It's an all-northern final for this year's Nestlé Toque d'Or catering college contest. Following seven days of intense competition between 18 teams in regional heats, four teams have been selected to battle for the coveted Nestlé Toque d'Or trophy at the Sunday Times's Home Show at London's ExCel on 20-23 April.
At the final, each team will bring to life the restaurant concepts they have created and will prepare, cook and serve 100 covers to members of the paying public. The chairman of judges for the four days will be James Martin, who entered the competition himself in his student days. "One hundred covers is no easy task and they will need to be at the top of their game," he says.
The Nestlé Toque d'Or regional heat road show earlier this month took in Croydon, Cheltenham, Blackpool, Glasgow and Sheffield, giving colleges the length and breadth of the UK the opportunity to put their successful paper entries into action, presenting a business plan for their own restaurant concept and preparing and serving 20 covers of their three-course menu. Martin Webster, events manager for Nestlé Foodservices, was there every step of the way…
Monday 27 February First stop Croydon, where North Warwickshire & Hinckley College and City of Bristol College are set to do battle. By mid-morning I'm impressed by some cracking business presentations. But by one o'clock, it's time for service, and I don't think the students know what has hit them - they're running 20 minutes late.
Chairman of judges James Martin has brought a fantastic new element to the competition. He has actually been mentoring the students in the kitchen during the cook-off. This competition is all about gaining experience in a professional kitchen environment and learning what it takes to manage a restaurant. If they've learnt just one thing today then it's a job well done.
Tuesday 28 February
On to Cheltenham, where it's the turn of Sheffield College and more teams from City of Bristol College and North Warwickshire & Hinckley College to show the judges what they can do.
The quality of the presentations improves each year. Now a key feature of Toque d'Or, they are one of the things that makes the competition unique, although they sometimes position the students outside of their comfort zone - not a bad thing.
One team really stood out today. A superb table display, a well thought-through offer - from customer feedback forms to printed business cards… one to watch for sure.
Wednesday 1 March Today we're in Blackpool with teams from Lakes College West Cumbria, Coleg Menai and Lancaster & Morecambe College, who all give excellent presentations. Putting together a mood board isn't as easy as it looks - and these were really superb. With "The Right Track" restaurant themed on the Olympic Games it demonstrated a keenness to keep up with current trends and a "Woodland" restaurant promised fairy outfits.
Thursday 2 March North of the border today, as the road show reaches Glasgow. To some Glasgow is known as the European City of Culture; to us it was a team of students locked out of their hotel rooms and another team arriving without any cooking implements.
But what a great heat. All three teams - Kilmarnock College, Lakes College West Cumbria and Blackpool & The Fylde College - really turned up the gas, and for one team it was their first time in the competition. The students are really benefiting from the hands-on element of the judging.
Friday 3 March
Teams from Bradford College, York College and South Trafford College have made their way to Sheffield for the last heat of the week.
Fish, football and foreign food sum up today's restaurant concepts. "Fins at Fossgate" want to take over a listed warehouse and one of our teams even spent time talking to Wembley football stadium researching and costing their concept "1966 Home of British Classics" as they propose to locate their restaurant in the new stadium.
Monday 6 March Back to Croydon for the last two heats. It's London versus Portsmouth today, with Lewisham College and Highbury College stepping up to the mark.
Throughout the competition we have given the colleges awards for the best starter, main course and dessert served on the day, as well as an award for best front of house. It's hugely important we recognise their achievements - without feedback, where would we get in life?
Tuesday 7 March City of Bristol College and Radbrook College make up the contenders in the final heat here in Croydon. The judges prove vocal as they try to keep the teams on the right track.
After much deliberation, we choose four college teams to go through to the Grand Final - Sheffield College, Lancaster & Morecambe College, Kilmarnock College, and South Trafford College. With such a high standard it has been a tough call, but these four teams have real belief in their concept, an understanding of running a kitchen and managing front of house, and the judges and I feel they rightly deserve a place in the finals.