Winning Titles, Gaining Connections at The Grand Finale of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition 2019-21

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Young Chefs from the Africa & Middle East region brought home two of the four global titles awarded at the Grand Finale of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition 2019-21 in Milan on 30th October. 

South Africa, 09 November 2021 When the winners were announced at the long-awaited Grand Finale of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition 2019-21, two of the chefs from Africa & Middle East won in the categories of S.Pellegrino Award for Social Responsibility & Acqua Panna Award for Connection in Gastronomy, the whole team celebrated with great jubilation. “To have two winners from our region is spectacular,” says Ania Odyniecka, National Sales and Marketing Manager for S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna in South Africa, “it highlights that we’ve got an incredibly strong and culturally diverse region. I’m very proud of them, they did a phenomenal job.”

Winners

Callan Austin from South Africa won the S.Pellegrino Award for Social Responsibility with his dish ‘The Ghost Net’, a complex seafood dish highlighting the pollution plight of our oceans. “It’s been a privilege to be a part of such an internationally recognised competition,” he says. “Being picked from a group of incredibly talented chefs with forward thinking ideas on sustainability is a huge feather in my cap and a testament to South Africans that share the same vision. I hope to share my story back home, encouraging chefs and the public to be more socially responsible.”

Elissa Abou Tasse from Lebanon won the Acqua Panna Award for Connection in Gastronomy with her dish ‘Adam’s Garden’ using almost forgotten local ingredients and cooking over fire. She could not attend the Grand Finale in person due to travel restrictions and watched the live stream at home. “It’s the olive harvest in Lebanon and all my family from abroad came to help. We were having dinner together when my award was announced. I screamed with joy – we made so much noise that the Lebanese Red Cross came, thinking something tragic was happening!” She continues, “The Acqua Panna award for connection in gastronomy has been a defining moment in my career. Using my creativity on my dish led me to focus on research and development, which I’m now doing in my country at Kanz Kitchen. Being part of the competition has accelerated my career. I’m proud to be honoured – as a Lebanese woman chef working on a Levantine dish it gives the youth of my country much needed hope.” 

The cook-off

Paul Prinsloo was among the ten global finalists competing in a 5 hour cook off for the grand title of S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Award 2019-21. “The day was a bit tougher than I would have liked, there were some technical difficulties that were out of my hands,” he says. “At the end of the day it’s handling it and how you finish. I still managed to get all ten of my dishes out looking and tasting beautiful. I had some really good feedback.” 

The mentors played an important role in guiding and inspiring the young chefs. Paul’s mentor chef Gregory Czarnecki was by his side throughout the weeks of preparation and during the cook-off. He says, “After seeing the calibre of dishes delivered during the competition, it’s a great feeling to know that the future of gastronomy is in good hands. The whole event was truly magical and really a fantastic platform for all young chefs from around the world to connect. Sanpellegrino honoured them by giving them such an opportunity.”

Connection 

The question often asked – what is the prize for winning the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Award?. “The focus of the competition is more about networking and creating industry connections at the event.” says Ania. “This experience provides opportunities for the chefs that they can build on, as also highlighted by previous winners who spoke at the Brain Food forum, sharing their journeys after competing in earlier editions, it was really wonderful to hear,” 

Our young chefs discovered this for themselves. Paul says, “The experience I gained from the competition was much more valuable than winning the title. The number of friends I made and new people I met was amazing. One of the mentors was Julien Royer of Singapore Michelin star restaurant, Odette. To be told by a highly respected chef, ‘Whenever you’re in Singapore my door is always open for you,’ these are opportunities you don’t get anywhere else in your life.”

Callan also named these networking opportunities as a highlight, “Connections with the other young chefs and listening to their thoughts about our industry was inspiring. And I got to discuss important topics with some of my chef idols, such as Massimo Bottura, Clare Smyth and Virgilio Martinez.” 

Ania adds, “This networking gives the young chefs so many opportunities to further their careers and gain those friendships. With these connections they could then host future pop-up restaurants as they travel the world and experience different countries’ cultures and cuisines.”

Workshops and learning opportunities

The four-day programme added to the overall learning experience, with various workshops followed by the Brain Food forum led by Massimo Bottura. “The Brain Food Forum gave us an insight to what the great chefs are thinking,” says Marcus Gericke, finalist for the Fine Dining Lovers’ Food for Thought award. “We also learned a lot from our workshop on social media about how to put our profiles to the forefront and techniques to improve our social presence.”

Callan took part in a workshop on sustainability led by Food Made Good, which equipped them with new insights, he says, “Lucia Perasso taught us how to evaluate any dish and give it a sustainability score. It was a real eye opener to how quickly a chef can make small mistakes on the path to sustainability.”

What’s next for our four young chefs

Callan plans to use his win to do good back home. “Coming back to South Africa with this award gives me the tools necessary to push the sustainability movement in our country. With backing from a renowned international organisation, I’ll be able to execute my ideas much quicker. I don’t see this as a win for Callan Austin as much as a win for South Africa.”

Elissa’s next project is developing a Lebanese encyclopaedia of ancient fermentation and preserving techniques. “I want to put Lebanese products on the world map – we have such a rich nature of products and flavours.” 

Marcus is inspired for another go, in the hope of winning the next S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Award title – “Being a finalist makes me want to work harder, so for me it’s back to the drawing board, coming up with a new idea and concept for the next edition of competition.”

Paul would like to use all the experience and feedback he’s gained from participating in the last two competitions to mentor the next generation of young chefs entering S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition, “I would definitely suggest to any young chef to just try it. See where you get. If you win or don’t win, it’s the people you meet. It’s so awesome to grow in the industry alongside each other.”

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