Page 1

San Pellegrino Young Chef Competition

Reporting from the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition — success, defeat and a taste of what’s to come from the next generation of top chefs.

UP ON THE DAIS UNDER HARSH SPOTLIGHTS, the five judges sat impassively, waiting. On the giant monitor behind them, a live feed broadcasting the final plating moved from the first contender — Greece — as a digital timer superimposed over that team’s home-stretch hustle ticked down the seconds until they would have to lay down tongs, spoons and tweezers and surrender the plated dish for scrutiny.

If all this sounds like something you’ve seen before on television, wait. For while the suspense-generating set-up is familiar, much is different here in the details — and consequences.

The occasion was the grand finale of the fifth biannual S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition, in Milan. The 15 under-30 regional finalists were presenting dishes they had been finessing and honing — but not substantially changing since they first submitted them for consideration two years previous — and then deployed in a run-off competition to win their regional or national finals and earn a stake here. The panel of judges charged with assessing these now-well-rehearsed attempts at culinary perfection was beyond exemplary.

At stage right, there was Riccardo Camanini, whose Lido 84, at Gardone Riviera — on the western (Lombardy) shore of Lake Garda — currently sits at #7 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. To his left sat the estimable Hélène Darroze, whose eponymous London restaurant at the Connaught has three Michelin stars (real ones, unsubsidized by local tourism boards). Then there was Vicky Lau (Tate Dining Room, Hong Kong), Pía Léon (Kjolle, Lima) and Nancy Silverton (Osteria Mozza, L.A.). If Eneko Atxa (Azurmendi, Bilbao) and Julien Royer (Odette, Singapore) had not both cancelled at the last minute, this would have been a 19-Michelin-star panel.

Our role is to help the new generation — to transfer what we know and to learn from them, too,

Darroze explained earlier that morning, as to her motivations for being there, or, more precisely, finding the time for it whilst running four restaurants in three countries.

But in the case of that day’s first entrant, Greek chef Grigoris Kikis (winner of the South-East Europe and Mediterranean heat), it was not clear that this exchange of knowledge was actually going to flow both ways.

“This plate has 22 recipes. This is Greek food, this is me!” the excitable young chef proclaimed of his dish — “The Story of Cod” — as he beamed at the judges. Yet, their responses were muted and expressions stoic as they tasted it.

If I were a young chef watching my dish get sampled by this elevated panel, and then I clocked the striking Pía Léon — named the World’s Best Female Chef in 2021 by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants — leaning into her microphone and looking my way quizzically, there are all sorts of questions I’d excitedly be hoping she would ask next. But the query Léon then posed would definitely not have figured on that list.

“Is this supposed to be a cold dish or a hot dish?” she asked. Ouch.

Next up, Yi Zhang, from Mainland China, with a dish named “A Trip to Guangxi,” intended, she explained hopefully, to evoke the experience of visiting one of that region’s lush bamboo forests.

The competition lasts two days. As an observer, trying to guess at which dishes the judges might privately favour, you have to go with appearance, coherence on the plate, display of skill set, and whether the story the contestants are required to tell to assert the significance of their dish is convincing or interesting.

On which basis we — a hundred-odd journalists and other invested attendees — quit the auditorium at the end of day 1, armed with two assumptions in near consensus. First, that the dish from young Mexican chef Erick Bautista, the winner from Latin America & Caribbean, was the one to beat. And second, that, while competitive, the field displayed thus far was not daunting. In the Canadian camp, contestant Pierre-Olivier Pelletier (from Kebec Klub Privé, in Quebec City) was clearly feeling good, even cocky, about his chances the next day.

Pelletier had won the Canadian field judged by Patrick Kriss, culinary mastermind of the Alo Group, TV chef Christine Cushing, and Suzanne Barr, author of My Ackee Tree: A Chef ’s Memoir of Finding Home in the Kitchen, with his dish of sweet- grass-smoked duck, carrot, cereal and birch syrup.

“I won easily,” he recalled. “I wasn’t stressed. And I had a direct connection with Suzanne — an emotional connection.” So, he asked her to be his chef mentor for the final competition and she readily agreed. In their account, they spent less time finessing his dish and more working on his speech about Canadian and First Nations culinary heritage.

“I’m here for first place, for sure,” Pelletier told me. “But I am also here for Canadian gastronomy, so that every person here knows what it is and who we are.”

The first hitch in his plan emerged that evening, when the local 220-volt current cooked his Canadian-wired blender to a smouldering state of well-done. A much larger one emerged the next morning, in the form of the plate from the Iberian finalist, Portuguese chef Nelson Freitas. His “crispy red mullet, urchin and black garlic” looked like something I’d be very happy with in an excellent European restaurant. And it set the tone for the day, with France, Norway and Singapore quickly demonstrating a combination of imagination, technical wizardry and finesse with which neither Canada nor any single competitor from day 1 appeared even remotely poised to compete.

“I keep telling people I’m glad I won the first time,” Mark Moriarty, the inaugural S.Pellegrino champion, told me after. “Because now, look…”

In 2015, at age 23, Moriarty won the S.Pellegrino international with the then-bold move of a celeriac-based vegetarian dish. International pop-up tours, book deals, TV shows and his own restaurant soon followed. Other winners since have done well enough that when the top three were announced, more than one runner-up left in tears. In the end — okay, at the conclusion of a spectacular dinner catered by Massimo Bottura — Portugal’s Freitas took the prize. Take note of the name. You will surely hear of him again. It’s that lofty a competition.

News and more

Sign up to our newsletter