Aorere Trades Academy students Keita Henry and Sose Ailepata have been named this year’s champions in the fourth annual National Secondary Schools Culinary Challenge at Manukau Institute of Technology.

The winners were announced at a glamorous awards dinner, which followed a highly-charged 90 minutes in the MIT kitchen. Tears flowed, hands trembled and spectators cheered on the teams as the students put months of learning and practice into action, creating two courses made from New Zealand ingredients for a team of high-profile judges.

Keita and Sose’s dishes were The Pumpkin Patch Medley: pumpkin puree, topped with pumpkin discs, pan-fried black pudding, prawns and whipped goats cheese, served with pumpkin seed lavosh and roasted pumpkin seeds; followed by The Supreme Chicken Boil Up: sous vide chicken breast filled with watercress, with Agria potato dumplings, steamed seasonal New Zealand grown vegetables and a hot chicken broth. The students received their prize of a gift pack from sponsors valued at $500 each, and their school winning a $1000 Bidfood voucher, a Sous Vide machine and Blue Seal oven worth over $7000.

In addition to the winning teams, Brenna Lee from Napier Girls High School, and Charlotte Taylor from Wanganui also won a $2000 scholarship towards their tertiary study of a City & Guilds International Catering Qualification at a City & Guilds approved training centre of their choice in 2018. In an unusual move, a third contestant, Connor Yardley from New Plymouth Boys’ High School, was also awarded a $1000 scholarship.

Keita and Sose were chosen from eight teams of two contestants from schools throughout New Zealand – Southland Boys High School, New Plymouth Boys High School, Whanganui High School, Napier Girls High School, Wellington Trades Academy, Aorere Trades Academy and Onehunga High School.

Each team was challenged to prepare, cook and present four individually-plated portions of an entrée and four portions of a main course within 90 minutes. Contestants’ entrees had to contain fresh pumpkin as the principal component. Each main course included a chicken breast (skin on and bone in), accompanied by three fresh New Zealand-grown vegetables, one of was potato.

The winners were judged by a team of high-profile industry judges – Head Judge Mark Wylie, National Account Sales Manager, Southern Hospitality; Ben Bayly, Executive Chef, The Grounds, The Grove and Baduzzi; Jeremy Schmid, Chef/Owner, The Officer’s Mess, Fort Takapuna, North Shore: Renny Aprea, Senior culinary Lecturer, AUT; Craig Lucas, Chef Tutor, MIT: and Liam Fox, Chef/Owner Fort green, Auckland. The judges based their decisions on a range of criteria, including taste, presentation and timing. Contestants were also marked on other relevant skills, including tidiness and wastage.

Judge Ben Bayly said the standard of cooking has surpassed anything he’s seen from a secondary school competition before, and stressed how important competitions like the NSSCC is to the industry going forward. “I’ve been judging this competition since it began four years ago, and some of these contestants are showing real skill, which is awe-inspiring,” he said. “Hospitality is a fantastic career option – people love cooking and creating dishes, and the kids here are learning about the best food from good coaches. We don’t have enough young Kiwis coming into the hospitality industry at the moment, so to see this level of creativity and passion from both the kids and the schools, and to see schoolteachers and principals getting behind the students is fantastic. We even had one boy cook with a broken collarbone from a rugby game last week!

“For me, this competition is incredibly important, because it’s providing the next generation of New Zealand chefs with all the opportunities we can. The people cooking in this kitchen today are the grass roots of the hospitality world: they are the future All Blacks of the food world. We want to get Kiwis in the kitchen.”

All contestants will also attend an inaugural New Zealand Culinary Journey away day on Wednesday 30th August at SkyCity, during which they will have the opportunity to meet and learn some more kitchen skills in a day of masterclasses and workshops from some of the country’s leading chefs.