Three of New Zealand’s most promising young chefs have been working alongside their culinary idols as part of Ōra King Salmon’s Next Generation (Next Gen) mentoring programme, an experience which will be invaluable for their careers. Now in its third year, this unique mentoring scheme has given these aspiring chefs the rare opportunity to benefit from the skills and experience of some of New Zealand’s most celebrated chefs.

Alexis Vienot, a chef de partie at Wellington Copthorne Hotel’s One80 Restaurant, worked with Shaun Tyagi of Auckland’s Harbourside Ocean Bar Grill. Alex Southwick, a third-year apprentice chef at SKYCITY’s The Sugar Club, was paired with Shaun Clouston of Wellington’s Logan Brown. Karen (Qinmo) Guo, a commis chef at Harbourside Ocean Bar Grill, worked alongside Ben Batterbury of True South Dining Room in Queenstown.

All three were encouraged by past and present mentors to enter the competition. “I’m originally from France and hadn’t heard about the Ōra King brand before I arrived in New Zealand three years ago,” said Vienot. “My head chef, Chetan Pangam at Copthorne Hotel Wellington, suggested I apply for the Next Gen programme, so I did.” Guo was encouraged to enter by someone with a firm link to the competition – Shaun Tyagi, her head chef at Harbourside Ocean Bar Grill – while Southwick was sent a link through Facebook by an old mentor.

Each young chef took away key learnings from their experience. Foraging was a revelation for Southwick after being exposed to the way in which Logan Brown forages all of their garnishes. In a similar vein, Guo was inspired by getting close to nature. “I was amazed that when we wanted something for a dish, we could just go and pick it from the trees,” she said. “The whole ‘eco-friendly’ concept and practice in Queenstown has made me think twice about daily life and work.” Vienot was inspired by the sushi and sashimi section at harbourside. “

Practical skills were also a focus, with Guo finally getting the chance to master spherification, while Southwick learnt to keep it simple and not rely on fancy equipment. “It showed me that you can create good food with simple ingredients cooked well. “I really love all that kind of food and it really inspired me to try that one day.”

“I’ve learned new ways of thinking,” said Guo. “As a junior chef just out of school and dipping my feet into the industry, I know I’ll start working full time with a broader vision and more inspiration.”