Local foodies win Chef of the Year

2012-09-25 00:00

A 22-HOUR day, a three-hour cook-off a la MasterChef South Africa and six kilograms of jelly beans later, four Pietermaritzburg foodies recently returned to the city with the first place in the prestigious Unilever Chef of the Year competition in the pot.

Capitol Caterers’ win in the “team of four” category of the competition in Johannesburg was thanks to the hard work and creative efforts of Merrill King (group executive chef), Paula Heuff (Capitol Caterers’ project manager, The Wykeham Collegiate), Laura Morton (Capitol Caterers’ project manager, Treverton Schools) and Raymond Hodgskin (sales and marketing manager).

The team members are certainly worth their salt, having won this year after placing second in last year’s competition.

Separating the wheat

from the chaff:

Out of 30 initial entrants, six made it through to the final. The team competed against the likes of Sun International and Fedics in the final, was judged by a panel of experts that included Pete Goffe-Wood (MasterChef South Africa judge), James Khoza (executive chef, Sandton Convention Centre) and Stephen Billingham (president, South African Chefs’ Association).

Hodgskin told The Witness their team’s outlook on food was a fresh approach based on quality ingredients and dishes, coupled with creativity and originality.

Anything but a cakewalk

King told The Witness that while they had not put all their eggs in one basket in preparing for the competition, the judges did pull a surprise move and turned up the heat on the contestants by listing the same mystery basket ingredients as last year’s competition.

Cooking up a storm

They had spent three full days in the demo kitchen, training for the big day by preparing dishes like beetroot gnocchi made from potato flakes and a ceviche of line fish with lime juice, coriander and chilli.

However, they took the competition in their stride, producing three sumptuous dishes in their allotted three hours. These were:

• Spiced prawn dhal with caramelised beetroot calamari and riata;

• Roasted pork fillet filled with a chicken, butternut and macadamia farce with polenta gnocchi and wilted greens; and

• Iced chocolate mousse with ganache topping served with macerated rum berries and sugared lavosch.

The compulsory ingredients were pork fillet, a chicken, 12 prawns, calamari tubes, chocolate mousse and a few other Unilever products. The “communal table” of ingredients included lentils, polenta, herbs, beetroot, broccoli, onions, eggs and flour.

Fine dining

Hodgskin said that as table décor and service were key elements of the criteria, they chose to transport all the key tools they required for the prestigious competition, which dates back to the 1970s.

“We’re professionals … so we did not want to use the ordinary décor items they provided. We wanted to make a five-star impression,” he said.

They packed away an array of items, including wines, champagne, vases, crockery, crystal glasses (for red and white wine, champagne and dessert wine), water glasses, six kilogrammes of jelly beans and fresh flowers.

“A lot of logistics come into play, carrying all these items and having to fly. It was quite tricky… but through all that, we only lost one champagne glass on the way,” said Hodgskin.

The day

The group was up at 3 am and made their way to King Shaka International Airport. They landed in Johannesburg at about 7 am and arrived at the cook-off venue by 8:30 am. They were then briefed — and the three-hour cook-off began at 10 am. They knew their fate later that evening — and celebrated well into the night, before returning to Pietermaritzburg the next morning.

“Unilever has been holding this prestigious Chef of the Year event since the early 1970s and has been very instrumental in allowing South African chefs from all levels of the catering industry to have a platform to showcase their talents. So winning this award is all the more rewarding for us as a catering company always striving for excellence,” said King.

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