Food & Drink: Eight chefs in search of a title: They were asked to make six identical crepes, bone a saddle of lamb - and that was just in the early rounds. Michael Bateman helps judge the Young Chef of the Year

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CONFRONTED by the blazing iron stove, perspiration courses down Mercy Fenton's cheeks. The heat stokes up the colour in her face, and you can see it changing from cool pink through the colours of the rainbow to lobster, then purple.

Twenty-four-year-old Mercy, a slight leprechaun from Cork, is battling against seven other young chefs - all of them male - for the prestigious title of Young Chef of the Year which is organised by the Restaurateurs Association of Great Britain.

It carries a pounds 2,000 cash prize from sponsors American Express, but that is nothing compared to the prestige and career advancement that it can bring. Previous young chefs are now in place at Le Gavroche and The Savoy. Another is running L'Escargot in Soho.

A young chef will earn about pounds 8,500 on leaving catering college, but can be earning pounds 18,000- pounds 20,000 by the age of 25, even pounds 30,000 as the head chef of a top-rated restaurant. There are even higher stakes to play for. A top hotel chef will get pounds 100,000 a year, and so

can chefs running their own successful restaurant operation.

'Top chefs today have a glamorous profile,' says Antony Worrall-Thompson, chairman of the judges. 'When I started it was all Down and Out in Paris and London, and crawl into your hole when you'd done your job. But that's all changed - though we don't want too many chefs walking around the dining rooms.'

Unlike other areas of the national economy, employment is up in hotel and catering, this year by 5 per cent. 'But there's a dearth

of good young cooks. And the future is grim,

because cooking has been killed off in

the schools.'

Raising people's awareness of the potential of catering as a profession is one of the aims of the association, whose president is the proselytising Prue Leith. 'We need to get career officers to stop thinking of catering as a last- ditch course,' she says. 'The industry needs clever people as well as non-academics.'

Hence the annual competition. This year it takes British produce as a theme and I have joined Mr Worrall-Thompson's panel of judges: Sally Clarke, of Clarke's, Jeanne and Paul Rankin of Le Roscoff in Belfast, and Richard Smith of the The Beetle and Wedge, Moulsford-on-Thames.

This is not one of those chefs' competitions devoted to fancy technique and presentation, which do for the profession what TV's Masterchef competition does for home entertaining. Murder it. Gourmet and wit Ned Sherrin, here to award the prizes, reports that he now encounters people discussing food in exactly the terms used by Masterchef's presenter, Loyd Grossman, though not perhaps with his accent. 'We have deliberated, cogitated, and masticated. And how was it for you?'

This competition is determinedly different in style and content. Frippery and frillery are out. Nouvelle cuisine are dirty words. This is faintly ironical as Mr Worrall-Thompson himself made his name in the 1980s working in a nouvelle cuisine mode, when he owned Menage a Trois, Princess Margaret's favourite restaurant in Kensington. 'Nouvelly' is to be the most disparaging comment used to describe any dish during the judging.

Antony Worrall-Thompson has already caused shockwaves by setting chefs an unexpected series of tasks in earlier rounds this year. Competitors turning up to cook their well-practised dishes found themselves having to prove their skills first. 'Any chef can teach another chef to cook three dishes parrot-

fashion,' explains Mr Worrall-Thompson.

He asked contestants to poach eggs, make six identical crepes, make a hollandaise sauce, bone a Dover sole, prepare a chicken for roasting and bone out a saddle of lamb. 'Some of them made an unbelievable mess of boning the lamb,' said Mr Worrall-Thompson. 'The best butcher was a girl.'

I'm here to help judge the final taking place at Westminster College, where young waiters team up with the young chefs to compete for Young Waiter of the Year. The young chefs have already submitted menus, and some of them clearly see it as a medium to impress; one launches into a long document with scene-settings: 'The starter from the Highlands of Scotland, vegetables from the Gardens of Kent, the sweet from the Peat Bogs of Ireland'. (The latter is described thus; an Irish Steamed Sponge Pudding with an Orange and Grand Marnier Sauce with Summer Berries, Tuiles of Sweet Biscuit, and Dark Chocolate garnished with Caramelised Orange Zest).

But it is another entry that catches the eye: 'Lovage-scented clouds with St George mushrooms.' Sheer poetry. This is to be followed by chilled consomme of garden beetroot, roast saddle of English lamb with spinach and basil, Bramley apple charlotte with vanilla custard.

The judges head for the kitchen, keeping a look-out for lovage-scented clouds. And here's Mercy, carving out spoonfuls of cloud from a huge ball of poached egg white the size of fairground candyfloss. The judges know the French dessert, iles flottantes, but they haven't seen it made this way before. 'There's a lot of waste,' observes one judge. 'Pshht, egg whites cost nothing,' says another.

The contestants have made staggered starts, and now the dishes are ready, and they arrive at five-minute intervals - a dazzling theatre of well-cooked, well-presented food which wins only respect and admiration from all the judges. Mr Worrall-Thompson says it's the highest standard since the competition began in 1985. One or two dishes are perhaps a bit over-decorated, a bit nouvelly, but they still taste pretty good.

The lovage-scented clouds arrive, sitting on a bed of juicy little St George mushrooms in a pool of delicate shallot-flavoured wine sauce. It glows. It is declared a winner in its section, and then later agreed to be the best dish of any kind in the competition. Mercy takes the lead, but there's a long, long way to go.

For the next course, which according to the rules can be a soup or a starter, there's fierce competition: a mousse of asparagus is perfect; a quail soup is blissful; a smoked whiting with bubble and squeak is tremendous; a parsley soup with ravioli is original; yet Mercy is still in there with a beetroot soup of superb clarity and depth of flavour.

On to the saddle of lamb, which sorts the men from the boys - and sorts the girl from the men. Some lamb is overcooked, a disaster, one or two are nearly raw. But Mercy's is sweet perfection, pale brown on the outside, a flush of pink in the middle, tender all through. 'The best cooked meat,' the judges agree. 'It has been properly rested after roasting.' They pretend not to peek at each other's score-sheets. But Number 7 is in the lead. We all now know who Number 7 is. 'As long as she doesn't blow it on the sweet,' someone murmurs.

She doesn't. Her apple charlotte is a golden, crispy, sweet, buttery cocoon enclosing a mound of sweet-sour apple, served with a vanilla sauce. In vain the boys have pulled off some sensational apple tarts, lemon meringue pie, rhubarb sorbet, elderflower ice-cream. But by now Mercy is well clear on points.

'The winner,' says Mr Worrall-Thompson. 'A well-balanced meal, and she hasn't made the mistake of trying to be too clever. The cloud of snow is the most exciting dish in the competition; her soup was incredibly pure; she was the best butcher, and her lamb was the most perfect; her pudding was technically perfect.' Mercy was astonished by her win. Shocked, in fact. She is sous-chef at Morel's in Hampshire, owned by a Frenchman, Yves-Jean Morel, and she modestly ascribes her success to what she has learnt working with him. 'I learn something new every day.'

She started at home, in Cork, encouraged by her mother and sister, and after catering college in Kerry worked in a hotel owned by her mother's cousin. She worked at Clifford's, the renowned Cork restaurant, and in Germany for six months before a friend recommended her to write to Morel's. Her ambition is to open her own restaurant. Today, without doubt,

she is on the threshold of a brilliant career.

SECRETS OF A SOUS-CHEF

HERE ARE two recipes from Mercy Fenton's winning menu for the Young Chef of the Year Competition. The first was described by the judges as 'the most exciting dish in the competition'; the second, though a little excessive for some tastes, was 'technically perfect'.

LOVAGE-SCENTED

CLOUDS WITH ST GEORGE

MUSHROOMS

Serves 4 as an 'amuse-bouche' before the main meal

4 egg whites

2 shallots, finely chopped

3 tablespoons white vinegar

3 tablespoons dry white wine

4oz butter, cut into small cubes

2oz St George mushrooms (picked wild)

or button mushrooms,

chopped and lightly sauteed in butter

1 tablespoon chives

1 tomato

skinned, deseeded, finely chopped

2 or 3 leaves of lovage

(or celery), finely chopped

salt

Beat the egg whites until stiff. Season with salt and lovage. Half-fill a large pan with salted water, bring it to simmering point. Shape the egg white into a ball, and poach gently on the surface of the water for about three minutes, turning it carefully as it firms up. Lift from water and drain. Using a large spoon, carve out four oval shapes from the ball.

The sauce. In a frying pan cook the shallots with the vinegar, and reduce until almost dry. Add the white wine, and cook until volume reduces by almost half. Whisk in the butter.

Pass through a sieve, then stir in the tomato and chives. Put a tiny pile of mushrooms on each plate, sit a lovage cloud on top and pour the sauce over the top.

BRAMLEY APPLE CHARLOTTE

Serves 6

1 loaf stale sliced bread

2 1/2 lbs Bramley apples,

peeled, cored, cubed

5oz sugar

12oz butter

grated rind of one lemon

pinch of cinnamon

You need six moulds, preferably the shape of small pudding basins, or one large one. Cut discs of bread to fit the tops and bottoms of the moulds and cut rectangles for the sides. Reserving 2oz butter, melt the rest and dip the slices of bread in it. Line the bottom and sides of the moulds (or mould).

In a frying pan, gently cook half the cubed apples in the butter with the sugar until slightly soft, adding the lemon rind and cinnamon to taste. Remove with a slotted spoon. In the same pan cook the remaining apples to a puree. Mix all the apples together and fill the moulds, topping with a crust of buttered bread.

Bake in a preheated oven at 400F/200C/Gas 6 for 30-40 minutes.

Second prize in the Young Chef of the Year Competition went to Jason Lynas, 22, sous- chef at the Epicurean Restaurant, Cheltenham. Twenty-four-year-old Paul Collins, who has recently moved to The Royal Oak, Yattenden, as head chef, came third.

(Photograph omitted)

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