Food

A taste for gold

We’ve all seen Olympians biting down on their gold medals; it’s an iconic symbol of victory. But what is the real reason behind this age-old trend?

Olympic gold medals are not actually made out of solid gold. In fact, they have not been made out of solid gold since 1912. This year’s Olympic gold medals were made out of only 1.34 per cent gold. The best way to test the purity of gold is to sink your teeth into it –literally. If you notice some teeth marks in your medal, this means the gold is quite pure.

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Jade Hugi-Ferguson. Photo: Laura Thomas

Jade Hugi-Ferguson could be tasting Olympic gold for the first time this week.

“I have heard so much about things like the opening ceremony and I can’t wait to walk in behind the Aussie flag, what an opportunity,” she says.

Of course, we are not talking about athletes; we are talking about culinary artists.

Ferguson is about to raise the heat at the 2016 Culinary Olympics, on October 21, in Erfurt, Germany. The 20-year-old woman, who works at My Fit Café in Perth’s northern suburb of Currambine, is about to be given the chance to fulfill one of her biggest dreams, attending the biggest cook-off in the world.

The Culinary Olympics “Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung” [IKA], founded in 1896, is a global competition of culinary excellence held every four years and serves as a world class stage to showcase contemporary culinary skills.

Ferguson has been the chosen by the Australian Culinary Federation to join Australia’s National Youth Culinary Team to compete against 24 teams from around the world.

“I’m stoked for this. We have been waiting a long time. My team is pretty solid. I call them all my closest friends,” she says.

This year the team has been selected from junior chefs throughout Western Australia and since August 2015 there has been an intensive training program leading to the event.

Team captain Christopher Malone, who is sous-chef of Clarke’s of North Beach, will lead the team through a three course meal and a buffet showcasing the state’s culinary skills to the international judging panel.

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Patrick O’Brien with chef apprentices. Photo: Laura Thomas

Australian Culinary Federation of Western Australia president Patrick O’Brien selects, manages and trains the youth team.

O’Brien is the executive director of hospitality and trades at the West Coast Institute at the North Metropolitan TAFE in Joondalup and has been the manager of the youth team since 2002.

The Australian Youth team has, under this same management team, competed in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, achieving gold and silver medals on both occasions, and being respectively placed sixth and seventh in the world.

“It is not only rewarding to give something back to the young people of this industry, but when you see the look on their faces going to collect their medals, it’s priceless,” O’Brien says.

“I have explained to the team that I would like to win two gold this time. Well, an old man can still dream!”

Despite the opportunities for culinary glory, not everyone is so keen on the idea of becoming a chef.

Western Australia is currently facing a major chef shortage and O’Brien estimated the state will need at least 3000 more chefs in coming years.

Gavin Horne is a qualified chef who now works for Hospitality Group Training as an industry consultant and trainer in West Perth.

HGT is a not-for-profit organisation specialising in hospitality and tourism education, training, apprenticeships, traineeships and employment.

Photo: Laura Thomas

Patrick O’Brien. Photo: Laura Thomas

Horne says there is a 70 per cent drop-out rate in chef apprenticeships.

“Kids come from school and think this industry works around them and their lives,” he says.

“This industry is your life. Work ethic is different these days, like punctuality and reliability is lacking in today’s youth sadly.”

Horne says the shortfall has a lot to do with the amount apprentices are paid.

“The government has made changes over the past years in the incentives to apprentices and employers, in the wrong direction for both.  A first year apprentice earns $11.34 an hour; this why apprentices don’t stay within their apprenticeships,” he says.

Some chefs, including Gavin Horne, believe apprentices are not as prepared for employment as they could be.

“The kids today are coated in cotton wool and believe in reality TV like Master Chef, so when employment comes into their lives it’s a big jump these days for them to get over,” he says.

Earlier this year celebrity chef Colin Fassnidge from television program ‘My Kitchen Rules’ came under fire for saying all Gen-Yers wants to do is party, take drugs and watch Netflix, and that apprentices are lazy.

Ferguson says Fassnidge’s judgment is upsetting, as not all young chefs act this way.

“I think Colin’s judgment is a bit off. I’m not doing any of that. We do work hard, really hard. You have to work hard – you put in the extra hours and you give everything you’ve got,” she says.

O’Brien says he sees the cream of the hospitality industry and it’s a shame the good guys do not get enough recognition.

“Colin Fassnidge made a statement, he is right, but that’s only one section of what he has had to deal with. The good guys don’t make press,” he says.

MasterChef Australia and My Kitchen Rules have been criticised by many professional chefs over the years for glamorising the industry – but O’Brien thinks otherwise.

Photo: Laura Thomas

Jade Hugi-Ferguson. Photo: Laura Thomas

“People say to me that MasterChef is ruining the industry,” he says. “I disagree with them. It’s encouraging young people who see these shows to become chefs.

“Now the reality of life is when you go into the kitchen you’re not doing Heston’s signature dish, you are peeling carrots, washing lettuce, day in and day out.

“At the end of the day, you should be learning the proper way to do your job, so eventually you get to the stage where you can run your own kitchen and you do your own food.”

Former West Coast Institute apprentice Simon Barnabas has reached this stage successfully; he is now the senior sous-chef of the new Rambla on Swan, located on the South Perth Esplanade.

When Barnabas was an apprentice he had the Gordon Ramsay-style chefs constantly grilling him. He describes  his experiences as like being in the military.

“I broke down, I was working huge amounts of hours, getting paid near to no money, and I had no social life,” Barnabas says. “But I did have a huge drive to succeed.

“People think this is just a job, for me it’s a passion, and most of my team are under the age of 25, so yeah they fall into that category of young chefs –but the difference is when you find somebody that is wanting to cook, wanting to learn, then we chefs tend to grab a hold of those people –you want to nurture them.”

Ferguson says she had a great apprenticeship experience.

“I was at Joondalup Resort’s Bistro 38 and TAFE once a week,” she says. “The lecturers are great and the chefs I’ve worked with have been amazing.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without those chefs at the resort. For me, qualifying was one of my greatest achievements.

“You have to be a person that’s able to handle the pressure and loves what you do. It’s a passion, I can’t think of anything else that I would like to do with my life.”

Ferguson’s passion for cooking is a family trait.

Her grandfather, Bendicht Hugi, who Ferguson calls Opa, was from a town called Vals in Switzerland, and was known as an incredible chef.

Even though Ferguson is a multi-award winning junior chef who is about to add culinary Olympian to her title, there is still one dish she can’t quite perfect.

“My mum’s pasta – spicy penne pasta with bacon and lots of veggies. I’ve tried to make it, I can’t recreate it. It’s the best,” she says.

Ferguson’s mother Kerry Hugi says there is a reason why she has not quite got the recipe right.

“She still can’t nail it! There is one special ingredient, her mother’s love.”