In its 21st year the Toque d'Or competition judges found the five finalist teams from colleges around the UK producing menus and restaurant concepts that were good enough to impress the bank manager. Diane Lane reports
Picture a quaint Devon fishing village with a beautiful harbour. In the heart of the village is a restaurant, Hook, Line and Divine, reflecting the amazing coastal scenery with a palette of natural colours, whitewashed panelling and local artwork featuring brightly coloured fishing boats and beach huts.
The menu offers a variety of local ingredients carefully sourced from the region's producers and imaginatively combined in a fresh and modern style of cuisine. Its focus is the abundance of fish and seafood brought to the kitchen straight from the fishing boats in the harbour.
Let's take a closer look. To start is a light creamy fennel soup with a hint of aniseed, topped with a crab tortellini and sauce vierge. Next comes a monkfish tail dusted with a ground spice mix of turmeric, fennel and mustard seeds, chilli powder and garam masala, served with a red pepper sabayon, smooth cauliflower purée and sweet pickled vegetables - shallots, radish, beetroot, turnips and French beans. Dessert combines products synonymous with the South West, such as fudge, cream and apples, in an apple trifle accompanied by a warm brioche and cinnamon doughnut.
Tempted? I should say so. The idea certainly found favour with the judges of the 2009 Nestlé Toque d'Or competition. They declared its creators, a team of six students from North Devon College guided by their lecturer Tom Lewis, champions at an awards luncheon held at indigO2 in Greenwich last week following their winning performance in the grand final at the BBC Summer Good Food Show held at Birmingham's NEC in June.
"The team excelled themselves with the concept which brought together great fresh food and a simple brasserie feel," says head judge James Tanner, joint chef patron of Tanners Restaurant in Plymouth, Devon. "The pasta in the starter was a good colour, not too thick or thin and didn't split and I loved the fact that the main course offered something a little different with monkfish and spices although not too overpowering - you could taste each element of the dish. The dessert was stunning, the taste was great with clean flavours of apple sorbet and warm light fluffy cinnamon doughnuts."
Emma Colwill, Tom Turner, Max Bowen, Karl Partridge, Mike Stern and James Ballantyne made up the North Devon team who saw off challenges from Blackpool and the Fylde College, Belfast Metropolitan College, City of Bristol College and Sussex Downs College.
These five teams were picked from 16 colleges across the UK which undertook selection heats in their college kitchens to bring their restaurant concept to life, serving a three-course lunch menu to 30 invited guests.
For the five teams who made it through to the grand final the task was significantly more demanding and involved preparing their three-course lunch and managing a team of Birmingham College hospitality students in serving it to 100 paying diners who were visiting the BBC show.
Besides getting the food just right, the North Devon team was spot on with the planning of the restaurant from the location, theme and décor to the vital business elements of costings and marketing.
"It was a restaurant concept you could realistically present to a bank manager," comments Tanner.
The rest of the judging panel was similarly impressed among them Andy Stacey, who lectures at Carlisle College and guided his teams to Toque d'Or victory in 2004 and 2008.
"The winning team showed real team spirit," he says of the North Devon students. "They had researched their theme and menu rigorously and each of them knew it inside out. This created a performance with depth and knowledge which oozed and flowed on the day.
"Bearing in mind the pressure they were under, they remained controlled and professional throughout, which really is no mean feat, with so much to remember, a large number of people to serve and time constantly ticking away.
"For me the curry monkfish dish was sublime, fish is not an easy choice, you have to get it just right and when you have 100 or so covers that's tough, but they pulled it off. This team was cool and collected and consistent throughout," Stacey says.
Judging the teams' front-of-house performance was Stephen Mannock, programme director at the National Skills Academy for Hospitality. "The North Devon students were very communicative as a team," he says. "Attention to detail was second to none, for example they offered their bread in cones which were covered in a montage of their press cuttings, and the service was smooth and elegant."
Eighteen-year-old North Devon team member Emma Colwill, who has recently landed a job at Heston Blumenthal's Hinds Head in Bray, Berkshire, found the experience of the final nerve-wracking and adrenalin-fuelled but says that once it was over she wanted to do it again adding: "It was certainly no easy task as we were under serious pressure to make everything run smoothly - from motivating the front of house team to providing top quality dishes to the 100 expectant customers. But we worked so hard, I don't think we could have done any better.
"As a college, we believe in using local produce and this is what inspired us to come up with our concept. We used fresh fish from the South West coast as we wanted to show our customers that we support local suppliers."
BEST OF THE REST
While the judges' decision swung in favour of the North Devon team, all of the finalists drew praise for a job well done. Blackpool was deemed to have turned out a "brilliant dessert with excellent marshmallow" that was "quite a tricky dish to put together for the number of people, but popular with customers and ate very well". The watercress and roast chicken soup that Belfast presented as a starter was "clean-tasting with a good chicken flavour" and Bristol's fish nage was "a good dish and the fish was nicely cooked" with the judges "pleased to see the fish stock made from scratch". Meanwhile the starter from Sussex Downs College was a "perfect mussel broth with a great flavour and beautifully cooked scallop".
Indeed it seems that the future of the foodservice industry is bright if the talent and dedication of this year's finalists is anything to go by. As Nestlé Professional chef Tony Robertson, who managed the kitchens for the final, says: "These young people have given us a glance into the future with great food and ideas for theming restaurants in different settings from the seaside to the city centre."
TOQUE D'OR FINALISTS
Belfast Metropolitan College
Team members: Jaime Hagan, John Paul Branney, Ciara McGhee, Andrew Provan, Anthony Murray, Amy McCartney.
Restaurant theme: Fat of the Land - promoting, celebrating and supporting the farming community of Northern Ireland with innovative and healthy cuisine coupled with a traditionally warm welcome.
Menu: Watercress and roast chicken soup, crispy soda bread croutons; herb-crusted Irish loin of lamb, minted pea purée, champ potato cake and lamb gravy; Bushmills whisky and wild honey-infused vanilla ice-cream sphere with a warm chocolate mousse.
Blackpool and the Fylde College
Team members: Tony Bee, Rachael Gledhill, Jackie Jackson, Eddie Dowdall, Stephen Bradley, Matthew Lockwood.
Restaurant theme: Tranquillity - a modern dining experience within a calm oasis that balances relaxation with health and wellbeing and fresh, sustainable, local produce.
Menu: Smoked haddock soup, vanilla foam and Gruyère cheese beignet; trio of duck: pan-fried breast, roast shin, duck and bean ragout, with celeriac fondant and butternut squash purée; vanilla and chocolate ice-cream drum, light marshmallow tower, chocolate brownie and raspberry sorbet.
Sussex Downs College
Team members: Hollie Buss, Sammie Dale, James Julian, Lewis Franklin, Richard Edwards, Ross Powell.
Restaurant theme: Provenance of Sussex - nutritious and healthy food composed of ingredients which were sourced from local suppliers, highlighting many of the regional Sussex dishes with a modern twist.
Menu: Light mussel broth served with caramelised scallop, capellini of vegetables and marsh samphire; Firle lamb with herb farce, bean and vegetable shingle and natural jus lié; Apple - three desserts served as one.
City of Bristol College
Team members: Nathan Taylor, Andrew Grant, Michael Collins, Mike Boyes, Victoria Cragg, Kelly Avis.
Restaurant theme: Stockpot - balancing seasonality of ingredients with nutritional menus and a healthy approach to life.
Menu: Fresh local summer vegetable gazpacho, balsamic vinegar sorbet and cracked black pepper; West Country fish nage with monkfish cheek, halibut, salmon and lobster, with baby vegetables and potato bread; flavours of banoffee.
TOQUE D'OR WINNERS
North Devon College
Team members (above): Emma Colwill, Tom Turner, Max Bowen, Karl Partridge, Mike Stern and James Ballantyne
Restaurant theme: Hook, Line and Divine - bringing the freshest West Country seafood straight from the boat to the plate.
Menu: Fennel soup with crab tortellini and sauce vierge; curried monkfish tail with red pepper sabayon, cauliflower purée and sweet-pickled vegetables; apple trifle with brioche and cinnamon doughnut.