realise I had to ignite the hob once I’d turned the gas on, causing gas to slowly, silently fill the house. But at least I never combined instant noodles with cheerios, which was the teenage culinary speciality of one colleague (not naming names, but let’s just say it rhymes with Shmam Shmooks).
By contrast, the 16 teens competing in the National Secondary Schools Culinary Championship (NSSCC) grand final clearly knew how to work a hob (and a sous vide, and a smoker, and a dehydrator), and there was nary a cheerio or an instant noodle to be seen (though there was a petite crumbed sausage and some semi-dried tomato, leek and pancetta tortellini).
Eight different schools from around the country were represented by the 16 Year 12 and 13 students, who were selected through regional heats held earlier in the year. Working in pairs, they had 90 minutes to whip up an entree featuring New Zealand tomatoes and a main using free-range Waitoa chicken breast.
At Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) in Ōtara, south Auckland, there was an air of calm, intense concentration as the teams worked away at their benches while supporters (mums, dads, grandmas, teachers, friends) watched on. There were few outward signs of stress (though I did hear one contestant tensely whisper “nuggets, nuggets, nuggets!” to her teammate in the final minutes). Neither Shmam Shmooks nor I ever had such a delicate turn of phrase.
A large wall clock counted down the seconds as judges Jeremy Schmidt, Ben Bayly and Gareth Stewart wandered the floor, observing and asking the odd question. Bayly and Stewart are well-known from their stint as judges on My Kitchen Rules NZ. The three floor judges were responsible for 40% of the final mark and for choosing the two competitors who would receive City & Guilds scholarships. The students were judged on organisation, hygiene and wastage, as well as use of equipment and respect for ingredients.
“For the scholarships, I’m looking for that spark — how they hold themselves in the kitchen,” said Stewart, executive chef of the Nourish Group, which owns restaurants like Euro and Shed 5. That spark is exactly what was missing in my early family-gassing times.
The finished dishes made up the remaining 60% of the final scores and were judged by Mark Wylie of Southern Hospitality, Craig Lucas, chef lecturer at MIT, and Liam Fox, chef-owner at Fort Greene.
While all the judges were men, the majority of the competitors were female, reflecting the slow change coming to this male-dominated industry. Girls took out the competition for the second year, with Maggie Carroll and Lisa Khorozova of Burnside High School in Christchurch named winners for their tomato tart with fresh tomato and basil salad, mānuka smoke tomato foam, goat’s cheese and a rich tomato sauce, and chicken breast with broad bean farce on truffle potato puree with the aforementioned petite crumbed sausage and seasonal vegetables with jus and tarragon cream sauce. Phew. Eat your heart out Shmam Shmooks with your cheerios and noodles.
The two scholarship recipients were also girls — Isabella Viakai from Manurewa High School and Sam Ashmore from Te Awamutu College. Viakai and her teammate Elizabeth Malaki particularly impressed with their take on ika mata — smoked beefsteak tomato, marinated kingfish, coconut and cucumber with a tomato consommé.
As the hospitality industry struggles with a skills shortage and relies increasingly on hiring people from overseas, competitions like NSSCC are crucial to encourage young New Zealanders into the profession, says Bayly, formerly of The Grove and now chef-owner of The Grounds in west Auckland.
“It’s the most important cooking competition, in my eyes,” says Bayly, in his third year of judging. “It’s the only competition I judge. This is grassroots — it’s where it all starts.”