Inspiring the Next Generation

The Nestlé Toque d’Or competition offers a glimpse of the talent and skill level coming through in UK catering colleges. The judges like what they have seen so far.


This year, for the 23rd year in a row, another raft of student teams entered the competition that carries a reputation for inspiring and challenging catering students up and down the UK. Every member of each team will carry a dream of winning the Nestlé Toque d’Or and, perhaps, one day following in the footsteps of some of its now-famous entrants from years gone by.


The task for the pretenders to the throne is simple: devise a model for a contemporary and unique dining environment, addressing the demands of today’s diners. The model must also consider issues such as seasonality, provenance and sustainability.


“This competition is about nurturing the talent of the future, nurturing the chefs that will bring new trends, ideas and dining experiences. While we can’t foresee what those exciting innovations might be, we can ensure that they are founded on some basic principles that all good catering should adhere to. We want these chefs to come up with brilliant ideas, but also ideas that are sustainable,” explains Neil Stephens, managing director Nestlé Professional UK & Ireland. But that is just the first stage. If their paper entry is successful they move to a series of heats, before the grand finals. It’s a gruelling contest. Cheshire Life summed up the stresses of the event last year when waiting for the results of the 2010 grand final in which

Warrington Collegiate took part.


“Given that they are taking part in the competition that was part of the careers of Jamie Oliver, Anton Mosimann and James Martin, you might expect the students at Warrington Collegiate to be feeling the pressure. But they are proving they can stand the heat and they are staying in the kitchen. The six-strong team – made up of four chefs and two front of house – have already battled their way through gruelling heats against many colleges and they cooked up a storm in the Nestlé Toque d’Or competition. They also sizzled against four other colleges in the Grand Final where they dished up for 100 diners at the BBC Good Food Show at Birmingham NEC in June. But now they face the worst bit – the wait. Any day now they will be summoned to the Dorchester Hotel, London where the winners will be announced.”


They didn’t win; the prize went to University College Birmingham who, according to head judge James Tanner “showed 100 per cent passion and really rose to the challenge in conditions that can only be described as working in a real pressure cooker. They should all be extremely proud of what they have achieved, especially with such a high standard of entries this year.”


This year the standard may well surpass that 2010 benchmark. This year’s heats head judge, Tony Robertson, has been “blown away” by what he has seen in the heats. The 2011 Nestlé Toque d’Or grand final is now just two months away, and University College Birmingham are back defending their title. Blackpool & The Fylde College, Belfast Metropolitan College, Grimsby Institute of Further Education, and Colchester Institute make up the five-strong line up. With the heats having showcased some of the most exciting dishes to be prepared in the history of the competition, Stephens says this year looks set to be one of the most competitive and interesting Grand Finals ever.


“The raw talent and level of skill is incredibly impressive. It is great to see the colleges and the students embracing Nestlé Toque d’Or. It really is a unique event that provides a lifetime’s experience in one competition. The value cannot be underestimated. We have seen some incredibly talented individuals take part in the competition and go on to achieve real success in this dynamic sector.”


Recently, the finalists were ‘treated’ to an army day to sharpen their skills and discipline as part of the lead up to their day at the BBC Good Food Show when they produce 100 covers – for paying members of the public. The day started at 5am – ‘Apprentice style’ – when the students were taken to five army field kitchens and briefed on their task: produce a three-course lunch from two ration packs and a few fresh ingredients. The lunch was judged by the army personnel as part of the competition, so the pressure was on. “They had to work over the noise of generators and even collect water in cans from a standpipe,” explains Stephens.


The day was a steep learning curve for the teams; they were also taught how to skin and gut a deer, as well as how to joint and cook various other game including rabbit and pheasant. But it wasn’t all work and no play: they were treated to curries produced by Ghurka soldiers on hand built ovens and a formal dinner in the officers’ mess – venison was of course on the menu. “The feedback from the students really just included the word ‘awesome’,” says Stephens. “They have never done anything like that before. Hopefully their skills have improved and it will inspire them further in their careers.”


Indeed, there are just a few weeks until judgement day and the BBC Good Food Show. The winning team will gain places on the Nestlé Toque d’Or Study Trip, a once in a lifetime experience. The college would also receive £4,000 of equipment for its kitchens. But this competition isn’t just about winning – it’s about inspiring, developing and nurturing the next generation of top chefs.


Indeed, past entrants include Jamie Oliver, who has certainly come a long way since his student catering days: TV chef, Sainsbury’s pin up, MBE, millionaire and, of course, campaigner. New research has just found that his healthy school dinners continue to produce a marked improvement in national curriculum test results five years after the chef first launched his campaign.


So, is the Nestlé Toque d’Or set to produce any more Jamie Olivers? “This year’s competition has been electric,” says James Tanner, the chairman of the Nestlé Toque d’Or Grand Final judges, “and it’s been very hard to judge as a result. There are some really talented young chefs out there, which can only be good news for the future of our industry.”