“THERE IS NO BETTER WAY FOR ANYBODY working in foodservice to gain skills and knowledge than through competing in culinary competitions,” says Australian Culinary Federation President Neil Abrahams.

“It gives you a forum to be able to see what your peers are doing, what skill level they’re at, so you know where and what you should put your focus on to build your own skill set.

“And of course competing gives you the impetus to push yourself that little bit further to succeed, which in the long run will make you a better chef. Quite often as chefs we get caught up within the four walls of our kitchens, and competing makes you come out of your comfort zone and network with your peers, share ideas and experiences with others, and get inspiration which you can then take back into your work environment.”

The Australian Culinary Federation runs its own regular competitions which conform to the global rules and requirements laid down by the World Association of Chefs Societies – with major events including the Australian Culinary Challenge and the International Secondary Schools Competition.

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The federation is also heavily involved in facilitating the Nestlé Golden Chefs Hat Award, which has been running for more than half a century and recognises Australia’s most talented junior and apprentice chefs. Each year the competition gives apprentices the opportunity to put their culinary skills to the test against their peers, with the national winners receiving an educational trip abroad which typically gives them the chance to see some of the world’s top chefs in action, learn about latest industry trends and establish valuable networks and contacts. With its format of cooking from an extensive pre-released range of ingredients within a limited timeframe, the event evokes the real life pressures faced by chefs within the commercial kitchen.

As Executive Chef for Nestlé Professional, Mark Clayton immerses himself in Nestlé Golden Chefs Hat each year “pretty much from start to finish – I’m involved from when it kicks off in June, through to the grand final in September. I think it’s really interesting to see the growth and development of our competitors. When our finalists get to the end, they’re no longer the same chef or even the same person that they were at the beginning – they’ve really grown and that’s fascinating to watch. They all fly in from their different destinations on the first day, and by the end they have made new connections and friends for life. And of course the prize component, which this year is a $15,000 educational trip to Italy, gives the opportunity to undertake work experience in some of the world’s top restaurants and build connections internationally, and you really can’t put a price on that.”

Another longstanding program is Proud To Be a Chef – which sees 32 of Australia’s most talented apprentice chefs selected each year to participate in an all expenses paid four day mentoring program, including a cooking component. At the conclusion the standout finalist receives an international culinary scholarship tailored to their personal interests and professional goals.

“This year marks the 20th anniversary of Proud to Be a Chef, and as always our focus is on identifying and developing the raw talent of our finalists and providing them with the best mentoring experience possible – including skills and insights to help sustain them throughout their professional life,” says Kym Gill, Channel Marketing Manager of Anchor Food Professionals which presents the program. “The overarching aim is to provide support in ensuring they stay engaged and inspired about their career choice.”

Proud to Be a Chef is famous for its industry mentors, which this year include highly regarded chef and restaurateur Scott Pickett of Matilda and The Estelle; renowned pastry and dessert chef Christy Tania of Glacé Dessert Artisanal; and Anchor Food Professionals Executive Chef Peter Wright, who has worked at some of Melbourne’s finest hotels and on major sporting events. Finalists have the opportunity to work up close and personal with the mentors through masterclasses as well as site visits to their restaurants.

The winner of last year’s international culinary scholarship, Rebekah White describes Proud to Be a Chef as “the best experience of my life so far” and says “It will always stay with me. It has given me so much more confidence, more insight into what I can actually do. It has definitely changed how I see the industry and I cannot thank the program enough for that.”

There are also competitions for the foodservice sector that embrace other occupations besides cooking. The Appetite for Excellence Awards started in 2005 as a competition for Young Chef of the Year but has since grown to also include categories for Young Waiter and Young Restaurateur.

“It’s been a huge success and has really struck a chord,” says organiser Lucy Allon, who founded the award in 2005 with Luke Mangan. “What’s unique about our program is we take a broad perspective on the industry, in recognition of the fact that all aspects of front of house and back of house have a part to play in any successful food business. For example, the restaurateur award is very much about trying to provide an environment where talented young hospitality professionals who want to open their own business have a sounding board where they can meet industry leaders to bounce ideas off and get feedback from. We want to encourage innovative, outside the box thinking and push forward the standards in Australian hospitality, so we can keep on our industry on the world stage.

“Our applicants enter because they want to challenge themselves, get out of their comfort zone, get constructive feedback from judges and meet others who have similar aspirations. It’s not just about recognising the winner – there are benefits at every stage of participation.

“The entry process, the judges we have and the challenges we’ve set are all delivering quality candidates who are going on to fulfil the goals we have set for the program, which is to make sure the next generation of hospitality leaders are skilled, aspirational and moving the industry forward. They’re also community-minded, in that they understand they are part of a broader industry and by working together we all keep the industry strong and relevant and growing.”

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