As the country’s top culinary teams gathered in Durban for the industry’s most anticipated awards ceremony on Wednesday, the Unilever Food Solutions Chef of the Year 2017, you could almost slice the tension with a knife.
The cooks brought their A-game and the judges agreed that year-on-year, the quality emerging from kitchens around the country was incredible.
When you are competing for prize money of R110000, you can expect the temperatures to rise as hopefuls chopped, sliced, diced and plated their hearts out for a place among the best.
Cape Town took top honours with the Twelve Apostles Hotel winning the Team of 4 round, and the senior chef award went to Jean-Pierre De la Motte from The Lord Charles hotel.
The junior chef honour went to the talented Terror Lekopa from the Saxon Hotel, Villas & Spa in Johannesburg.
With a 40-year heritage of providing the culinary industry with game-changing chefs, the finals didn’t disappoint.
Junior and senior finalists were required to prepare a three-course menu to serve three people, using a vast communal table of premium-quality fish and meat products.
This included seasonal fruit and vegetables, a minimum of 10 compulsory Unilever Food Solutions products, as well as a pantry of other ingredients.
The Team of 4 finalists prepared a three-course menu for eight people, including wine pairing and themed table décor. Each dish was judged on its preparation, presentation and taste.
Winning senior chef De la Motte had been a novice to the competition and was stunned that he walked away with the most coveted title.
Trained under Chef Craig Cormack, De la Motte was hyped and ready at the prospects of his future in the industry.
“It is a totally unexpected win. In preparation I did a lot of research. I looked into past winners, the style of the competition and what was expected of the competitors," De la Motte said.
"I researched the Unilever products and I practised a menu that I knew I would be able to alter depending on the mystery ingredients. I stuck to my game plan and I am so stoked with the result."
The junior chefs were highly commended for their exceptional food, considering how new they are to the industry. It was a great indication of the culinary talent that South Africa is producing at entry level.
Head judge Garth Shnier, who is an internationally recognised judge and consultant chef, said the Chef of the Year set the bar higher and higher each year, staging what was truly an exceptional example of a competition.
“We saw exceptional modern presentation in the junior dishes, incorporating linear presentation, clean lines and dishes cooked to near perfection," said Schnier.
"Today, everything was well-rounded on the starters and mains and the quality was at a level far above the expectation of juniors, which bodes well for South Africa’s future as a global tourist destination.
"The senior category was extremely closely contested, with the kitchen scores separating the top three. The Team of 4 displayed five-stars in food, presentation and service, which exemplifies the nature of this category."
The winners won a total of R110000 in prize money, with a bonus for the junior Chef of the Year - a trip to Nice on the Côte d’Azur in France, to apprentice with Chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen in his one Michelin-star restaurant Jan - in addition to a R10000 prize.