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Hot Kitchens with Cool Chefs




It was with great pleasure that I accepted an invitation to be on the Judging Panel for the IGCAT European Young Chef 2023 last autumn, hosted by European Region of Gastronomy 2023, Hautes-de-France. With a French pen pal since the year dot, a certain level of understanding French and an enthusiasm for good food, France has always been a desirable destination: from a Grenoble vacation as a child, later hurtling down snowy slopes at Val d’Isere, strolling along the waterfront in Villefranche-sur-Mer and people watching from a Parisian café. What’s not to love? But I had never been to Hautes-de-France, a fascinating region, steeped on the one hand with an industrial past, and on the other, a northern styled Côte d’Azure playground for the rich and famous with glorious architecture to match.


Unfortunately for the organisers, the weather was savage with flood water and storms but they bravely soldiered on and everything run smoothly although it can’t have been easy for them. Electric trains stopped in their tracks and roads were under water. Indeed the water was several metres deep in La Grenouillere, restaurant of Michelin-starred Chef Alexandre Gauthier (pictured), Chair of the international jury of experts and official Ambassador of Hauts-de-France, European Region of Gastronomy awarded 2023.Somehow they managed to not only guide us judges to our destination but also nine young chef finalists, their mentors and giant packing cases of ingredients. IGCAT too pulled off a logistical feat, co-ordinating and organising, filming and editing, collating our feedback and managing media. Hats off to all who made this such a successful and heart-warming event.


As you can gather, to say I was impressed is an understatement. Having previously judged culinary competitions, I had certain expectations, all of which were exceeded. The pre-event organisation was immaculate with information on travel arrangements - and weather updates - biographies of entrants, clear communication lines and prompt responses. A private judges’ WhatsApp enabled us all to keep in touch as we neared our destination from the four points of the compass. The welcome dinner on the first evening at Le Picardy was filled with sharing our en route travel experiences, savouring marvellous food and watching movie shorts of each contestant over coffee. Each video was but a few minutes long yet perfectly encapsulated the who, where and why from each country: expressing the passion of the chef, the food culture of the region and the producers they were showcasing in their dishes.



Each entrant had two dishes to present over two days, a format I admired as it reflects regional food so strongly, embracing it whilst looking to the future. Day 1 was a traditional dish of their choice - perhaps a childhood memory, a grandmother’s favourite or from a well-worn tome. Often rustic in nature and packed with flavours, the young chefs described the growing/harvesting/fishing tradition/preparation of the ingredients and how they were cooked. For Day 2, they had to take the same basic dish and give it their own “stamp.” An opportunity to express themselves and their region with the best of the past and a twist of their own, letting their imagination and our taste buds run riot. Their enthusiasm, knowledge and skills encompassed an incredible range of dishes, as we “virtually” visited the far corners of Europe through gastronomy from Menorca to Norway, Denmark to Slovenia, Finland to Greece.


The comprehensive IGCAT Criteria not only covers the context of their dishes but also judges elements related to sustainability and food waste, use of plastics and conservation. Many Slow Food principles are encapsulated, with professionals in the kitchen to weigh their waste and inspect their bins! From start to finish the ethical nature and genuine provenance of the foods were tested in addition to the final taste.



The venue for this prestigious event was Lycée Hôtelier du Touquet in Le Touquet, an impressive Hotel School. At lunchtime (just how did we manage lunch?) the students cooked and served us delightful dishes of Hautes-des-France including fresh seafood and a continuous supply of handmade patisserie (pictured). The smart kitchens were essential for the event’s success, with each young chef having a generous work station and adequate room for the film crew and judges to move freely with minimum disruption.

 

When ready - the entrants starting at scheduled intervals - each participant approached the Judging Panel and presented their dish for tasting where the next phase of marking commenced. As previously mentioned, each chef had a mentor who had been supporting them in their homeland with guidance and feedback on their culinary path. Now they had to remain with the audience, their work complete and time to let their students fly the nest. Some entrants had parents and friends to cheer them on as they emerged from the kitchen swing door, carrying their dish on high. Over the three days it was fascinating to meet everyone and hear about their homeland, albeit, as judges, we had to be on our toes not to divulge anything nor dally too long with one country.


The contestants’ dishes were phenomenal in every way and we had our work cut out judging them against all the criteria. The eventual winners were outstanding and we look forward to following their future careers, for hospitality is what you make of it and it can be one of the most wonderful paths to follow.

 

The Winner of the European Young Chef Award 2023 was Boštjan Volk from Slovenia who presented the dish Honey Hug, Boštjan’s message about the importance of bees and honey was moving, his presentation and plating beautiful and he had not one drop of food waste. He had created an awesome medley of honey-inspired delights.(pictured below)

 

Second place was awarded to Cristina Pons from Menorca 2022 with her dish Records (Memories), an innovative interpretation of the traditional recipe Calamars plens. The terra cotta dish (pictured above) tasted sublime and showed passion and skill in every detail.

 

Third prize went to Sander Mollerup from Central Denmark and his dish The Danish West Coast, a delicate and original piece of art that took them to the sea. [Excerpts from IGCAT website].


The celebratory Awards Dinner was rounded off with regional folk dancing – a delight to watch and some guests joined in. There was a regional gastronomy tour planned for the following day but alas I had to start my journey homewards where commitments called. Hopefully there will be another opportunity to savour the delights of Hautes-de-France.

 

My thanks to IGCAT, our French hosts, all who made it possible, the students and their mentors, fellow judges I had the privilege to meet and I look forward to our paths crossing again. Thanks also to the fabulous hotels and other restaurants that welcomed us us, linked below among a medley of happy memories. Main photo in kitchen ©️IGCAT

THIS IGCAT LINK shows the entrants, winners, Judging Panel and the movie

Do take a look although you had better eat first as it will make you very hungry!


PHOTO GALLERY

The Winner Boštjan Volk pictured with Chef Alexandre Gauthier & Dr Diane Dodd, President IGCAT





We had a delightful stay with wonderful breakfasts at Le Manoir Hôtel



The second evening we had a charming meal at Le Bouillon


... and finally



the Awards Dinner at the splendid Grand Hôtel where the folk dancers entertained us.

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