Durban - For the second year running a young Durban chef from the Beverly hills Hotel has scooped the country's prestigious Distell Hotel Challenge, the awards being announced at a gala dinner in cape Town last weekend
For 22-year-old Phoenix resident Eugene Ramcharan it was completely unexpected but the double shifts and experimenting with recipes over the last nine months have been worth it. "The hard work does pay off," he says.
The competition has been dubbed the Oscars of the South African hospitality industry. Each participating hotel nominates a young candidate chef and wine steward into the competition. And there are 18 four-and five-star hotels entered - five from the Tsogo Sun group which includes the Beverly Hills. The young chefs then had to present a menu using sponsor's products - this year Woodview Wagyu beef and Lancewood Cheese - and then had to prepare the meal in three hours and present it before a panel of judges - all industry experts.
Then starts a nine month process which involves seminars and mentorship from established chefs, experimenting with dishes in the kitchen and even a dry run fine dining evening at the hotel where guests could give their feedback.
Ramcharan says cooking has always been a passion. "My roots are in the kitchen," he says. "I was involved from a young age. My mother and grandmother are good cooks. Even my dad is a good cook. He would often make supper for us."
"At about 10 I started with the breakfast stuff, and slowly progressed to trying bold new recipes. It is a natural passion he says.
And staright out of school he enrolled in the Capsicum culinary school in Umhlanga and excelled there landing an internship at the five-star Beverly Hills. He's part of the team that works under exec sous chef Sandi Richmond at the hotels prestige Sugar Club restaurant.
For a starter, Ramcharan produced beef brisket and herb crusted kingklip, with roasted garlic, cream cheese and parsnip mousse, carrot and citrus mousse, pickled baby radishes and candy stripe beetroots, passion fruit gel and a veloute. Mains was beef short rib and beef cheek ragout served with jewelled sweet potato mousse, honey glazed rainbow carrots, snap peas, charred sweetcorn segments and jus filled baby onion cups. Ramcharan said he enjoyed playing with the different cuts of beef, and served the beef cheek ragout in a scooped out marrow bone.
"I wanted to show I could use beef in as many ways as possible. I played with new ideas," he says of his starter pairing beef with fish,"It was a bold move but all liked it. it was the one recipe we didn't tweek too much."
His dessert for which he praises the hotel's pastry chef Joanita Venter for helping him around the cold kitchen was a delectable looking dark chocolate and orange Delice with an almond brandy snap, macerated strawberries, cognac cream and a mixed berry gel paired with a Cognac.
Ramcharan says his ulitmate goal is to own his own restaurant. "To produce your own food on your own plate," he says, but in the mean time he's committed to honing his skills and making the most of the opportunity. "I'm going to take the bull by the horns," he assures me.
He also believes food culture in Durban is growing and is often "underlooked". "Durban has some unique food influences. What chef doesn't love to play around with spices," he says.
And when he's not working double shifts, you'll find him in the gym, or the movies where he confesses to mixing his popcorn with his chocolate. And for a midnight snack, there's nothing better than a grilled cheese sandwich. "the perfect comfort food," he says.
Ramcharan makes it two in a row for the Beverly Hills. Last year young chef Rucita Naidoo won the Distell Challenge.
He wins a three-week visit to Dubai with The Marriott Ritz-Carlton Hotel and their flagship JW Marriott Marquis where he will experience fine dining and large scale catering.
Hotel general manager, John de Canha was all praise for Ramcharan: ‘The mentorship programme is extremely powerful and Eugene has worked tirelessly with both our executive chef Tony Kocke and Richmond. This dedication, focus and passion has paid off.’’