IT'S a real pleasure for a chef or a food writer to be invited out to dinner - a chance to escape the pressures of career cooking. What bliss to be released from the kitchen, to be able to enjoy eating without a professional care in the world. Would you be willing to be the host? Perhaps I should set the scene more clearly. Imagine it is early summer, a weekday evening after a full day's work. A fortnight or so ago, you rashly invited a clutch of culinary experts round for supper. They will be on your doorstep at eight o'clock, which leaves you a couple of hours to get everything ready.

The guest list might include a brace of leading chefs - perhaps Shaun Hill of Gidleigh Park in Devon, one of the most highly rated country-house hotels in Britain, and Caroline Brett of O'Keefe's, a chef at the forefront of new-wave Italian cooking. In for a penny, in for a pound, why not ask Andre Cointreau as well, owner of those internationally famed Le Cordon Bleu cookery schools in Paris, London and Tokyo, and the head of the London school, Michel Perraud. To make up the numbers, you turned to the Independent's food pages and decided to invite Joanna Blythman and, I am glad to say, me, Sophie Grigson. We were all delighted to accept your kind invitation.

This simple premise is the basis of the Independent's 1993 Cook Competition. Together with Le Cordon Bleu Cookery School, we are looking for the cook who can produce the most enticing, appetising food to reinvigorate the overworked palates of us, the judges. Of course, we are not actually going to descend on your house, so there is no need to worry about the vacuuming. We want you to concentrate on the menu. You will have two hours' cooking time, though a few basics such as stocks or pastry can be made in advance. However, over-enthusiastic use of the freezer or of pre-prepared props is not the way to the judges' hearts.

Your guests are an open-minded group, who are not looking for anything elaborate and fancy. Quite the opposite. The chefs have spent their entire day masterminding restaurant food, so the last thing they will want is more of the same. The best home-cooking is what will make them happiest, as long as it is not too stodgy or rich. There should be at least two courses, but you may prefer to serve up three or four smaller ones. Conventions are there to be broken, so feel free to construct the meal as you wish.

A well-judged, imaginative approach, sound culinary skills, fresh vivid flavours and a lack of pretension are what we will be looking for, but remember that even the most brilliant of cooks cannot hope to turn out a prize-winning meal with poor ingredients. Bear in mind that this meal is to be cooked in mid-May, and plan it around the choicest seasonal produce. That does not mean that you have to break the bank. You have a budget of pounds 30 but, to be frank, we would much rather you put your mind to finding simple, high-quality raw materials than blowing every last penny on luxury items in a vain attempt to impress us.


Send us an outline of your menu, typed or legibly handwritten, together with a brief description of your recipes, detailing any special techniques. Tell us a little about the main ingredients you are using, where they come from and why you have chosen them.

Attach your name, address and both daytime and evening telephone numbers on a separate sheet of paper. Send your entries to: Cook Competition, Weekend, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB to arrive by Friday 16 April. We regret that entries cannot be acknowledged or returned. The competition is not open to employees of Newspaper Publishing plc, Le Cordon Bleu cookery schools or anyone who already makes a living from cooking.


From your menus we will pick 10 finalists and invite them to cook their meal on 20 May at Le Cordon Bleu cookery school, 114 Marylebone Lane, London W1. Finalists will have two hours in which to prepare and present their meals. The deadline is not flexible in view of the number of finalists.


Finalists bring their own ingredients and are allowed a budget of up to pounds 30 for which they will be reimbursed. Their menu should feed four.


The winner will be taken on an all-expenses paid gastronomic trip to Paris, eating, shopping and attending a special class at Le Cordon Bleu. In addition, all finalists can relax after their toils over dinner at one of London's best restaurants, which we will take over for the evening.