Competing at any major international event is tough enough. But to represent your country at WorldSkills, the biggest skills competition in the world, recognised as being one of the most gruelling on the circuit, is a major feat.
Held in Helsinki, Finland at the end of last month, the 38th WorldSkills event was the culmination of months - in some cases years - of intensive training and preparation for the 700 young people from around the world who took part.
Battling it out over four intense days, their aim was to reach world-class standards in their chosen vocational skill, in trades as diverse as hairdressing and landscape gardening, to bring home Olympic-style gold, silver and bronze medals.
In the hospitality sector, there was added pressure this year as the third UK candidate (in the restaurant service category) had decided to step down just weeks earlier, leaving just two UK representatives. Chef Clark Crawley, 22, and pastry cook Helen Barker, 22, eventually finished 10th and 11th in their respective crafts, with Crawley awarded a medallion of excellence.
In spite of a lack of medals, both Crawley and Barker agreed the experience had been a terrific learning curve.
"I think I could have done better as I did make some silly mistakes," admits Crawley, now back in his role as chef de partie at Sodexho in London. "I overcooked the venison and my chocolate work wasn't fantastic, partly because it was so warm in the stadium. But I did learn loads - not just about cooking but also about how to perform under pressure and to work as a team."
And unlike many competitors who find the daily crowds of hovering spectators intimidating, Crawley found that he actually enjoyed the buzz. "I loved cooking in front of an audience," he explains. "It's a chance to show people what you're capable of. I'd definitely like to compete again."
Peter Joyner, senior executive development chef at Sodexho and Crawley's training mentor, feels the result was fair but a disappointing one for Crawley. "It's a shame Clark didn't come higher because he worked very hard," Joyner says. "But it's an incredibly tough, physically demanding competition. He did make a couple of mistakes and when you're competing at that level, your marks get hit severely." In the final results, the gold medal was awarded to Germany, the silver to Switzerland and bronze to France.
Over in the pastry cook/confectioner category, some unexpected plumbing problems in the kitchen didn't get things off to a good start for Barker, who found she had a leaking sink to deal with on day one of the competition.
A shortage of certain supplies didn't help either, with Finnish organisers unable to track down paillete feuilletine, a type of crushed wafer (a crucial ingredient for Barker's chocolates). They also provided only 10 vanilla sticks to share between 16 competitors.
Barker suffered an unexpected stroke of bad luck when, on the final day, the sugar work for her chocolate centrepiece slipped, disastrously smashing to pieces before the judges could assess it.
"I knew I hadn't won a medal but I was a bit disappointed that I didn't get a higher place," explains Barker, back in her home town of Harrogate, where she works as an assistant team leader in confectionery at Bettys & Taylors, the tea shop chain. "Day three was probably the toughest. By then, you just get knocked out by tiredness. And as some of my chocolates hadn't demolded properly, I didn't manage to get them all out in time so I lost marks for that."
Yolande Stanley, UK judging representative in the pastry cook/confectioner class and Barker's training manager, has plenty of praise for Barker's work, especially her gteaux and centrepiece. "Helen did extremely well and she was very meticulous in her approach," Stanley says. "But I think the huge pressure of the competition got to her a bit and she lost some of her usual edge by having to rush things through."
Nevertheless, Barker is pleased with her overall performance. "I'm happy with what I achieved just by getting to WorldSkills," she says, attributing her calm approach to the intense coaching she received in the six months prior to the competition. "It was a brilliant experience and the standard of the other competitors was amazing. I learnt an enormous amount that I could take back with me."
Funding As training managers for the next WorldSkills, to be hosted in Japan in 2007, both Joyner and Stanley are already preparing for the challenge ahead.
But they point out that success is not just down to the individual competitor's performance. Both pinpoint a shortage of funds, a lack of wider industry support and insufficient time to prepare as serious obstacles.
Training, for example, has to be fitted around full-time jobs - Stanley is a senior chef-lecturer at Thames Valley University, London, and Joyner is a senior executive development chef at Sodexho - and candidates are reliant upon supportive employers giving them time off work.
"The quality of training that we provide is excellent, but I've only worked with Helen for six months, which isn't really long enough," Stanley explains. "In some countries, like Switzerland, for example, they stop work months before to train solidly for the competition, and one of the Singaporean entrants had trained for two years. We just don't have the budget to do that. But there are huge differences in how nations see the competition. Korea, for instance, rewards its competitors with cars and even houses."
Joyner agrees that the current situation is tough. "We basically rely on goodwill to get hold of things such as free whites and equipment for the team," he says. "It's a question of having to pull in lots of favours from contacts. Of course, some companies are supportive, especially with training. But it's finding people who are willing to share their skills and give their time."
Chef and UK Skills board member Brian Turner thinks that the low profile of WorldSkills doesn't help. "Competitions such as the Roux and Ramsay scholarships are better known because of the names involved but people just don't know about WorldSkills. And if people don't know about it, they won't enter," he laments.
"In Europe, it's taken very seriously - in France the whole country gets involved. But we've got a great industry here in the UK and we need to tell the world how good we are."
For Turner, and the UK Skills team, the issues go deeper than a mere desire to compete on the international circuit, though. Competitions such as WorldSkills tie in with raising service standards and, crucially, bring in new lifeblood to the industry. "We're a service economy and it's vital we attract more young people to work in hospitality," Turner says. "To compete professionally with the best in the world, we have to take skills and training seriously."
Turner urges employers to get more involved. "The Government does have a responsibility but it also falls to our industry, which is one of the worst for funding and sponsorship," he says. "Employers have to take the long-term view and get behind competitions such as WorldSkills. By training staff and giving them opportunities to develop, the whole industry stands to benefit."
What is WorldSkills?
WorldSkills was first established in 1953 as a means raising the standards of vocational skills and training around the world.
Taking place every two years, the competition is hosted by one of 40 memeber countries, with the next one due to take place in Shizuoka, Japan, in 2007. To be selected fo the UK team, entrants must first compete at a several regional and national skills contests. Entry is open to those aged between 18 and 22 in more than 40 skill categories ranging from plumbing and welding to landscape gardening and hairdressing.
The UK entry in WorldSkills is organised by affiliate member UK Skills.
If you are interseted in appluing for the next WorldSkills in 2007, please contact Andrew Walton at UK Skills, 18 Park Square East, London, NW1 4LH. Telephone: 020 7543 7488. Website: www.ukskills.org.uk
Entrants must have been born on or after 1 January 1985.