The Nestlé Toque d'Or, organised by Nestlé Professional, has always been a tough competition, but in thie, its 25th year, the bar was raised even higher. Lisa Jenkins spoke to the winners from South West College in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, and their tutors Patrick McAnerney and Grainne Mulholland, to find out how they triumphed.
What lessons did you learn by participating in Toque d'Or?
Colleen McCann I can get worked up, so I've learnt to stay calm. This competition really helped me to conquer my nerves and has shown me how to be positive in any situation.
I also learnt the art of improvisation. I didn't have enough moulds to make our dessert, and although I looked around and found some smaller ones I was still worried, so I spoke to Alan Murchison about timings and my concerns about the equipment - the chefs found some more moulds. It had been a test, and one that I passed: being confident enough to solve it first and then to speak up about it.
What was the most difficult challenge, and why?
LB We both found the presentation stage the most difficult. Standing in front of James Tanner, Stephen Mannock and Alison Gilbert was tough. We had to create an outside catering business concept in an office building serving 200-250 staff.
We created a menu that focused on energising the workforce, providing "brain food". We believe this is an area that needs more attention in hospitality - keeping people energised throughout the day without sugar spikes.
CM We talk a lot about changing diets and food trends at college and designed a variety â¨of dishes to balance fat and proteins - for example, three-bean salad, wild rice salad, wholegrain wraps, and soups.
The judges asked us lots of questions about suppliers, examination boards and pricing - they really put us through our paces.
Did you discover any new skills?
CM I learnt how to adapt. When we set up the box at the O2 I had to think on my feet and take the initiative when it came to timekeeping and dealing with missing and broken glasses. Also, on the second night at the fine-dining dinner at Rashleighs [Nestlé's training facility in Berkshire], a Champagne bottle exploded on me when I opened it. I just had to carry on.
Naming our restaurant at Rashleighs was also interesting. Once we had named the restaurant [the Regency Room], the rest fell into place: the theme, the service style and the â¨colours for the flowers.
What are your plans when leaving college?
LB I finish next week. Then over the summer I'm working at the G8 and completing my winning placement with Anton Mosimann and work experience with CH&Co. When I'd like to do a degree in culinary arts, but I might take a year out first. Perhaps I could go across the water and get some paid-for work experience?
CM I've got another year to go, but then I would like to travel to France, Spain or Scandinavia and work, maybe in Noma. I love the Scandinavian foraged style.
Has being involved in the competition changed your view of the industry?
CM I'm more aware of the different avenues now, for example, product development, contract catering, etc.
LB I wasn't really aware of how big a place contract catering has in hospitality. It's great to know that no matter what your style or personality there is somewhere you can fit in.
What career advice would you give your 12-year-old self now?
CM Keep focused, get good grades and do something that you are passionate about. I wanted to be a vet, surrounded by cats, and then worked in a bank when I left school, but I'm glad I changed direction.
LB Follow what you like at school - I always enjoyed cooking. I joined the South West College junior chefs' academy at 14 and I've done my GCSEs, AS levels and evening classes as I've gone along. It's been a big commitment.
Who inspires you in the industry?
CM Keith Floyd for me. I loved his personality. I like James Tanner, too, and Rick Stein, due to his impact on the industry. Closer to home, Brian McMonagle, head chef at the Brewer's House in Donaghmore, has mentored me. He sets us challenges most weeks and always puts aside time for training.
LB I grew up watching James Tanner on Ready Steady Cook, and I loved learning from Alan Murchison and eating at L'Ortolan. I also admire Heston Blumenthal, Michel Roux Jr and Neven Maguire. Our tutors here at South West are superb and Noel McMeel at the Lough Erne Resort, Enniskillen, where I've been doing my work experience, is fantastic.
Do you think hospitality is taken seriously as a career choice by your peers and friends? What needs to change?
CM Most of my friends are chefs, and those that aren't still think it's great. My friends respect my choice and understand it's a great outlet for my creativity. If I could make one change, it would be to have more women in the industry.
LB My friends are all chefs. You don't get much time for a social life. My family didn't have a view initially but are 100% behind me now. I'd like to see better pay and conditions everywhere, but I think things are changing.
This is the first time an Irish college has won the Nestlé Toque d'Or. How will you market your success?
Patrick McAnerney We have started close to home on the college website and magazine then, after the G8 [at Lough Erne Resort on 17-18 June], which is taking all our attention at the moment, the girls will be interviewed for the local and regional newspapers.
We are on Twitter, and only 40 minutes after winning, the news had spread. Our PR will hopefully set up some local TV interviews as well.
Grainne Mulholland The poor girls will get wheeled out! They will definitely help us attract the right calibre of students in the future. They are fantastic role models.
What have you learnt from the competition process?
PM The thing that sets the Nestlé Toque d'Or apart from other competitions is that it places the finalists in a wide range of different scenarios. It's about the unknown and trying to prepare them for that. We teach the students to remain calm, take stock and listen well to the brief, then employ the practical skills they have learnt at college.
GM The competition looks at the whole person and their attitude, and we will put more emphasis on this moving forward. Competition work will continue to be ongoing throughout the year.
Was it worth all the time and effort, and how did you prepare the girls?
PM Even before the finals it was worth it. As Colleen said on the night: "Winning is the icing on the cake." For us as a college, it's definitely been worth it. We've talked about entering before, but this year it just all worked out timing-wise.
What effect has it had on Colleen and Lauren and the college as a whole?
PM Lauren and Colleen are two exceptional students who are still a bit in shock. They have both had to re-engage with college life very quickly. Sharing their winning experience after the G8 will bring it to life, and they will become role models.
GM For the college, this win reinforces our ethos and credentials. Our stall is well and truly set out now.
Take One student intitative
Take One is a Nestlé Professional work-placement initiative launched alongside this year's competition to match employers withthe competiting students.
Neil Stephens, managing director of Nestlé Professional, says: "It really couldn't be easier to get involved - we're asking companies to pledge to take one of the students and create an opportunity from them to experience first-hand the very best our industry has to offer."
To offer work experience to one of the students e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org