Kings (and queen) of the kitchen
There’s nothing quite like a $10,000 scholarship that offers flights to London and a stint at one of the world’s top 100 restaurants to find out who can handle the heat in the kitchen.
For the past 17 years, TAFE NSW and the Hunter Culinary Association have been offering apprentice chefs a careerchanging opportunity through the Brett Graham Scholarship. The highly competitive event puts the cream of the Hunter’s next generation of chefs through their paces to see who can cut it in the kitchen during a series of theoretical and practical challenges. Aside from walking away with a newfound level of confidence, the top apprentice also scores the coveted grand prize valued at $10,000, which includes enrolment in TAFE NSW’s Certificate IV in Commercial Cookery, return flights to London and a stint working at one of the world’s top 100 restaurants, The Ledbury. Funding for the scholarship is raised by the Hunter Culinary Association through their highly anticipated annual Food Fight lunch, which pits top-rated chefs from the Hunter and beyond against each other in a battle of their culinary capabilities. Hunter and Coastal Lifestyle Magazine spoke to three of the scholarship’s past winners to see what the experience of working alongside The Ledbury’s head chef – TAFE NSW alumni Brett Graham – at the Michelin star-rated eatery meant to them
Year won: 2005
Current role: Chef/Owner Muse Restaurant, Pokolbin
What was the experience of taking part in the Brett Graham Scholarship like as a young chef?
Like all good competitions for apprentice chefs. It’s a test of the skills you have acquired over your short career as there is mystery box ingredient cooking involved, but most importantly the submission, interview and dish composition process starts you realising what might be, or is, the style of food that you connect with and like to cook.
How valuable do you think your experience at The Ledbury was and what was the experience like?
Tough, hard, fast and inspiring. I completed a two-week stage before returning to my position at Roberts Restaurant in the Hunter Valley. The level of intensity and refinement in The Ledbury’s whole operation was completely inspiring.
How important are professional development programs such as this scholarship to the development of young chefs?
Completely integral part of our industry, they provide platforms for young chefs to further themselves outside of their workplace. Network with like-minded people and gain valuable feedback from the judges. This particular scholarship is testament to that success, with so many past winners now contributing to the culinary landscape of the Hunter.
Year won: 2015
Current role: Sous Chef at Canberra Southern Cross Club
I read that when you entered the scholarship competition you already had a ticket booked to travel overseas, regardless of the outcome – why were you so keen to head overseas to further your career?
I was young and had lived on my own for a while and to be honest I felt like Newcastle wasn’t the place for me at that time. I needed to take a big leap because I had always been quite scared of change; it ended up being very important for me to do so.
What was the experience like working at The Ledbury?
The Ledbury was spectacular, the emotions I was feeling as I walked down the street of Notting Hill was indescribable. During my time I was starting at 7.30am and walking out at 1am. Brett has a passion for perfection like I haven’t seen before. He can seem intense but on the other hand he was a very kind man and made me welcome, also organising work for me in his other restaurant.
What do you think is the key thing you took out of the experience and how much did winning the scholarship impact your career?
Winning the scholarship was quite simply something I never thought that Jodie Flanagan could do. I worked hard and it paid off and I keep that with me even now. If you really want something it definitely pays to work hard.
Year won: 2013
Current role: Head Chef /Co-owner The Signal Box, Newcastle
What is so special about the Brett Graham Scholarship?
I had my eyes on that competition for two years before I took part as an apprentice. It’s the closest thing to real life, it tests you on a theory level, it tests you on how you can cook by yourself, it tests you on how you can lead a team, how you are under pressure, how you communicate with a team and how you talk to the customers because in between each course you need to go out to the restaurant and explain your course and how you’ve done it. I believe that Australia-wide it’s the closest thing to what you’re going to learn and achieve and conquer and tackle head on as a chef in real life.I can’t speak highly enough of it and I advise everyone to go and do it themselves.
How did winning the scholarship, and your experience at The Ledbury, change you?
One year at The Ledbury is worth two years anywhere else. The amount of hours you do there, the amount of hard lessons you learn, the day in day out repetition of doing the same job and getting good at it, it is the epitome of cooking. A lot of my skills I learnt at the Ledbury … learning how to cook a piece of meat, cook an artichoke, make a puree, make a soufflé from scratch, all those basic foundations are what moulded me as a chef.
How important it is to offer these types of opportunities to young chefs?
They were two very hard years of my life … but I’m really grateful that I did it and that all really stemmed from the Brett Graham Scholarship. The more people that we can get over there, the better it is for them. I know how it changed my life. I was changed inside and outside of the kitchen, I believe I came out a better man, rather than just a better cook. I won the scholarship, went overseas, came back and went to Sydney, ran a local restaurant and now I’ve opened a restaurant in the local area and I think that’s what the scholarship is all about, it’s about promoting young chefs, being a positive ambassador for the region, bringing the knowledge back and just bettering the industry itself in our region. I’m proud to be an ambassador for that. ¯
To find out details about the 2020 Hunter Culinary Association Annual Food Fight and other HCA events, visit www.hunterculinary.com.au/.
Story by Michelle Meehan, photos courtesy of Hunter Culinary Association and Jodie Flanagan
Read more in the Winter issue of Hunter&Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.