Luke Mangan on young chefs & what the judges are looking for

written by Dominic Rolf.

There’s nothing wrong with being the next celebrity chef. Which, coming from Luke Mangan, is reassuring. But, he cautions, just don’t think that the first step in a chef’s career begins with a visit to the make-up department and the green room for an appearance on morning television. “It’s about getting the foundations of a young chef set up,” he says, “about doing all the steps first.”

In a curiously circular way, Mangan set up the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence Awards ten years ago in response to the media coverage that he and his team were receiving for his launchpad restaurant Salt. He now owns and operates ten bars and restaurants in five countries, including glass brasserie at the Sydney Hilton, as well as Salt grill onboard three P&O cruise liners.

But back in 2005, there were just a handful of hot Sydney restaurants – think Rockpool, Tetsuyas – and, unlike today, the chefs were still cloistered in the kitchen. “I was lucky enough to be in the media but I had a lot of friends who were great chefs but were struggling away and getting nowhere,” he says, “and the award was started to help give those guys some recognition. It also gave them the opportunity to get mentoring from top chefs in the programme, if they want to ask about the business or anything.”

“We’re looking for someone who can represent not only young Australian talent and the industry but also their future.”

While the way food is prepared has changed in the past decade, the attributes Mangan and his fellow judges are looking for in a young chef hasn’t. “We look for someone where we can see the passion coming through,” he says, “where we can see whether they want to get somewhere, be somewhere. And not only do they have to be passionate, they have to be creative and have a good sense of taste and presentation as well. It’s the whole package.” The package is not just about passion, it’s also about being confident, but not over confident. “We’re looking for someone who can represent not only young Australian talent and the industry but also their future.”

The first cull is straightforward. Misspelt words or missing steps in an applicant’s own, original recipe mean a quick exit from the programme. “And the dish needs to be balanced,” says Mangan, “it just can’t be gels and foams on a plate. It’s good to have veggies and protein and a nice balance. What we’re trying to see is the skill and technique from this person which also includes their food philosophy.”

Over the years, cooking techniques may have shifted, especially with more molecular techniques being incorporated. However, the constantly changing panel of judges mean applicants are not only being reviewed with fresh eyes but also by those from the full spectrum of food preparation. “There’s Peter Gilmore with the molecular style, Peter Doyle with his classic French style and Guy Grossi with his Italian influences,” says Mangan, “What we’re wanting to see is what the entrants think cooking is about today. We’re after real food, cooked well and seasoned well. And you can do that with any form of cooking. It’s also about where they see themselves in the future, and how they are going to get there”

The other ingredient that helps chefs in the programme rise to the top is a good dash of the jitters. “It’s good to see young people with a good head on their shoulders and some good nervous energy,” says Mangan, “You see the potential that they have and they mightn’t get it perfect with all three dishes but when you see them get it right with one or two dishes, it’s pretty exciting. It’s about recognising talent, and their future in this industry.”

It’s about getting young chefs keen to practice their craft and show what they potentially can do.  Appetite for Excellence helps chefs expand their professional network, further their skills by providing workshops and help them individually grow their career and stay in the industry.

Entries to young chef close on 03 April 2017.

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