From the judges table: Christine Manfield & what she’s looking for

written by Dominic Rolfe

While she’s recognised as one of the country’s best chefs and restaurateurs, Christine Manfield admits she would never have entered the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence Awards. “I had a mid-life crisis before I even started cooking,” she laughs. “I was too old to enter any competition like this!”

But the young restaurateurs she now judges should be grateful for Manfield’s life experience before she decided to professionally rattle the pans. “Being a teacher before I became a cook means that educating the young restaurateurs is almost second nature to me,” she says. “The program is all about educating and nourishing the next generation. And I’m really interested in the people that live and breathe the pressures of the business.”

The Young Restaurateurs program is the only one of its kind in Australia and provides a chance for owners of businesses, who need to have owned and operated their restaurants for at least two years and be under 35 years of age, to get feedback from some of the industry’s leaders. “Mixing with their peers in a forum where they can talk through business in a non-threatening environment is invaluable,” says Manfield. “There’s a strong camaraderie in our business and that’s one of the things that’s really great about it.”

It’s also an industry that caters to different ways of structuring a food business. Some, like Manfield, decided to concentrate on one operation. Others take on a range of different ventures. “I’m not an entrepreneur,” she says, “but people like Neil Perry and Guillaume Brahimi have a number of businesses and they’ve done it very successfully. There are role models for everyone and I think that’s really important.”

Irrespective of the way the participants have structured their restaurants, Manfield and her fellow judges don’t only consider the success of a business when deciding on the finalists and the eventual winner. “While we look at their track record,” says Manfield, “we also see how they describe their five year goals, what the award would mean to them and how it would enrich their business and profile. And we get them to talk as much about themselves but not in an egotistical way.”

And there is one other area, however, that is critical to the judging. “One of the key things I’m looking for,” she says, “is how effective they are as a leader in their business and what they do to empower and nourish their staff. A good manager has to be able to delegate and to trust their staff. Often they’re hard lessons to learn.”

After two months of reading, digesting and evaluating the hefty submissions that the entrants have provided, the judges then spend a day interviewing each finalist. They also do a group lunch to see how the entrants’ social skills stack up. It’s a gruelling process but one that Manfield believes gives them a great handle on the merits of each individual. The judges also do a little background evaluation of their own. “You can tell a lot from the strength of writing and their ability to hold their own at an interview,” she says, “but we do a fair bit of homework and snooping around!”

Regardless of who is crowned Young Restaurateur of the Year, Manfield believes that the mere experience of sitting down and doing the submission can be an extremely useful way of reflecting on a business. “The questions make you take stock,” she says, “Which I think is good for the entrants. You can get so wrapped up in the business that you forget about the bigger questions but this forces you to write down a lot of stuff you need to think about. There are a lot of great cooks but it’s an entirely different skill to be a great businessperson.”

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