Cook For Your Career WA Cook-off or “When one of my foodie dreams came true”

I was chuffed to be invited to help judge the Cook For Your Career WA Cook-Off at Deco Restaurant at the Raffles Hotel last Saturday. Of course, I also took lots of photographs…

I arrive at 10am as the final preparations are being made to get everything ready for a 10.30am start. Each cooking station is fully equipped with two gas burners, pans, a set of colour-coded chopping boards, bowls, knives and other utensils. Thanks to Hisco, the contestants will get to keep the cooking equipment they’ve used today. Facing the cooking stations is the judges’ table.

The scene is set for the cook-off. Left, cooking stations; right, judges’ table

The two contestants are Aiden Hunter and Tayla Clarkson. They’ve been interviewed and chosen as the top two WA contestants. The winner of today’s cook-off will be named the WA finalist for Cook For Your Career and go through to the next round to compete against the other state finalists. The ultimate winner will receive a full apprenticeship at the participating restaurant in their state.

The cook-off is a Mystery Box challenge. The contestants are each given the same Mystery Box of ingredients. They are all the ingredients for one of the dishes on Deco’s menu. Deco Executive Chef Phil Parsons gives the contestants the choice of recreating his dish or using the ingredients to create their own original dishes.

Mystery Box

The Mystery Box

After a little discussion, the contestants decide to cook Phil’s dish of Amelia Park lamb rack with North African spices, served pink with a tomato, eggplant, chickpea & Medjool date braise, with coriander and dukkah. Phil explains the dish while the contestants take notes.

They are given half an hour to talk with Phil, ask any questions and devise their cooking plans. After that, they have 45 minutes to cook.

Chef Phil briefs the contestants, Aiden and Tayla

Besides Phil and me, the other judge is Patrick O’Brien. Originally from Dublin, Ireland (his lilting brogue is a dead giveaway), Patrick is Executive Director at the West Coast Institute of Training’s Academy of Hospitality, Tourism& Trades in Joondalup. He is dedicated to training and mentoring aspiring chefs, and is the manager of the Australian National Culinary Youth Team which will compete at this year’s Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany. I feel honoured to be in such distinguished company.

Phil Parsons and Patrick O'Brien

Chefs and fellow judges Phil Parsons and Patrick O’Brien discuss the cook-off

The contestants’ families have come along to cheer them on. I can tell they’re nervous too, but they’re also bursting with pride. Also in attendance are people from the hospitality industry, sponsors and the media. Coffee, tea, juice, soft drinks (and a little later, wine) and a selection of Blue Cow cheeses are available for the audience to enjoy as they watch the cook-off.

Cheese and crackers for the onlookers

Cheese and crackers for the onlookers

The cooking begins!

The cooking begins!

The chefs keep a watchful eye on the contestants and are on hand to offer assistance or advice as needed. But as I observe and take photographs, it’s clear that the contestants are doing the cooking with minimal help.

Chef Patrick O'Brien watches as Tayla chops chillies

Chef Patrick O’Brien watches as Tayla chops chillies

Chef Phil advises Aiden on temperature control of his pans

Chef Phil advises Aiden on temperature control of his pans

Tayla starts on the lamb rack first, brushing it with honey before sprinkling on the North African spices.

Tayla starts by preparing the lamb

Tayla starts by preparing the lamb

Aiden gets to work chopping up all the vegetables, chilli, garlic, onion and ginger for the tomato, eggplant, chickpea and Medjool date braise.

Aiden starts with his vegetable braise

Aiden starts with his vegetable braise

As soon as first lamb cutlets, garlic and onion start to sizzle in their pans, the room is filled with mouthwatering aromas. For those of us watching the cooking, it’s glorious and torturous at the same time.

The contestants cooking

The contestants cooking

Soon there’s twenty minutes left… then only five minutes. Time to plate up and add those finishing touches.

A last round of seasoning before plating

A last round of seasoning before plating

A last round of seasoning before plating

A last round of seasoning before plating

The finished dishes look fantastic. After a round of photographs, I scramble to join the chefs at the judges’ table as we get ready to taste the dishes.

The finished dishes, each with a lamb cutlet per judge

The finished dishes, each with a lamb cutlet per judge

Here we are, the three judges in action. I’m the one the big grin, momentarily forgetting my stern judge’s poker-face! The audience looks on enviously as we taste the dishes we’ve all been drooling over.

The judges in action – TFP, Phil and Patrick

It’s always been one of my dreams to be a judge at a cooking/food-related competition, so this is a huge thrill for me. Last year, I was so excited when I was invited to be a judge for the banana bread bake-off at the Beaufort Street Festival but was forced to decline as I would be away in Sydney at the time.

It feels strange sitting on display at the judges’ table, with everyone scrutinizing our every move, trying to interpret our facial expressions! We taste each dish and discuss the presentation, flavours and how well the meat’s been cooked. Then we score the dishes and rate the contestants’ performance in their ‘kitchens’.

I must confess that I’d happily finish off both plates of food but I follow the lead of my fellow judges – clearly, the food judging etiquette is to eat a few mouthfuls of each dish, just enough for assessment. I wonder if anyone in the audience has noticed the great reluctance with which I put my knife and fork down!

Aiden and Tayla have both done a fantastic job, but only one can win. Congratulations, Tayla!

The winning dish by Tayla Clarkson

I’ve had a great time at the cook-off. I didn’t manage to eat any cheese (too busy taking photographs) – but I got to taste that wonderful lamb!

Both contestants really impressed me. They did brilliantly under pressure – cooking a dish they’d never seen or tasted before, in an unfamiliar kitchen setup in front of an audience with two chefs circling and me hovering and constantly taking pictures.

Win a foodie experience in Melbourne – vote for your favourite contestant

The next phase of Cook For Your Career is over to you!

Check out all the state finalists’ videos on the Cook For Your Career website and vote for your favourite contestant – just for voting, you could win a foodie experience in Melbourne.

The top two contestants will compete in a grand finale cook-off at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival for the prize of a full chef apprenticeship at one of Australia’s top restaurants.

More on Cook For Your Career

I’m stoked that one of my foodie dreams came true last weekend. What about you? What’s the foodie dream you hope to realise someday?

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