WorldSkills 2007 was a tough event at which the nerves, as well as the skill levels, of young competitors were vigorously tested. Janet Harmer flew to Japan to follow the fortunes of two chefs and a waiter
After four gruelling days of competition at WorldSkills 2007 in Shizuoka, Japan, the results brought about a mixed bag of emotions for the three British hospitality participants.
While pastry chef Will Torrent, 21, a recent first-class graduate in culinary arts management at Thames Valley University, celebrated his medallion of excellence and 6th placing - the highest ever achieved by a British competitor in the Confectioner/Pastry Cook category - his colleagues were not so satisfied with their results.
Graham Squire, 22, chef de partie at Claridge's, London, was placed 12th in the Cooking category and missed a medallion of excellence by the narrowest of margins - just one point. Meanwhile, Julie Doig, 21, head waiter in the Strathearn restaurant at Gleneagles, Perthshire, came 17th in the Restaurant Service category.
The placings might not have been as high as Squire and Doig would have hoped for, but they came away from the biennial event - which saw 800 competitors from 47 countries around the globe competing in a variety of skills, such as cabinet making, landscape gardening, graphic design, floristry and hairdressing - with their heads held high. They know that the experience has enhanced them as individuals and is likely to propel them forward in their careers, as well as boost the profile of the skills sector.
The UK's overall placing of 11th in the world and fourth in Europe - an improvement of one place on 2005 - was accompanied by a flurry of media interest, which, hopefully, will go some way towards helping to raise the status and standards of vocational training and break down some of the snobbery that exists around pursuing a skills-based career.
The Government was keen to show its support to WorldSkills, and Skills Minister David Lammy, who travelled to the event, said he was impressed by what he saw.
"I'm hugely moved by the self-motivation, total dedication and hours of training at the expense of going out with their mates that these young people are putting into the competition," said Lammy. "This is an environment of excellence and it makes me feel quite inadequate."
Lammy said he was overawed by Torrent's artistic skills as he put the finishing touches to a collection of marzipan animals, while Squire's kitchen skills highlighted the enormous role played by well-trained chefs in boosting the British economy.
"The hospitality sector is a hugely important, growing sector of the economy, and events like WorldSkills will, hopefully, help attract young people into the industry and understand the prospects offered by it," Lammy added.
For Torrent, Squire and Doig, the experience of competing against a rich array of talented young professionals from all over the world was thrilling.
"I have loved every minute of my time at WorldSkills," said Torrent. "It's been great being with the team and competing against fellow young pastry chefs on a world stage."
The highlight of Torrent's performance was his preparation of afternoon tea pastries on the second day of the event. He described his selection of four different pastries - including mini chocolate slices with pistachio ganache, raspberry and poppy seed financiers, deconstructed lemon meringue pies, and rum and praline choux buns with caramelised hazelnut - as "the best I've ever done".
Since graduating from Thames Valley University in the summer, Torrent has been working part-time at the Ritchings Park Golf & Country Club in Iver, Buckinghamshire, while preparing for WorldSkills. Now he wants to spend the Christmas period reflecting on where his future career might take him.
Although Squire was disappointed with his placing, he was happy with the food he produced and was particularly pleased with the menu he produced on the final day from a mystery box of ingredients, which achieved the third highest mark for the task. His dishes included pan-fried trout with almond and spinach ravioli, marinated radish and Champagne foam tournedos of beef and shallot purée with fondant potatoes, red wine jus and cabbage cannelloni and chocolate mousse with orange marmalade and orange sablé biscuit, raspberry panna cotta and chocolate soup.
"Overall, WorldSkills was a terrific experience," says Squire. "I have met so many good people from around the world and made friends with other competitors in different industries and skills from within the UK. Competing in Japan has given me great confidence, and my pastry - something I would have avoided a few months ago - has risen to new heights."
Doig, too, came away from Japan in an upbeat frame of mind, despite being "really gutted" by her placing. She had an excellent start to the competition as she completed her fine-dining service module on the first day. "I was in my element, as it is what I do all the time at Gleneagles. Everything went really well, including filleting the Dover sole, carving the duck and preparing a banana flambé. I was totally psyched-up that day."
However, Doig was not so happy with her cocktail work, and she had some problems with the wine identification, as she had a cold. By the fourth day of the competition she was feeling exhausted.
"The standard of the other competitors was very high, and the competitor from Finland, who won gold, performed at a consistently high standard throughout the whole competition," she said. "The whole experience, including all the training, which included taking part in a competition in Canada and visits to various establishments such as Gordon Ramsay in Royal Hospital Road, was phenomenal."
Preparing for WorldSkills 2007 was a thorough and intense process, with each member of the British team allocated a training manager who they worked with in the months leading up to Japan. Yolande Stanley, senior lecturer in pâtisserie at Thames Valley University, who mentored Torrent, said that she was delighted with her protégé's performance. "To be positioned sixth in the world, in front of France, Germany and Switzerland, is a fantastic achievement," she said.
Peter Joyner, executive chef at Elior UK, worked with Squire and Ian Whitaker, director for Cairngorm Mountain, supported Doig.
In order to ensure the team were fit and focused for each of the four days of competition, two team leaders - Bruce Robinson and Stephanie Tibbert - also weaved their magic. It was their task to ensure the team members could stand up to a total of 22 hours in the spotlight, scrutinised by distinguished panels of international judges and hundreds of thousands of visitors from Japan and overseas observing their every move.
Focused and positive
While it was Tibbert's job to guide the competitors towards peak physical fitness, Robinson was constantly present to ensure that they had the focused and positive mind-set required to cope with the enormous pressures and ongoing intensity of the competition.
"All the British competitors are supremely talented craftsmen, but there were times when a minor slip meant they couldn't think straight, and we had methods in place to bring them back on track," said Robinson, who acknowledged that it was extremely hard for those team members who left Japan without a medal.
"I had to remind them that there is often a very small difference between points achieved by competitors. And the reason why points are awarded in the cookery and Restaurant Service categories is often totally subjective, with judges from different countries putting their own national values on different aspects of the competition.
"No matter what their placings were, or whether or not they achieved a medal, they have all come home from Japan as more rounded and developed individuals," he added.
The only way of ensuring a greater medal haul in future years is by ensuring thorough preparation as far in advance of the competition as possible, advised Robinson. Hence, all eyes are on the selection process - to be announced soon - for WorldSkills 2009, to be held in Calgary, Canada. Then, two years later, in 2011, WorldSkills will come to London.
As well as the gold, silver and bronze medals awarded in each category, medallions of excellence were presented to competitors who achieved 500 or more points.
The 15 competitors spent the first day of the four-day event on mise en place, to enable them to complete the following tasks on the remaining three days:
• Small cakes/tea pastries - production and presentation of four varieties of small cakes or tea pastries, consisting of 10 of each type (40 in total). The varieties had to include the use of sponge, biscuit jaconde, dacquoise or any other kind of biscuit sugar, sablé or sweet paste choux pastry and a free choice.
• Chocolates - making of 15 pieces of four different types of chocolates, using four different types of filling and a combination of dark, milk and white chocolate throughout the selection.
• Marzipan modelling - making and presentation of four varieties of marzipan animals, consisting of two identical animals of each type.
• Mystery basket of ingredients (plated dessert) - the making of four portions of plated cold dessert of the competitor's choice, to include ice-cream and a suitable sauce.
• Mystery basket of ingredients (entremet) - making of two entremets, 20cm round, one to be decorated and garnished with chocolate and one to be coated but not decorated.
• Presentation piece - production and presentation of a cooked sugar and pastillage centrepiece following a theme of the competitor's choice.
The 23 chefs who competed in this category were tested in every aspect of their culinary skills:
• Fish - preparation of a cold fish platter for six portions to include halibut, shrimps, horseradish, sweet peas and portobello mushrooms.
• Finger food - preparation of six portions of six different items of finger food to included two vegetarian, two seafood, two meat and a dipping sauce. To include crab, chicken breast, fillet of lamb and crawfish.
• Pasta - preparation of two types of main-course pasta, one stuffed and one of the competitor's own creation. To include tuna, Parmesan, Gouda and Serrano ham.
• Poultry - preparation of a main-course dish, to serve plated for four portions, using whole turkey. Two different cooking methods must be used, and dish must include chicken liver and aubergine as well as turkey.
• Dessert trio - preparation of three varieties of dessert, including two cold and one warm. Selection must include one chocolate, one fruit and one choux pastry variety.
• Recipe cooking - preparation of traditional Japanese udon noodle soup with egg, chicken and sake.
• Mystery menu - production of a three-course menu from a mystery box of ingredients on the final day of competition. Seven hours allowed.
The 21 Restaurant Service competitors had to complete a variety of different styles of restaurant service, as well as undertake specific food and beverage tasks:
• Casual dining service - à la carte service of plated lunch to two tables of three guests each, to include white and red wine identification.
• Classic bar and guéridon service - to include the making of stirred and shaken cocktails, preparation of canapés, service of espresso coffee, opening and service of Champagne, preparation and service of beef tartare, and liqueur and fortified wine identification.
• Fine-dining service - to serve a lunch menu to a table of four guests to include the service of hors d'oeuvre, silver service of soup from a tureen, filleting of a Dover Sole, carving of a duck and service of accompanying vegetables, flambéing of dessert, preparation of Irish coffee, service of white and red wines, and identification of spirits.
• Napkin folding and preparation of tables.
• Fruit carving and cutting from mystery box of ingredients, followed by fruit flambé.
• Decanting an old red wine with sediment.
• Cocktails - making of two non-alcoholic cocktails of the competitor's choice and two alcoholic cocktails from a mystery box of ingredients.
• Flower arrangement.