Boiling culinary challengers down to three

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The Borders can be proud of the young talent cooking away in its kitchens – and they can be proud of themselves too, judging by the applause from those who sampled their dishes in the Scottish Borders Junior Chef Challenge.

The task facing our young chefs was to create and cook their own menu of starter, main course and dessert. The eight, brave hopefuls who stepped forward represented six fine Border establishments: Oblo Bar and Bistro in Eyemouth, The County Hotel in Selkirk, Marmion’s Brasserie in Melrose, Kelso Golf Club, the Buccleuch Arms in St Boswells and Carfraemill, near Lauder.

During the last three weeks, diners took part in a public vote by rating the competing chefs’ dishes at each eatery. A panel of three judges – Sarah Dalrymple, Sally Scott Aiton and myself – also tasted each of the contestants’ menus. The public vote counts for 25 per cent towards the judges’ decision and the three names going through to the final cook-off will be announced in next week’s Southern.

This week we publish the results of the public vote, and just a few of the many praises from those who enjoyed all the young chefs’ delicious dinners.

Lee Cessford

First up was 19-year-old Lee Cessford at Oblo, who began his three courses with a risotto cake with mussels, dill vinaigrette and a micro herb salad, followed by spiced pork escalope with black pudding and curried leeks, and finishing on a parfait of homemade mango and vanilla ice-cream with blueberry compote.

Sarah: “What a wonderful way to present leeks – interesting and fabulous flavour.”

Sally: “This was an imaginative dessert with fabulous taste.”

Sandy: “Lee nailed his pudding: the mango ice-cream and sharp blueberry compote made a sensational combination.”

Public Feedback: “Dessert was absolutely stunning. Very innovative and excellent presentation.”

Jonathan Streets

Next to be tested was 25-year-old Jonathan Streets at The County Hotel. Johnnie prepared a creamy goat’s cheese, parmesan and spinach ravioli on a bed of rocket and spinach salad served with tomato and garlic consommé, then served baked tender pork fillets with pear and butternut squash wrapped in haggis and puff pastry with potato and onion rosti, and pear and onion veloute. His dessert was a vanilla ice-cream wrapped in a strawberry fruit leather, paired with chocolate nougat and a strawberry jelly.

Sarah: “The strawberry fruit leather was perfectly mastered and delicious.”

Sally: “The dessert was exquisite. Talent on a plate.”

Sandy: “I could’ve eaten 10 ravioli and a whole bowlful of tomato consommé. Pork tender, pastry crispy, veloute smooth, rosti deliciously seasoned: here there’s heart and care to get it right.”

Public feedback: “Pasta cooked perfectly with the goat’s cheese. Spot on.”

Hannah Smith

Then it was the turn of Hannah Smith, 17, from Kelso Golf Club. Hannah cooked Portobello mushroom stuffed with fresh tomato and basil sauce topped with mozzarella cheese and black pepper, and then served as her main course slow-cooked Italian seasoned beef on a bed of roasted Mediterranean vegetables with red wine jus and a side of spatzli (small, fried dumplings). Hannah’s dessert was a chocolate chip cheesecake with mandarin and orange sorbet.

Sarah: “Amazing garnish on your dessert – fantastic to see spun sugar – well done!”

Sally: “What a nicely presented dessert.”

Sandy: “An impressive achievement for a 17-year-old, and hearty fare that will set any hungry golfer aglow after 18 holes! Hannah and her chef mum should be very proud.”

Public feedback: “A very imaginative and tasty starter that I would love to taste again.”

Ross Scott

Marmion’s Brasserie mustered three competitors for the title: Ross Scott, 17, Tomek Wilk, 34, and Shaun Fagan, 23. Ross served a starter of moules marinière, a main course of salmon with caper and lemon butter sauce, asparagus and new potatoes, and dessert of raspberry cranachan.

Sarah: “Your caper hollandaise was the perfect complement to your salmon – I wish I could have taken the whole pot of it home with me.”

Sally: “The caper and lemon butter sauce with the salmon fillet was superb … we had to ask for seconds.”

Sandy: “The mussels were cooked to a tee, soft and buttery, and the caper sauce was exquisite slathered over the salmon, asparagus and potatoes. Classic dishes, pulled off faultlessly – a feat for a chef with only months’ experience. Well done.”

Public feedback: “It was the best sauce I have had in Britain for a long time. It was a great cranachan – I had one in a top Edinburgh restaurant last week and this was better.”

Tomek Wilk

Tomek’s three courses were composed of baked pear with blue cheese, hazelnuts and spring onion, a pork, aubergine and feta stack with creamy cognac and mixed pepper sauce, and finally an orange blossom mousse.

Sarah: “The baked pears were an interesting and very tasty way to use pears as a starter – I loved the idea.”

Sally: “The mix of flavours in the main course worked really nicely indeed.”

Sandy: “Enjoyed each layer in Tomek’s impressive ‘Jenga’ stack of tender, peppery pork, soft feta and aubergine. Flavour combos with the creamy cognac sauce and pesto oil kept me interested in the next forkful.”

Public feedback: “It was wonderful – compliments to the chef. Pear starter was delicious: lovely balance of flavours, the right quantity and attractively presented.”

Shaun Fagan

Shaun started with roast fig and a salad of grilled aubergine, zucchini and pomegranate with honey and lavender dressing, then cooked spinach and quails’ egg ravioli with wild mushroom reduction fricassee and white wine reduction, and ended on spiced red wine poached pear with vanilla ice-cream.

Sarah: “Christmas came on a plate with your dessert – the spices were perfectly matched with the red wine.”

Sally: “The quails’ eggs in the home-made ravioli were cooked to absolute perfection.”

Sandy: “Shaun’s an artist: the look, the colour, the flavour, the smell all went together so well. Surprised and delighted by each original dish, and glowed happily afterwards.”

Public feedback: “Creative. Zucchini perfectly grilled – good variety of colour, textures and tastes. The food was excellent – the quality of the meal reminded us of a Michelin star restaurant.”

Alasdair Riley

Alasdair Riley, 34, of the Buccleuch Arms, served a salad of wood pigeon, black pudding and home-cured pancetta, seafood risotto, and then a tangy citrus parfait.

Sarah: “The parfait was perfect – I loved the citrus flavour after the seafood risotto.”

Sally: “A lovely selection of seafood – great presentation.”

Sandy: “Gladdened my heart: the pink slices of tender, local wood pigeon, the decadent risotto crammed with mussels, and the artfully presented sharp, freshening parfait and silky vanilla ice-cream.”

Public feedback: “I’ve never tasted pigeon before but will definitely be having it again.”

Susan Kay

Susan Kay, 23, at Carfraemill, created a menu of cream of pea and mint soup served with a poppyseed roll, roast leg of lamb with an apricot stuffing served with roast potatoes and chargrilled courgette ribbons, and finally hazelnut pavlova with Border berries and a raspberry coulis.

Sarah: “The soup was beautifully mastered – simple yet effective.”

Sally: “The Border lamb cooked and presented beautifully.”

Sandy: “This is pudding-person Susan’s first attempt at a starter and main course, yet she’s created a faultless, delicious combination of dishes. She’s big on local, and flavour, thinking cleverly how to intensify each element. A great cook.”

Public feedback: “Dessert was exceptional. Great presentation and taste. Excellent menu: well thought out to include local produce.”

Judge Sarah Dalrymple commented: “We want to thank all the young chefs for making our job so enjoyable – but also very difficult. They all put in so much hard work and did brilliantly.”

All three judges now face an agonising deliberation to decide the three finalists. The results of the public vote were extremely close, but adding up the points the three top scores of the public vote are: Shaun Fagan, Jonathan Streets and Hannah Smith.

But will these three be the same as the judges’ decision? Find out who goes through to the final in TheSouthern next week.