Josh Utah Green's starter dish. Chocolate fondant, with an orange mousse, orange crumb, berries and orange, and a red wine and berry sauce. Picture by P. Royal

The heat was on at the Unilever kitchens on Wednesday as chefs went head-to-head to be crowned Unilever Food Solutions Chef of the Year winners.

This competition is South Africa’s oldest culinary competition, which focuses on recognising and rewarding the best culinary talent SA has to offer.

The winners were later announced at a formal event which was held at the Unilever Food Solutions offices in La Lucia, Umhlanga. 

Walking home with the title of Senior Chef of The Year was Juan Neethling from Southern Sun Waterfront in Cape Town whilst the Junior Chef of The Year title went to Josh Utah Green from 1000 Hills Chef School in Durban.  

The senior category was open to chefs 25 years and older with a minimum of 5 years’ experience, while the junior category comprised chefs aged 18 – 25 years, with less than 5 years’ experience.

From left: Junior Chef of The Year winner, Josh Utah Green and Senior Chef of The Year winner, Juan Neethling. Picture: Sibonelo Ngcobo/ ANA

Contestants in both categories were required to prepare a three-course menu to serve three judges using the produce from a vast communal table, filled with premium quality fish, meat, and seasonal fruit and vegetables. Each finalist was expected to use a minimum of 10 compulsory Unilever Food Solutions products.

Although the dishes of all 6 finalists were exceptional in the senior category, it was Juan Neethling’s starter of seared tuna, main of grilled ostrich fillet and dessert of passion fruit parfait that came out tops.

Neethling who walked away with R15 000 in prize money said he can’t believe it.  

 “I am so happy to represent my company, and to win this for Cape Town! I think I won because I followed my heart. Everyone gives advice on what you should do, but I stuck to my plan. I did me, and I think that’s what got me across the line,” he said.

Green on the other side who prepared a pan-seared salmon as a starter, lamb loin as a main and a chocolate fondant for dessert came out victorious.

“Today marked the anniversary of my late mom’s death. I remember watching the first ever season of Australian Masterchef with her, and we loved this one contestant whose signature dish was chocolate fondant. I made a fondant tonight in honour of my mom, and it feels amazing to win the title” he said.

From left: Unilever Food Solutions Executive Chef, Craig Elliot, Rise Up winner, Tapiwa Munyawiri and Unilever Food Food Solutions Managing Director, Remco Bol. Picture by P. Royal

Green received R10 000 in prize money as well as a week’s personal training with Chef Ash Heeger at her new restaurant, Riverine Rabbit in Cape Town.

Laduma Caterers from Cape Town won the Team of Four category.

The Team of 4 category was open to chefs from the catering industry only and was aimed at recognising the efforts of hard-working and skilled members of the kitchen support team, who are often not given credit for the roles they play.

For the High Tea category, Team Oyster Box, Shaylan Pillay and Kris Maslamoney, from Durban went home as winners while finally, Tapiwa Munyawiri  from Johannesburg won the Rise Up category.

Senior judge, Jackie Cameron said it was an exceptional day.

“Every year, the competition just gets stronger and stronger. The talent I saw today blew me away. It’s really exciting to see what we as a country can offer, and to see future stars start to shine. The high standards showcased today prove that South African chefs can compete on a global level. Well done to all the competitors” she said.