Award-winning young chefs shaping our food future

By Tom Tanner, Sustainable Restaurant Association

Since 2010 San Pellegrino has been promoting a global talent platform for chefs under the age of 30, in the shape of its Young Chef Academy. We’re thrilled that for the second time we’re judging submissions for the Social Responsibility Award, having devised the criteria in 2019 for the first iteration of this award designed to raise the profile of sustainability in foodservice globally and to give a voice to the next generation of chefs.

We’ve spoken to the five regional winners of the award, from Latin America and the Caribbean, Pacific, Central Europe, West Europe and the UK. They’ve told us what influenced them, what influence they think they can have on their customers, the thinking behind their winning dish and the one change they’d like to see all chefs make.

What inspired them to become a chef

At least two said the inspiration for pursuing a career in the kitchen most definitely didn’t come from their parents. Pacific winner, Alexis Belmas, a pastry chef in Queensland, Australia, confided in us that his mother was not a good cook. Meanwhile, the Latin America and Caribbean winner, Xchel Gonzalez, said his father tried to steer him towards dentistry – telling his son that cooking was ‘a woman’s thing’. Xchel was not to be denied. “I realised that gastronomy is a cultural reflection, this means that it is directly influenced by the history of the place, its climates, tradition, customs, and so on, which drew my interest even more.” He’s now preparing to open his own ‘boutique cafeteria’.

UK winner Imogen Parrish, who works as a Chef de Partie at Heston Blumenthal’s The Hind’s Head, followed precisely in the footsteps of her grandfather when she trained at Westminster Kingsway.

The winning dishes

The variety of dishes is matched only by the depth of thought that went into creating them. In her Crab Bisque, Crab and Preserved Lemon Chantilly, Fennel and Tomato Concasse, Imogen showcased an under-used, sustainable seafood species and made sure to use every single part of it.

Imogen Parrish’s award-winning crab dish

Compare that with Diego Sgarbossa, the West Europe winner’s Grilled Tripe, Roots and Bitter Herbs. Diego, who works as an entremetier in Lugano, Switzerland said: “I wanted to participate in a competition where everyone generally uses important and “rich” products with a dish using ‘poor man’s’ food, where the vegetable part (the roots) are more present at the expense of protein’s (tripe). Finally, the bitter herbs dandelion and mugwort are wild herbs that grow in the meadows near my house.”

Diego Sgarbossa’s tripe dish wowed the West Europe regional final judges

Xchel’s The Chinampas Ecosystem, combines ancient and contemporary techniques of Mexican gastronomy to tell the story of the eponymous polyculture system developed in pre-Hispanic Mexico City. It champions ancient ingredients like wild greens, corn fungus and insects as well as showcasing all parts of every ingredient.

Xchel Gonzalez drew on ancient Mexican food heritage for his award-winning dish

What do our global group of pioneering young chefs make of their role as agents of behaviour change, influencing the food choices of their customers? 

Central Europe Winner, Saskia Vorhemus, a patissiere, in Stuttgart, says: “Well, we are absolutely a role model for our customers. They are always looking at the products we use and how we use them. Going forward how we demonstrate what is good and indeed not good, will play a fundamental role. In my opinion we have to show them what‘s the right way to cook and use food.“

For Xchel, it’s about keeping people connected to the origins of the food they eat as well as the people producing it. He adds: “We must project in these generations the importance of respect for food, taking care of the flora and fauna, as well as avoiding losses so that producers, farmers, fishermen, cooks, chefs, and consumers, generate a sustainable chain through food.” 

And if you could get chefs to make one change…

We’ve always placed the same level of importance on how the people in our great industry are treated as we do in the provenance of the ingredients used to create the most delicious dishes. So, fascinating to hear that the one change Imogen would like to see all chefs make. “I would like chefs to be more open in allowing young female chefs to showcase what they can do. We need more female chefs in the industry.” 

For full details of all the regional winners of the San Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition 2022-23 click here. They’ll all be doing battle in Milan next year for the honour of the global prize. We wish them all luck.

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