Toque of the town

Forget 'Hell's Kitchen', this is the cooking competition that really sorts the sinking soufflés from the rising stars. Simon Beckett watches young chefs do battle for the Toque d'Or - and reveals how you too can get a taste of the action
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Dominic South has got a problem. "The butter's gone soft. You need cold butter for sweet pastry or it won't roll," he says, looking worried. "I might have to change the dessert." For a pastry chef that's serious enough. For a 20-year-old pastry chef taking part in one of the world's most prestigious catering contests, it's a major crisis.

Dominic South has got a problem. "The butter's gone soft. You need cold butter for sweet pastry or it won't roll," he says, looking worried. "I might have to change the dessert." For a pastry chef that's serious enough. For a 20-year-old pastry chef taking part in one of the world's most prestigious catering contests, it's a major crisis.

Each year the Nestlé Toque d'Or (Golden Hat) competition, pits 16 teams of catering students from across the UK against each other to determine which have the right stuff for the unforgiving restaurant business. Each team has to create a concept for a restaurant, then cook a three-course meal for 20, all under the judges' watchful eyes. It's much tougher than anything the wannabe celebrity chefs had to go through on Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen.

The event is arranged into four regional heats, with the four top-scoring teams going into a grand-final cook-off in London. Here, each team has to repeat their performance, this time feeding 100 members of the paying public.

It's high-pressure stuff, especially given that the average age of the students is 18. But with a first prize of an overseas study trip, plus the boost taking the top prize can give a student's career prospects - Anton Mosimann is a previous winner - the Toque d'Or is a valuable proving ground. It is also internationally recognised as there are Toque d'Or competitions from Brazil to New Zealand. "It replicates the pressure of running a busy kitchen and restaurant," says organiser Martin Webster.

This year's fourth and final heat is at Gloucestershire College of Arts & Technology, Cheltenham. Competing are teams from Glenrothes College, Perthshire; Plymouth College; and two from London's Westminster Kingsway College. Selected from 100 paper entries, each consists of five students (three chefs, two front-of-house staff) who have three hours to cook and serve their menu.

"There's a lot of nerves, but I'd be concerned if there wasn't," says 22-year-old Eadie Manson, team leader and main-course chef for Glenrothes. "Winning a competition like this would be good for anybody's CV. But I'm looking forward to getting in there and actually cooking."

Before the students are allowed in to the kitchen, however, there's another ordeal. Points are awarded not just for the food and service but also the overall concept of the restaurants, so the teams' first task is to sell their idea to the judges. Dressed in chefs' whites and armed with a board of sketches to show how their hypothetical restaurant would look, each team files down the corridor towards the waiting judges.

The four concepts today include a golf-themed restaurant (from the Scottish team, naturally), a modern Chinese, one based on maximising customer choice, and one whose USP is to offer two different dishes for each course.

"No matter how technically good it is, if you don't want to eat it, it's missed the boat," says the chairman of the regional judges, chef and restaurateur Brian Turner. "It's knowing how far you can push the barriers."

At 4.45pm the cooking starts. While the front-of-house begin to prepare their tables in the dining-room, the chefs set about peeling vegetables and preparing meat. To make life even more difficult - this also being a PR exercise - each of the courses has to include an ingredient made by food giant Nestlé.

Dishes range from starters of consommé of tomato and red miso with white-miso marinated cod and wonton crisps, to mains of tournedos of pork wrapped in chorizo, and puddings of white-chocolate slice on a chocolate and coffee sponge, with chocolate espresso sorbet and orange and kumquat compote.

Most of the students are second or third year, studying NVQ level or equivalent, and their attitude is highly professional. This is an exercise in teamwork rather than individual skill and the silence in the kitchen as each concentrates on their allotted tasks is eerie .

'Wait till there's only 15 minutes left,' says one of the prowling judges. "Things get hectic then." But, today, they don't. Even the butter crisis is calmly resolved, thanks to the intervention of a judge and a bowl of ice.

Outside in the dining-rooms, the guests are pried away from the bar to take their seats. Then it's the turn of the front-of-house teams, who bustle into the kitchen with their orders.

The winner on the night is Glenrothes College, which will join colleges from Salisbury, Carlisle and Sheffield in the final. But while only one team will win the study trip, the others can console themselves that it isn't just the winners who can go on to glory. One past Toque d'Or competitor was an unknown called Jamie Oliver. Wonder what happened to him?

The Toque d'Or Grand final, House and Garden Fair, Olympia, tel: 0870 1212525, or visit www.houseandgardenfair.com, from 24 to 27 June. Tickets to eat in one of the finalists' concept restaurants will be on sale each day from 10am

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