SHRIEKS of delight and rapturous applause greeted the announcement of the 1994 Young Chef and Young Waiter of the Year, Jane McMeekin and Andrew Pratt respectively, at a celebration dinner at London's Grosvenor House Hotel.
Guest of honour Prince Edward and more than 300 leading industry personalities were not simply toasting the achievements of two highly talented young professionals, but also celebrating the 10th anniversary of what has become the leading competitive showcase for young chefs and young waiters.
Since its inception by the Restaurateurs Association of Great Britain (RAGB) in 1985, the competition, whose principal sponsor American Express has injected around £1m into it, has proved to be a major launch pad for the careers of, among others, Roger Narbett, Idris Caldora and Chris Suter.
The respect with which the event is now regarded is perhaps best summed up by the first young waiter of the year, Andrew Edwards, who this year joined the judging panel at the national finals: "It has undoubtedly helped me further my career."
Edwards was restaurant manager with Gardner Merchant at the National Westminster Bank's Head Office and Training Centre in Oxfordshire when he won in 1985. Still with Gardner Merchant, he is now general manager of its contract at Eton College. "The competition's high profile has continued over the past 10 years and today I continue to be asked for advice because of my success back then."
The search for the 1994 Young Chef and Young Waiter of the Year began at the end of last year when hundreds of written applications were received by the organisers. Thirty-four chefs and the same number of waiters were selected to compete at four regional finals in February and March, from which eight competitors in each section were chosen to go through to the national finals.
The battle began the day before the national finals when the contestants came together for a briefing with the chairman of the chefs' judging panel, Antony Worrall Thompson, and chairman of the waiters' judging panel, John Cousins of Thames Valley University. Finalists in each section were drawn to compete as a team the following day, when the waiters would serve the four-course lunch prepared by the chefs working in the kitchen.
The waiters had to decide, having discussed the menu with their chef partners, which wines they would serve from a selection provided by one of the sponsors, the German Wine Information Service. This was the first major challenge for the waiters, because although they were given the opportunity to taste the wines, they had to match the wines to dishes they had never seen, let alone tasted.
The day of the final, held at Westminster College, began with the arrival of the chefs at 7.45am. It was their task to prepare a four-course meal for six covers within a budget of £45. While the meat was supplied by another sponsor, Fairfax Meadow, all other ingredients had to be brought by the competitors. Their only guidelines were that the main course should be European, to mark the opening of the Channel Tunnel two days later. After settling into the college kitchen - and ensuring no-one had sneaked in a ready-prepared sauce - Worrall Thompson and David Dorricott, who was acting as kitchen judge, set the chefs on their way at 8.30am.
The waiters arrived shortly afterwards and, after a quick tour of the premises, they too set to work, preparing their tables for the lunch. Each contestant would be waiting at a table of four invited guests who, at the end of the meal, would be invited to pass their comments on to the judging panel. Headed by Cousins, the judges for the waiters' competition included Somerset Moore of Painswick Hotel; Andrew Edwards of Eton College; Silvano Giraldin of Le Gavroche; Kate Smith of the Beetle & Wedge Hotel; Stephen Moss of the RAGB; and Nick Tarayan of Leith's. It was their job to observe the lunch as it was served, looking for a wide range of food and beverage service skills, organisation of work, product knowledge, and good communication with the customers.
Lunch guests were due to sit down at 1pm, but the chefs were not given a set time in which to produce their dishes. To simulate the workings of a restaurant, the competitors had to liaise constantly with their competition partners in order to serve lunch when the customers were ready.
Four of the six covers prepared by the chefs were served in the restaurant, while the remaining two were tasted by the chef judging panel. Led by Worrall Thompson, the judges were Prue Leith, RAGB chairman, and John Burton-Race of L'Ortolan, who judged the amuse bouche and desserts; Robert Carrier, founder of the competition, and Gordon Ramsay of Aubergine on starters; and Roy Ackerman, RAGB president, and Bruno Loubet of Bistrot Bruno on main courses. While marks were recorded only by the relevant judges, all seven took part in the tasting of all the dishes.
Almost immediately one of the amuse bouches brought forward rapturous comments from the judges. A rather innocuous and even insipid-looking cup of liquid, it packed a punch in flavour. Simply described as tomato juice, it was declared by Ackerman to be "one of the most exciting dishes I've had for years", while Worrall Thompson described it as "the perfect amuse bouche - very clever, light and refreshing, just the thing to tickle the palate". The dish turned out to be one of the most impressive of the day and was to earn its creator, Lawrence Dodds, the special food prize of £250. Another amuse bouche to catch the judges' eyes and taste buds was McMeekin's grilled goat's cheese hors d'oeuvre. "Very pretty, delicious and simple," said Leith of the cheese, which was surrounded by marinated peppers, aubergine and broad beans.
Starters to impress the judges included a ravioli of Dublin Bay prawns in its own stock (Jason Lynas), skate wing barigoule (Christopher Colmer), and stuffed monkfish wrapped in courgette ribbons with an anchovy basil oil (McMeekin). The judges were tasting the dishes unaware of who had cooked them; each dish was given a number of the candidate and it quickly emerged that candidate three (McMeekin) was a step ahead of the rest.
When it came to the main courses, McMeekin again came out on top. Her duck confit with potatoes sarladaise and a simple green salad was declared to be a perfectly balanced dish; it looked good, was the correct portion size for a main course, and was full of flavour. "It is quite a simple dish, but very well done, with extra flavour from the skin left on the potatoes," said Loubet. The main courses otherwise disappointed the judges, with ridiculously large portions the most frequent criticism.
At the dessert stage, the judges eagerly awaited candidate three's pudding which, unfortunately, turned out to be the least successful element of what had otherwise been a perfect meal. McMeekin's apple tart tatin served with cräme fraiche was slightly overcooked, the caramel was too sticky and the apple slices had turned to purée. The best of the desserts was a prune and pear clafoutis with Armagnac ice-cream from Colmer. "Good boozy flavours - delicious," said Leith, while Burton-Race declared that "this person should become a pastry chef". Also good was a gratin of strawberries and rhubarb served with a Champagne sorbet from Sean Hope.
Despite McMeekin's disappointing dessert, the rest of her simple but perfectly balanced meal had already earned her the title. "Simplicity is always the hardest thing to get right," said Worrall Thompson. "Each dish had clarity and was not smothered in sauce. She clearly knew the principles of good cooking."
Meanwhile, the waiters' competition was also drawing to a close. The guests were passing on their experiences to the judges, who were also interviewing each competitor. As with the chefs' section, the waiters' competition produced an outright winner. When the guests were questioned about Andrew Pratt's skills, he was described as being "efficient, unobtrusive, genuinely trying to please without being patronising, and having a good sense of humour." All these characteristics came through at Pratt's own interview with the judges, when he said that the two most important attributes in food service were "a good personality and a love of food and wine". We were looking for an elusive quality, and he had it," said Kate Smith.
By 4pm the hard work by both competitors and judges had been done. It was time to clear up, get changed, and at last relax for the evening's celebration dinner. o