I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the idea of mentoring and just how important it is to offer help, advice and opportunities to young people within specialized industries.
I never would have been able to work my way through and up in the television business – a highly competitive creative industry – without the mentorship and support of some really great people along the way. So it’s now my personal policy to always try to help anyone who asks me for advice or guidance. I’ve been approached by a lot of young, talented and passionate people in the TV biz over the last few months who all seem to have the same frustration: how can anyone move up or get noticed if no one will even give them a chance?
I’m assuming it’s the same story across lots of different industries – especially creative ones – which is why an event like the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition is so important. I’m so happy to support this fantastic event, now in its tenth year, that celebrates young chefs just starting out in their careers.
It was founded in 2002 as a mentoring program that connects top culinary students with established chefs and influential media. It’s helped to launch hundreds of culinary careers and refined the skills of a new generation of chefs.
How cool is that?! Not to mention, inspiring.
Students from over 60 culinary schools across North America compete in smaller regional competitions and the winners from those land a spot in the big finals competition being held next month in Napa, and judged by nationally renowned chefs.
I had the pleasure of attending the Canadian regional event in Toronto, where six top culinary students from different schools across Canada each had two hours to prepare their signature dish for a panel of distinguished chef judges, kitchen judges and media judges.
And at the same time, us lucky guests got to sample smaller tasting plates cooked by Calphalon’s chefs using the competitor’s original recipes. Such a treat!
Judges had to scrutinize and assess the competitors on a few areas: creativity (plate appearance, taste, texture, and aroma), sanitation at their workstation, personality while being questioned by judges and media, and ability to perform under pressure.
At one point, I snuck into the kitchen where the student chefs were hard at work. I expected to see chaos, but the chefs were all working methodically and calmly, with focused concentration.
I was also extremely impressed with how well they each faced the judges, answering their tough questions with confidence and obvious passion for their craft.
The winner of the night was Daniela Molettieri from Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec, with her beautiful signature dish of fillet of veal stuffed with wild mushrooms served with butternut squash puree. She used milk-fed veal from Quebec and locally grown vegetables, and drizzled the meat with foie gras sauce.
The judges kept saying how impressed they were with a unique cooking technique she used. I took the opportunity to ask her about it afterwards. She told me that she wrapped the veal in tin foil and submerged the package directly into the flame on a burner for about six minutes, allowing the meat to cook evenly all the way around while staying pink in the centre, much like cooking sous vide. (Apologies to Daniela if I didn’t describe it exactly right!)
Daniela was confident, well spoken and knowledgeable while still being very humble. The judges asked her why she chose to work at two different stations on opposite sides of the large kitchen, creating more stress for herself. She responded by saying she likes a good challenge. My kind of gal!
Furthering the importance of mentorship, upon winning she said “I owe a lot of my success this evening to Chef Côté, my ITHQ advisor…He spent a lot of time helping me prepare for this competition and his patience really paid off.”
The crowd got to choose a People’s Choice winner, which was given to Anne-Marie Plourde, a student at École hôtelière de la Capitale. She won the hearts of everyone in attendance with her signature dish of Roasted Duck Breast and Gingerbread-Crusted Foie Gras. Our tasting portion of this was so flavorful and delicious.
Congratulations to the chefs, who all did a great job competing that night. And best of luck to Daniela, who will be representing Canada at the finals in Napa. You can check out the AF Facebook page for more info and to find out the results!
And for an added treat, I’m going to post two recipes from the competition that have been adapted for all you home cooks. Stay tuned for those, coming up tomorrow…