WHAT would be a winning strategy for our 1993 Independent/Le Cordon Bleu Cook Competition? If you are thinking of entering, here is a quick debriefing on what worked, and did not work, in previous years. Our 1992 winner, John Wood, and our 1991 winner, Susannah Perry, had ability and their own personal styles.

This is where many other entrants - noticeably the native British cooks - came unstuck. Many of us were not brought up with a tradition of good cooking and eating, we never had that Italian/Hungarian/French/ Chinese grandmother to provide a link with a culture in which food is central to daily life. Instead, our inspiration has come from books, restaurants and foreign travel.

Such cooks are eager learners, but slightly lacking in confidence. When we invite people to dinner, we are prone to bury ourselves in cookery books. Consequently, what we produce is dictated by restaurant or cookbook fashions; we are copying, not understanding. The end result may be palatable, stylish, impressive even, but it lacks conviction.

To succeed in the Independent/Le Cordon Bleu 1993 competition, stand back from what you think would appeal to the judges, and cook something that is true to you. It may be something you cook often. You would be surprised to learn how many of the judges share your passions.

From that point on, the usual rules apply. Be seasonal, do not give yourself an unrealistic workload, and put thought into your shopping. It is here that many otherwise promising entrants go wrong. By 20 May, the first flush of early summer food will have come in, but do not get carried away. If you decide, for example, that you want to make a fresh tomato soup, can you be sure you will find tomatoes that are up to the job? In previous years, several finalists have been let down by their fish. If you want to char-grill scallops, but they are not fresh on the day, choose something else.

Do not suppose that because you are cooking at Le Cordon Bleu we judges are looking for classic French cooking or conventional dinner party menus. Last year, our winner's closest competition came from Priya Wickramasinghe who cooked us a splendid Sri Lankan feast. She very nearly won. But John Wood's carefully controlled originality, combined with his distinctive style - fresh from the garden, leaning towards vegetarian, combined with Middle Eastern influences - put him a whisker ahead.

Do not worry about equipment. Le Cordon Bleu will provide a complete batterie de cuisine: knives, pots, blenders - whatever you need. But do not underestimate the heat. Most domestic hobs and ovens work well below the stated temperature. Le Cordon Bleu is equipped with professional ranges and cooking time is accelerated accordingly. Last year, several competitors peaked too soon. Their dish looked great at 4pm, but was overcooked by the given serving time of 4.30pm. Shop well, stay cool and good luck]