After a very difficult two years for the Canadian culinary industry, it’s important to shine a light on the country’s talented and hardworking chefs. The S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition does just that, giving centre stage to the culinarians of the future.
Now in its fifth year, the competition offers young chefs an inspiring and educational experience, national and international visibility, and professional prestige. The Regional Competition sees finalists take part in live cook-offs in front of a panel of esteemed and experienced Canadian judges, before the regional winners go on to compete in the Global Grand Finale in 2023.
Both the Regional and Global components provide emerging chefs with a unique opportunity to learn from, interact with, and be mentored by esteemed chefs.
One of those chefs is Chef Connie DeSousa, one of Calgary’s best-known chefs and restaurateurs who is a former Calgary Top Chef finalist, current judge on Food Network’s Fire Masters, and co-owner of CHARCUT Roast House and Charbar with Chef John Jackson.
Fostering the next generation of talent
“I was thrilled and honoured to mentor Chef Rafa last year,” Chef Connie says. “We mentored him for six months leading up to the competition; he is an amazing culinarian who only needed a bit of fine-tuning. Being a mentor has allowed me to help foster the next generation of talent, which is so thrilling.”
Chef Connie certainly appreciates how competing at a high level can catapult young chefs to new heights and successful careers.
She began cooking very young under the watchful eye of two parents who excelled at cooking themselves. “I would watch early cooking shows with my mom and then we would race into the kitchen and prepare the meals we saw on TV,” she recalls. “I’ve been doing that since I could barely see over the countertop.”
While honing her skills as an apprentice, she competed in numerous competitions. As she puts it, she grew up in the world of culinary competition, and ultimately ended up at the World Culinary Olympics in Germany. Chef Connie credits the experience with turning her into a better and more confident chef. From there, she worked in Germany and the U.S. before returning home to Calgary to open CHARCUT Roast House with Chef John.
Chef Connie believes competitions such as the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition are a critical building block for young chefs to expand their careers.
“I think competition really encourages young chefs to push themselves and showcase their skills,” she says. “It challenges you and takes you out of your comfort zone, and it’s also a great way to network with culinary talent across the world. The Young Chef Competition is an amazing example of the kind of platform that can kickstart your career.”
Highlighting key issues
In addition to offering first-class opportunities for honing skills, networking with peers and mentors, and advancing careers, the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Competition represents a chance for chefs to contribute to the conversation on key issues in the industry and beyond.
For a start, the demographic represented at the Competition is hugely diverse. The basic entry requirements – that chefs be aged between 18 to 30 and have at least one year of chef experience – encourage chefs of all gender identities, ethnicities, and social backgrounds to apply.
Having grown up as a female chef in the historically male-dominated industry, Chef Connie notes she has been “really fortunate” in the mentors she has worked with. “In the places I have worked, it has been a very diverse, equal, and positive environment,” she explains. “I see the same in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy. They work so hard with diversity and inclusion to ensure there is a focus on all different races, cultures, and genders.”
In addition to the coveted S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Award, voted for by an esteemed panel of renowned chefs based on the competing chefs’ technical skills and creativity, the competition also hands out awards focused on social responsibility and sustainability, culinary heritage, and food for thought.
Chef Connie highlights the Award for Social Responsibility, which honours a dish that best represents the principle that food is at its best when it’s the result of socially responsible practices, as particularly important given the way the industry – and the world – is evolving.
Championing the chefs of today and tomorrow
Ultimately, the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Competition represents a chance to offer a leg up to the chefs of tomorrow, at a time when Canadian foodservice needs them most. The pandemic’s impact on the industry has been clear, from its effect on labour to a more open discussion about mental health and wellbeing. But Chef Connie highlights that even before the pandemic, Canada has not necessarily done a great job at showcasing its vast pool of talent.
“We need to shout that from the mountaintops because we’re awesome!” she says. “We have world-class chefs, world-class restaurants right here in our own backyard. As a country and an industry, we need to invest in that and ensure we make the industry more attractive to young culinarians from both inside and outside Canada. The S.Pellegrino Young Chefs Competition is a great platform to start with. Any young Canadian culinarian should be thrilled with the opportunities that come out of it.”
Restaurant owners and operators will know that the success of every restaurant in Canada is built on the hardworking, talented, and creative staff who work there. To that end, the Young Chef Competition is not only about the competitors’ cooking; it’s about being a champion of those cooks and the Canadian culinary industry at large.
Applications for the Regional Competition 2022/23 are open until May 31, 2022, for young chefs in Canada aged between 18 and 30 years.
“If you have even the smallest desire to compete on a global stage, go for it,” urges Chef Connie. “This is no time for FOMO! It’s an amazing competition and the opportunity to open so many doors and make so many connections for your career is huge. It will be the best thing you have ever done.”