From mise en place to the cries of "check on", the 20 students who took part in the 2004 Nestl‚ Toque d'Or final last week were familiar with the workings of a restaurant kitchen. All had worked in their college restaurants under the watchful eyes of their chef-lecturers. But, for one week in June, they stepped into the restaurant world proper, competing for custom alongside several other commercial operations at London's Olympia. And, for the first time, they were the ones in charge.
Their task was to run a restaurant to a theme of their own choice, serving lunch to 100 visitors at the Daily Telegraph House and Garden Fair, each of whom paid £20 for the privilege. Here there was no safety net, no lecturer to step in should anything go wrong. "They are in control of their own destiny," said Nestl‚ events manager Martin Webster. "They sink or swim on their skills."
One person who knows all too well what it takes to make such an exercise work is Mark Allison, who, as chef-lecturer at Neath Port Talbot College, guided teams to Toque d'Or victories in 2001 and 2002 and who was a member of this year's judging panel. "Passion and desire will win the day," he said. "A strong concept, a well-prepared presentation, good, well-flavoured food that takes a little time and effort to put on the plate, and well-instructed front of house - not only does the competition challenge their cooking abilities, they have to use their minds and cope with the pressures of opening their own restaurant."
The four competing teams had been selected from paper entries and won their way through regional heats to land a place in the grand final. Now the teams, each of five students, from Salisbury, Carlisle, Sheffield and Glenrothes colleges, had their sights set on the coveted Toque d'Or trophy and the prize of a study tour to Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, USA. Of course, only one team could emerge triumphant - and this year that team was first-time finalists Carlisle College.
"Very ambitious" was how Andy Stacey, chef-lecturer at Carlisle College, described Melanie Dixon, Elizabeth Brough, Rebecca Harrington, Peter "Jack" Snelgar and James Hill, the five students who made up the winning team. "They all want to work with top chefs," he said. Snelgar and Hill are aiming for jobs in Michelin-starred kitchens with Messrs Blumenthal and Ramsay - indeed, Hill was in the college final of this year's Gordon Ramsay Scholar competition.
"Stunned" was how the team felt after the announcement at a gala presentation lunch at London's Dorchester hotel, that they were victorious. They saw the regional heat in Glasgow as good experience. "We won the heat and it got serious," Hill said. "We were shocked to get through to the final."
They might have been shocked at the time, but the team had regained their composure when it was time to run Grand Baggins, their restaurant designed to showcase the wealth of Cumbrian produce on their doorstep, for lunch service at the exhibition. In the kitchen, Snelgar took responsibility for the starter, Hill for the main course and Dixon for the dessert, while Brough and Harrington took charge of things front of house.
De Vere Hotels' food operations manager David Grainger acted as mentor to the team leading up to the final. The mentor is charged with guiding the team through the process of developing their original menu, served to 20 guests in the heats, into something suitable for 100. But the Carlisle team were one step ahead. "They already had a menu which could be delivered to 100 people," said Grainger, who also mentored last year's winning team from Sheffield College. "It was a matter of identifying what could be done early on and wouldn't spoil. They were very well organised."
Even when things didn't quite go according to plan, they kept their cool. "The bread to be served with the soup had been vacuum-packed and had been squashed," said Hill. "So we halved and toasted it, and served it as bruschetta with goats' cheese on top."
Though it was a closely fought contest, with all four teams doing themselves proud and making the restaurant a sell-out venue every day, chairman of judges Paul Gayler explained what gave the Carlisle team the edge: "The concept was realistic, they knew where the trade was coming from, and the food fitted the pub concept well," he said. "The goats' cheese worked well with the chowder, the belly pork was nicely cooked, and there was good flavour in the dessert. Often, young chefs don't get the seasoning right, but the dishes were well seasoned and I would have been pleased to serve them in my restaurant." n
The winning concept and menu
The team from Carlisle College found their restaurant theme, as team member James Hill put it, "staring us in the face". He explained: "Cumbria had bounced back from foot-and-mouth [disease], and there is so much produce in the county. So we came up with the idea of a gastropub serving local produce."
Besides attending college in Cumbria, the five students also work in local hotels and restaurants, and took the opportunity to research their project with suppliers. "Cumbria is usually associated with lamb, but we wanted to show other things that came from the county," said Hill. "So we chose belly pork for the main course and haddock from the Solway Firth, smoked locally, for the chowder."
The name they came up with was Grand Baggins, which means "good food" in Cumbrian dialect.
The Grand Baggins menu - Jerusalem artichoke and smoked haddock chowder with glazed Ribblesdale goats' cheese
- Seared, spiced belly pork on a bed of buttered leaf with a port wine and orange glaze, truffle dauphinoise and black pudding tortes, carrot and turnip mash with garlic confit
- Coffee and Yorkie Bar bavarois with hot chocolate ice-cream, Bourbon vanilla froth and coffee syrup
Route to the top
About six months ago teams of five students from colleges all over the UK put their heads together to come up with their own themed restaurant idea, together with a three-course menu consisting of a hot or cold soup as a starter, plus a main course and a dessert, all designed around key Nestl‚ ingredients. These paper entries were judged not just on the menu but also on the uniqueness and viability of the idea, and 16 teams were picked to compete in regional heats.
The four regional heats were held in March in London, Glasgow, Manchester and Cheltenham, where each team cooked its menu for 20 invited guests. Three members of each team manned the stoves while two took on the front-of-house duties. And because it wasn't just about cooking, the teams also had to make a presentation to judges, including Brian Turner and James Martin, explaining their restaurant concept with the assistance of a "mood board" they created to show how the restaurant would look and be marketed.
The four highest-scoring teams were from Salisbury, Carlisle, Sheffield and Glenrothes colleges, and each team was allocated a mentor from either Aramark, Compass Group UK & Ireland, De Vere Hotels or Quadrant Catering, to assist them in taking their original idea and running it for a day as a restaurant serving 100 paying customers.
In June, visitors flocked to the Daily Telegraph House and Garden Fair, and about 100 a day booked themselves in for lunch at the Nestl‚ Toque d'Or restaurant, with many more having to be turned away disappointed since it was fully booked.
After a day at college to do some prep, and having been introduced to the concept of cook-chill for some aspects of their meals, the students took turns to bring their restaurant concepts to life, with the two front-of-house members managing a team of waiting staff made up of students from Croydon College.
Team members: Eadie Manson, Darkon Coan, Robbie Penman, Suzie Innes, Scott Jamieson
Restaurant: The Hole-in-One (golf theme)
Team members: Matthew Carter, Mark Barrows, Craig Dixon, Nikki Capon, Rebecca Bullen
Restaurant: The Forest Gate (New Forest theme)
Team members: Ben Whittaker, Andrew Richardson, Christopher Norfolk, Chris Hagan, Diana Gould
Restaurant: Appearing Tonight (blockbuster movie theme)