Chef competitions: Toque d'Or at 25

01 March 2013
Chef competitions: Toque d'Or at 25

The Nestlé Toque d'Or heats have already begun and as the temperature rises in the run-up to the finals, Rosalind Mullen gleans some tips in how to be a competition winner…

The 25th Nestlé Toque d'Or competition is under way. Nerves are jangling and the tension is mounting as teams of young, aspiring catering students use their culinary skills to try to bring the accolade home to their college.

To get an idea of this competition's importance, it's worth noting that it helped launch the careers of chefs such as, James Martin and Jamie Oliver and is widely recognised as setting some of the toughest benchmarks in the industry.

Restaurant concept Among the challenges, each team of one chef and one front-of-house student have to create their own restaurant concept - a test that combines creative culinary skill and business acumen. The emphasis is on business strategy and planning, menu development and customer service. This year's competition, for instance, requires teams to imagine they are the owners of a small catering company responsible for the food service in an office block. The brief is that they have to prepare breakfast for any employees turning up early and a two-course lunch for about 200 staff.

Heats started on 21 January at the Hospitality Show, with another last week in Havant, followed by Blackpool on 27 February, Sheffield on 28 February, and at ScotHot on 4 March. Further heats (which weren't originally planned) are being scheduled for post ScotHot in order to accommodate the demand.

As the tension mounts, we look at some of the handiest snippets of advice from past winners and finalists.

Top tips from past competitors…

â- Be open-minded. Take what you can from the experience because you will learn so much throughout the competition - whether you win or not, says Amy Wilkinson, who was 16 when she won in 2003. Her subsequent career has seen her rise to company sales and marketing manager at the Michelin-starred Fischer's at Baslow Hill and she is about to take on the role of lecturer at her former college, Sheffield.

â- Be as professional as you can be. You represent yourself and your college and the fact that you have been in the competition could be a positive talking point in the workplace for years to come. "This comes up on my CV even now," Wilkinson says. "So be professional as it will stand you in good stead for the rest of your career."

â- Be prepared to be versatile. You will have to take part in different heats in different locations around the country, which is exciting, but can also be intimidating when you are young.

â- Read the competition brief and make sure you understand it, advises Russell Lee, a Blackpool & the Fylde winner in 2007 and now owner of the Fusion Room in Preston. "It's worth contacting Nestlé to make sure you know exactly what they are looking for," he says. "Once you understand it you can evolve your menu from there. But you have to fully understand the brief."

â- Matt Rayson, Carlisle College winner in 2008, currently working as restaurant manager at Bijou Brasserie in Carlisle, advises: "Read the brief five or six times and make sure you can relate to the customers about the concept. The more feedback you get the better. We wrote our own business plan. I was 17 and it was a lot of work for one so young, but before the competition I knew if off by heart."
â- When you've got your menu - practise, practise, practise…

â- Look and speak as if you mean to win and want to win.

â- Be smart, presentable, do your research and make sure you come across as confident of your own skills. Besides general expertise in the kitchen or front of house, teams need to have business acumen to succeed. This year's brief, for instance, requires each team to think about sustainability and nutrition and to give a 10-minute presentation to the judges about their menu. This includes a slide presentation on the nutrition being provided by your lunch and some thought about sourcing, reducing waste, energy, water or the social consequences. Do plenty of practice runs in front of tutors and co-students - and welcome any constructive criticism.

â- During the competition, be brave and trust your instincts. "If you have the skills and you trust your instincts, then take a gamble," 
says Lee, who adds that his dessert had many complicated components, but it proved his talents and the gamble paid off.

â- If a surprise task is set, don't panic: stay focused. You need to be committed to deliver under pressure and prepared for a serious challenge that will test you as individuals and as a team.

â- Get as much advice as possible from your tutors and mentors, and if there are past winners at your college track them down and try to get some tips from them.

â- Chair of judges James Tanner has the last word: "Give your all as an individual and as a team. You will have some tough competition against you so be prepared to rise up and make your mark - and, most importantly, enjoy it."

Matching employers to Toque d'Or talent

A work placement initiative has been launched to match employers with the pool of young 
talent that is involved with Nestlé Toque d'Or each year.

The "Take One" initiative is designed to help the student entrants into the workplace.

The scheme is open to all students who enter the 2013 competition - regardless of whether they reach the finals. As an added incentive, the eight teams that do reach the finals will be offered a week-long paid placement with contract caterer CH&Co.

Neil Stephens, managing director of Nestlé Professional, says: "It really couldn't be easier to get involved - we're asking you to make a pledge to take one of our students and create an opportunity for them to experience first-hand the very best our industry has to offer. Together, we can help shape the careers and employability of the next generation and help them break into an industry that, despite the economic downturn, 
is still creating jobs and opportunities."

To make your pledge, eâ€'mail: 

Are you a past competitor?

To celebrate 25 years of the Toque d'Or competition, Nestlé Professional is on a mission to trace and track where competitors are today.

Chair of judges James Tanner says: "If you're a past Nestlé Toque d'Or winner or finalist, we want to hear from you.

"Judges and mentors who've played your part in inspiring and supporting contestants over the years: if you've stayed in touch with individuals, let us know. College lecturers, too: if you've led a team to the grand finals - or even better, on to victory - and know where your ex-students are now, we'd love to find out more."

The idea is to create a Toque Hall of Fame that catalogues 
25 years of success in inspiring careers in hospitality.

If you were a finalist or winner of Nestlé Toque d'Or - or you know of one - please eâ€'mail: toque.d'

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