S.Pellegrino’s worldwide quest for the next culinary star begins anew—and two Singapore-based chefs recall their experiences.

The global search for the best young chef in the world is back, with the third edition of the prestigious S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2017. The competition, which takes place in a span of 18 months, scours 21 geographical regions and accepts applications in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French and Italian.

The competition is set to culminate in an intense two-day cooking challenge in Milan in 2018—in front of a jury that’s composed of seven of the world’s most respected master chefs.

Two chefs who have already been there and done that—Kirk Westaway, the chef de cuisine at Jaan in Swissôtel The Stamford and the Southeast Asia winner of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2015, and Odette’s chef-owner Julien Royer, who was part of the jury panel for Northeast Asia in 2016—share their experiences on the fierce competition.

Kirk, how did it feel to be part of S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2015, representing and ultimately winning for Southeast Asia?
Kirk Westaway
Incredible—being part of the competition was the benchmark of my career. It was a real privilege for me and I’m thrilled to have won the Southeast Asian leg of such a prestigious competition. I expected the competition to be tough. Going in to cook 310 portions of my dish, I knew I had to be focused from the minute I stepped foot into the kitchen. I was impressed by how the entire place was set up, in a warehouse that had been converted into individual kitchens for each chef.

As part of the jury panel in 2016, what was the overall experience like for you, Julien?
Julien Royer
It was a real honour for me to serve on the jury at such an exciting milestone in our contestants’ careers. I’m only slightly above the qualifying age, so I feel very fortunate to be selected as a judge.

Kirk, tell us about the most gratifying part of the whole experience:
For me, it was the build-up to the finals. Walking into the kitchen and seeing how everyone had their head in the game with the same end goal in mind was really serious. The biggest takeaway from the competition was the friends I made. I invited Mark Moriarty, winner of the competition, to Jaan to prepare a four-hands dinner for the World Gourmet Summit this year. I also dined at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Italy with fellow chef Peter Gunn while we were there.

Julien, were there things that exceeded your expectations or perhaps could have been done differently?
All 10 semi-finalists displayed an incredible amount of skill and potential. The dishes presented were interesting, but I felt that that some dishes were more focused on the packaging and story. I believe that as a chef, the most important objective should be to honour the taste and integrity of ingredients—and make them shine.

Among the young chefs’ offerings, which ones were you most excited to see, Julien?
Apart from the winning dish, the Modern Perception of the Century Egg by Justin Mauté and the 10 Vegetables Terrine by Gee Wong caught my attention. Heejoong Kim’s duck steak with forest ash and red vinegar sauce was also outstanding. These dishes featured clever use of ingredients and were innovative.

Julien, what advice would you give to inspire future young chefs?
Develop a mastery of flavour, hone your cooking techniques and build your own culinary personality. Aim to be able to share and teach, and always remember the importance of teamwork. Creating a dining experience is a collective effort—so you have to recognise, value and respect everyone who comes your way. Most importantly, love what you do and believe in your work and endeavor to deliver this consistently.

How about you, Kirk?
Practice and tweak. You have a good dish in front of you, but it can be better. Only listen to opinions that you agree with and cook for yourself—never for glory.

Julien, what do you think is the most challenging part of the competition as a contestant and as a juror?
As a contestant, it would probably be finding a balance between honouring the produce and creating an incredible story. It’s also important to be careful about knowing when to use classic techniques and how far one should push in terms of innovation. As a juror, it’s important to understand and appreciate each dish in totality, and not be influenced by a single element of the dish.

What about you, Kirk? What did you find most challenging?
The stress during the competition. For 10 hours, I never moved from my spot in the kitchen. Everyone was at their stations, focused and with one thing on their mind—to win.

Applications are from 1 February to 30 April. Please visit sanpellegrino.com for more information.

Photos courtesy of S.Pellegrino