Preparations heat up for 19th year of Fonterra Proud to Be a Chef

Next year, 2018 will see the 19th iteration of Australia’s number one foodservice mentoring program which gives culinary apprentices from all over the nation the opportunity to be part of a life-changing experience.

Entries closed at the end of October for Fonterra Proud to Be a Chef, which helps create tomorrow’s culinary leaders through the recognition, professional development and ongoing support of today’s apprentices. By the time you read these words the program’s judges will have made their decision and announced the participants for next year.

Fonterra Director of Foodservice Jeff Dhu emphasises: “We are committed to investing in this industry and this program is designed to help nurture the next generation of talented, passionate and hard-working Australian apprentice chefs.”

“While there are many culinary competitions out there, Fonterra Proud to Be a Chef is not about testing or judging young chefs but is a mentoring and development program without peer,” adds Fonterra Foodservice Channel Marketing Manager Alastair McCausland.

As in recent years, the participants for 2018 will take part in an all expenses paid four day mentoring program next February which includes field tours, skills workshops, dining at prominent restaurants and educational classes with industry leaders. At the end of the program one standout apprentice also receives an International Culinary Scholarship tailored to their personal interests and professional goals.

Alastair explains that the program’s genesis was back in the days before celebrity chefs or TV shows like Masterchef – “back before being a chef was perceived as cool, when it was simply a hard slog and chefs were often out back in the kitchen and the unsung heroes of the industry.”

The original concept behind the program was to elevate the position of the professional chef and to encourage more apprentices into the industry. “Of course over the last 19 years the program has continued to grow, and while today chefs enjoy more prominence and there’s a greater public recognition of the work they do, the job remains an incredibly challenging one, with chefs often working long hours for comparatively low remuneration in a high pressure environment. The issue today is not so much how to attract people into becoming apprentice chefs, it’s how do we support and develop them so they will stay there for the long haul.”

Alastair says the focus for the program today is on providing educational tools in the area of personal as well as professional development. “The biggest shift we’ve made with the program over the years is moving it away from being just another culinary competition. There are a lot of cooking competitions out there and they play an important role in professional development, but Proud to Be a Chef is far more than that. It’s a mentoring program – we choose 32 participants each year from the entries submitted from all over the country, and those 32 apprentice chefs are all winners. The program does culminate with the announcement of the International Culinary Scholarship which is partly judged on the basis of a cook-off, so there is that element there, but the mentoring has shifted from just being about kitchen skills to personal development – skills that our participants can apply more broadly in their lives.

“For example, two key areas we’re focusing on next year in the mentoring and masterclasses are how you can build your personal brand through social media to help drive your business success, and improving awareness of mental health issues, which are often exacerbated by stress and overwork – issues which many chefs have to face.

“Proud to Be a Chef today is about investing in our next generation of apprentice chefs, to help give them the resilience they need to cope with the high demands of the job.”

The entries for Proud to Be a Chef 2018 have been judged by Fonterra Executive Chefs Peter Wright and Liam McLaughlin along with Alastair to determine the 32 participants. “We look at the total package – the chefs’ focus is on their entry recipe and the culinary skills it showcases, and they also look at their demonstrated passion for being a chef. I then look broadly at the story behind each individual – what has driven them to apply and who might have the potential to get the most out of participating in the program? Above all we’re looking for apprentice chefs who demonstrate drive and determination and who are willing to throw themselves in to the utmost.”

Culling the applications down to the top 50 or so is relatively easy – more challenging is the collaborative process in which the 32 participants are decided upon. “Last year we expanded to 34 participants because we simply couldn’t eliminate a further two from the list – they all deserved to participate,” Alastair explains. “The reason we go with 32 generally is simply because of the physical space limitations – we would love to have more places, but we’ve found that by keeping the group to this size we can ensure quality one on one sessions with the mentor chefs as well as ample time in the kitchen to learn and apply skills.”

The program features different mentors each year, and the 2018 line-up is Frank Camorra, Chef/Owner of award-winning MoVida Bar de Tapas and Tony Twichett, Executive Chef of Taxi Kitchen, both in Melbourne, as well as Fonterra Executive Chefs Peter Wright and Liam McLaughlin.

Alastair explains how the mentors are chosen: “We try to identify those chefs that we believe can make a great contribution to the program. In the case of Frank and Tony, we know they’re both really passionate about developing young chefs – they want to support the next generation of industry professionals. Last year one of our mentors was Buddha Lo, which was the first time we’d had a mentor who had himself gone through the program as an apprentice. He’s incredibly talented and Proud to Be a Chef has helped him develop his own career, and he’s just taken on the role of chef at Eleven Madison Park in New York City, which has recently been crowned the world’s best restaurant by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants organisation. He wanted to be involved as a mentor and it was terrific for our applicants because they could see his progression from participant to industry leading light at first hand. So we do encourage alumni to reach out to us as potential mentors. More generally we probably say no to more mentors than yes because they have to be the right people with the right experience and the ability to articulate that to our participants. And according to the feedback we get from participants, our track record is very good.”

Certainly it’s not difficult to find Proud to Be a Chef alumni who acknowledge the importance of the program as a turning point in their career. 2017 finalist Katey Shaw of Campbell Catholic Club describes the experience of participating as “absolutely amazing”:

“I was a winner just by being accepted! It was three days of mentoring, three days of camaraderie with other young chefs – we did masterclasses, we attended different events and dinners at night which gave me inspiration for my final competition day. As a chef you’re often stuck in the kitchen, you don’t get to go out to events … but Proud to Be  Chef is a perfect way to get involved, see where your skills sit against your peers and how much you can grow.

“It was truly life-changing – I came back with my eyes wide open and ready to go. I was so eager to jump back into the kitchen, to trial new dishes on the menu and see if they would work … it was brilliant!”

Last year’s winner of the Proud to Be a Chef International Culinary Scholarship, Giles Gabutina, describes the mentoring process as “fantastic”: “It gives the young chefs an opportunity to work with the mentors up close and personal, in their restaurants having food with them and discussing menus. They take so much of their time to mentor and nurture you and show you what goes on behind the scenes and I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”