Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship

Up on the second floor of the West Pender Street campus of Vancouver Community College, in the judging room for the Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship, the contestants’ finished plates were landing on our table at rapid intervals.

The tasting is always blind; plates arrive without introduction or explanation, labelled only with numbers. To help keep things straight, judges always photograph each plate with their mobile phones. Next we scratch out notes furiously. Now and then—okay, fairly often—a judge lets slip a comment that betrays what they are thinking. “Nice sense of colour!”

Or, “Uh-oh. What was this guy thinking?”

Then, after a little poking and prodding for various temperature checks, it’s time to tuck in. Logistics mean that two judges share one plate. So we eat together, taking samples of every item from each inevitably busy plate.

Then, after a little poking and prodding for various temperature checks, it’s time to tuck in. Logistics mean that two judges share one plate. So we eat together, taking samples of every item from each inevitably busy plate.

“That is the best potato I’ve eaten all year.”

“Sure. But it doesn’t belong on the plate. And I seriously don’t get what that is doing there with that.”

That last comment pops up every year. This time, it was in reference to mango-wrapped chilled crab, which was keeping awkward company with pan-roasted veal tenderloin. The answer to the recurring question was the same as always. The two items were on the same plate because—in the Hawksworth black box—they had both been listed as essentials.

This year’s six-item list also included carrots, shishito peppers and lemongrass. Which is only mildly weird as black boxes go, and a lot less so when you understand that it was within the rules—and a lot more logical—to steer that mango away from the savoury course and, instead, have it feature in the dessert. But for the competitors, time is short, the stakes are high, and decisions get rushed.

This was the fourth running of David Hawksworth’s Young Chef Scholarship, a national competition for full-time chefs aged 28 or younger. It is modelled on the UK’s Roux Scholarship, launched by the legendary Albert and Michel Roux back in 1984. Just as Roux winners get to pick any Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe to go and work at for three months, so do Hawksworth’s winners get to choose any place they want to go and work at, anywhere. They also collect $10,000. And they have the privilege of being judged by some of the best in the business.

Our judge’s table this year included chefs Hawksworth, Normand Laprise (Toqué!), Anthony Walsh (Oliver & Bonacini), Justin Leboe (Model Milk, Pigeonhole) and Jackie Ellis (Beaucoup Bakery)— coincidentally, each of them a judge for Canada’s 100 Best. And the presence of those estimable chefs, along with Lee Cooper (L’Abattoir), Kristian Eligh (then of Hawksworth Restaurant Group) and Scott Jaeger (The Pear Tree), assessing performances in the kitchen can make things a little tense.

But in the end what’s exceptional is how many things the young chefs get right. Each year about half the plates feature something genuinely impressive. Year after year, we usually see young competitors eld an impressive savoury plate and follow with a miserable dessert. But one of them always digs deep into his competitive soul, gets both dishes right and makes the judge’s life easy. This year that was Alex Hon, a sous-chef at West Restaurant in Vancouver.

“What’s most important,” I asked him afterwards, “the honour, the cash or getting to go and do a stage at any restaurant you like?”

“Oh, this!” Hon exclaimed emphatically. “Saying I won!”

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