Published on April 10 2019.
Every year, Sanpellegrino casts the net wide in the hunt for the next big thing in cooking. The S.Pellegrino Young Chef of the Year Awards are again open to chefs under 30 the world over, with titles in 12 regions up for grabs, as well as the international prize announced at the Grand Finale.
John Rivera, last year’s winner in the Pacific region (to which Australia belongs), has seen his star rise. After his win he has gone from chef de partie at Lûmé in South Melbourne to the head chef gig following the departure of Shaun Quade.
“It was never about winning,” says Rivera of the competition. “It was a great way to gauge yourself and I guess find your own style in how you cook and how you think about food.”
To compete, chefs must submit a signature dish that they’ll have five hours to prepare if they’re shortlisted for a Regional Final. Entries are judged against the Golden Rules, defined by Sanpellegrino as creativity, technical skills and personal belief.
Rivera’s dish was a contemporary take on sinigang, the sour Filipino soup that he grew up with during a childhood spent in The Philippines, New Zealand and Melbourne’s western suburbs. Adding a smattering of native Australian and New Zealand ingredients to his version, Rivera also cooked the hapuka that went into the soup over charcoal.
“For us Australians, we love to cook everything over the barbie,” he says. “It’s your signature dish. You have to convey what you are and what you believe in.”
After taking out a regional title, each winner is assigned a mentor to help them prepare for the Grand Finale. Rivera was paired with Scott Pickett, and the two met weekly to refine the dish and prepare for the competition. Rivera emphasises the importance of having a mentor in the same city – and his good fortune in getting just that.
“It’s one thing to see pictures of the dish and to talk about it, but there were so many times when I just said to Scott ‘taste this and we’ll talk afterwards’.”
Rivera placed fifth out of 12 finalists while fellow Australian, Jake Kellie of Singapore restaurant Burnt Ends, came in second. The overall winner was Yasuhiro Fujio of La Cime in Osaka.
This year’s competition includes a number of new categories that may be aimed at achieving more diversity, such as the S.Pellegrino Award for Social Responsibility and the people’s choice-style Fine Dining Lovers Food for Thoughts Award, given to chefs who best represent their personal beliefs on the plate. Once again there are 12 regions competing for the international title and each pool of regional finalists (made up of at least 10 people) must include at least three women. And, in the company’s 120th year, the competition is set to take on even greater significance.
Rivera has these words for those who might be on the fence about applying:
“It’s a great opportunity for a young cook to find their own identity and, as clichéd as it sounds, find themselves as a chef.
“It kind of gives you the space to dream.”
Applications close on 30 April 2019, so hop to it.
The list of regions in 2019:
UK & Northern Europe
Iberian & Mediterranean countries
Italy & South-eastern Europe
Africa & Middle East
Pacific * (includes Australia and New Zealand)
By Emma Breheny