Spirit of sustainability shines through in San Pellegrino Young Chefs

By Tom Tanner

We were thrilled when San Pellegrino approached us back in 2019 to help them create a new award. For the 2019 edition, they appointed us as the sustainability partner for its Young Chefs programme and asked us to create a new Social Responsibility category. The award sits alongside the programme’s other awards, raises the profile of sustainability in foodservice and provides a platform for the voices of the next generation to be heard. Our job? To create the criteria and judge the submissions. And what a pleasure, albeit longer than we’d anticipated, it has been.

Like so many things, COVID-19 severely disrupted the process for this award. Finally, on Sunday 31 October, fittingly the same day as world leaders launched the COP26 in Glasgow, we were in Milan to honour the next generation of forward thinking chefs.

In some very small way, the hiatus might have been a good thing. For the winner at least. For South African Callan Austin, the last two years, since he first created the dish that won home the regional final, have seen a huge shift in the way he lives, thinks and works.

In his interview with our expert judge he said he liked to think he always cooked with sustainability in mind, but that since entering the competition his whole approach has been transformed.

For us, that is incredibly inspiring and exactly the reason we got involved in Young Chefs. The new Young Chefs award recognises the responsibility that sits alongside the gift of food, encourages chefs to express their sustainability dreams through their food and will serve to accelerate the pace of change towards a more sustainable food system.

Callan’s passion and commitment is far more than skin deep. It certainly goes well below the surface – just like his dish. And he’s hellbent on sharing it with fellow chefs as well as suppliers and frankly anyone who’ll listen. He’s started work on a book championing the most sustainable produce and how to cook it as well as running a pop-up at the local aquarium to bring chefs, diners and marine biologists together.

Ghost Net is his way of highlighting the plight of our oceans in the best way he knows how. Old trawler nets litter the seas, snaring whales and sharks while also destroying coral reefs. 

“I looked at how I could turn this idea into a dish that would shine a light on it for fellow chefs and suppliers,” he adds.

A spiralised ball of kohlrabi is the edible net. It traps a piece of sustainably farmed cob and an octopus Callan caught himself – so concerned was he about modern catch methods. To really drive home the point about the destruction these ghost nest cause, Callan decided to include a skeleton – of a sardine, the flesh of which had already been used in another dish in the restaurant where he works in South Africa. Deep frying it produced great flavour, look and texture.

That wasn’t all. Using the very abundant, local chokka squid, Callan used its ink to represent crude oil that pollutes the oceans. Add a sprinkle of gold leaf to symbolise the money people are making out of destroying oceanlife and the dish is complete, except for its presentation. This includes the use of sea water and dry ice to create a mist over the dish that slowly reveals the kohlrabi ghost net. Genius.

He says: “Since I started working as a professional young chef in the industry, I have noticed just how much influence Chefs have over the public because the profession is admired so much. I think it is important to use this influence and convey important messages through our art. The Ghost Net is going to be the start of a new way of cooking for me, one that focuses on pressing world matters and tries to highlight modern problems through my form of art, cuisine.”

Our expert judging team reported that it was incredibly tough to make the final decision about the winner of the San Pellegrino Young Chef Social Responsibility Award, as the general standard among the 12 finalists was incredibly high. It was Callan’s deep dive and ongoing commitment to sharing his message that won them over. 

To judge the social responsibility award we used a bespoke set of criteria against which to assess the dishes:

Climate Change

Resource Use

Collaboration

Innovation

Advocacy

Biodiversity

Food waste

Nutrition

Interestingly, just 6% of all the initial 135 dishes submitted were vegetarian and 1% vegan. More than half had meat as the main ingredient. Given the shift towards more veg-led dishes just since 2019, it will be interesting to see if this changes next time. Other notable trends included a major focus on local sourcing as well as fermentation – a delicious solution to food waste.

Northern Europe winner Pippa Lovell, from Versa restaurant on the Isle of Man (a member of the Food Made Good community), impressed the judges with a dish called What She Found – every ingredient is found within walking distance.

Using the 2021 competition as a baseline will enable us to monitor changing attitudes towards sustainability issues. Working with San Pellegrino, we now need to ensure that the passion shown by this group of winning chefs is allowed its expression in action and that their outstanding efforts are picked up by all young chefs, raising the bar across the board.  

You can find a full rundown on all the finalists’ dishes here.

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