Deb Ridley is a second-year apprentice chef at Ondine, a European restaurant in Deakin. With the backing of head chef Keaton McDonnell, she entered the Nestlé Golden Chef’s Hat Competition. She returned with a highly respectable triple silver prize in the national finals held at Fine Food Australia.
The 17-year-old apprentice started her journey in the hospitality industry through her love of baking and cake decorating. To reach the finals, Deb first competed in the regional competition earlier this year. She says that the key to these competitions is to be prepared and not to be too hard on yourself.
“Three hours sounds like a long time, but making three dishes with four portions of each was very stressful. And it’s always hard to work in a kitchen you’re not used to,” Deb explained.
Head chef Keaton, who is also a co-owner of Ondine, was able to draw on his own experiences in similar competitions from when he was an apprentice to help Deb prepare. He says the benefit of these contests is that they build your experiences in a totally different environment.
“It makes you work clean and tests your skills without the support you get in a restaurant,” he told Region.
“It’s so important to be a part of a team, but these competitions can really help you grow as a person, knowing you can rely on yourself and get through it.”
For the competition, Deb had to create three dishes using a set list of ingredients. To increase the challenge, staple pantry items like butter or sugar are often omitted from the list or only included in tiny quantities.
Murray cod was the required centrepiece for the main, and contestants also needed to incorporate Nestlé products into all their dishes.
Deb’s entree consisted of confit potatoes, roasted cabbage, macadamia sesame paste and Worcestershire onions. She paired the Murray cod with roasted tomato beurre blanc and stuffed leek. She explained that creating savoury dishes is something she’s still working on as she prefers sweet dishes and pastry work.
Her dessert was a honey and lime cremeux with pistachio praline and white chocolate, a kaffir lime and lemongrass foam (and fresh raspberries to top it off). To create this multi-element dish, Deb needed to learn how to temper chocolate (a challenging skill even for experienced chefs) and carefully manage her time to ensure she had enough time for each part of the dish.
“I think I was a bit cocky at the start, so I was a bit slower than I should have been, but I pulled it all together in the end,” she said.
“It’s all about your workflow.”
Head Judge and Nestlé Professional Commercial Development Chef Elke Travers said: “It takes a lot of courage for young chefs to step up and be critiqued at such a high level. All the finalists this year have been truly impressive, and Deb’s dish creations were a delight. We commend her for propelling her culinary journey.”
Deb’s dishes were all awarded silver – a remarkable achievement for her first time in a competition. She’s looking forward to entering the competition again to see if she can do even better next time. As well as challenging her skills, Deb enjoyed meeting other young apprentices from across Australia. She’s considering pursuing more pastry training after she finishes her apprenticeship in Canberra.
And chef Keaton is pretty pleased to have such an accomplished young chef on his staff: “I’m super proud and impressed at Deb, how as a 17-year-old she just took it in her stride and threw herself into it.”