After a superb final cook-off, the winning junior chef is ...

Well, both chefs won in a way, after the dramatic final cook-off of the 2012 Scottish Borders Junior Chef Challenge at the Peebles Food Festival last Sunday.

For while Matthew Smith, the 22-year-old chef de partie at The Horseshoe Inn in Eddleston, was the judges’ winnner – earning him the prize of a two-week placement at the Michelin-starred Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh – it was 24-year-old Susan Kay of The Lodge at Carfraemill who won a unanimous audience vote.

But in the end, the judges, led by the formidable masterchef Tony Borthwick of The Plumed Horse restaurant in Edinburgh, held sway.

Now, as many will know, there are few things tastier than Border lamb. So, the task the two finalists faced was to cook their own lamb dish – but in just an hour and a half, and in front of a hungry audience in Peebles’ Eastgate Theatre.

“I’ve been practising all weekend,” revealed Susan. “I think I’ve got it to perfection.”

“It’s going to be very close,” admitted Matthew as he sized up his competitor. Indeed, that’s how it proved to be.

In the time, Matthew created a pot roast rack of lamb, with pink fir apple potatoes stuffed with spiced lamb mince and lamb kidneys. Beside these delectables, the young chef from Dumfries & Galloway served a leek and raisin puree, and cavolo nero (black cabbage) wild mushrooms sautéed with capers.

Opposing him, on the other side of the kitchen, Susan prepared her own lamb wellington (a loin of lamb wrapped in mushroom and kidney pate and braised leek, and rolled in pastry), served with hasselbach potatoes, roasted beetroot and carrot, and a port and mint jus.

After two hours of irresistable smells and sights, competition organiser Will Haegeland, co-owner of Selkirk’s County Hotel, emerged from the huddled conclave of judges with their decision to name Matthew as this year’s winner.

Mr Haegeland paid tribute to the pair’s achievements: “Matthew and Susan were brilliant finalists. You’ve both done really well.”

“It was very close,” concurred one of the judges, Margaret Stewart of Quality Meat Scotland: “The best thing is that all of the chefs will learn from this. It just shows the young talent coming up in the Scottish restaurant system. It’s just great for the Borders. In two weeks at the Balmoral, Matthew will see everything from Michelin star dinners to afternoon tea.”

Lead judge Tony Borthwick also dished out lashings of praise: “To get to the final is a hell of an achievement: it takes guts and it takes courage, but unfortunately somebody has to come in second.”

His eye was on the competitors’ professional skills.

He told TheSouthern: “I was looking at how they operated as a chef. As finalists, they have to perform on a professional level, and I judged them on that. Matthew was my choice: his organisational ability and understanding of what he was putting on the plate had the edge.”

But on the audience’s taste test, Susan came out on top, as the words “excellent”, “wonderful”, “delicious” fell from the lips of those tucking in to try her dish, and a show of hands unanimously named her the favourite.

“It was a simple dish I knew would be tasty,” she told us.

“I genuinely thought I’d been beaten,” Matthew added. “but I knew my meat butchery skills would give me a head start. Then I just had to cook the lamb perfectly – which it was. I was chuffed with it. The prize is brilliant. I’m going to learn so much. I’ll go to the Balmoral for two weeks, and get blown away by it.”

The Horseshoe Inn’s head chef, Riad Peerbux, applauded his protege. He told us: “He did well. I’m pleased. He did the Borders proud.”

z Visit our website to see video coverage of the final cook-off –