Backstage at the S. Pellegrino Young Chef awards in Milan

When you’re invited to be the South African representative to attend the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition in Milan (to top it off), you know you’ve made it.

The first-ever event of its kind, which gives young chefs around the world a chance to show off their skills and passion, was held on 26 and 27 June 2015.

It all started months ago, when more than 3000 chefs around the world sent through their applications. Our phenomenal winner from Africa and Middle East was Angelo Scirocco, who works with the great chef Liam Tomlin at Chefs Warehouse in Bree Street, Cape Town. Last week I jetted off to Milan for the finals with Angelo and his mentor, chef David Higgs of Five Hundred. (Each young chef was assigned a mentor to help refine their dishes and bounce off any concerns and ideas.)

The S. Pellegrino Young Chef awards in Milan

Abigail Donnelly and Chef Angelo Scirocco backstage at The S. Pellegrino Young Chef awards in Milan

Vogue Italia was the partner to S. Pellegrino for the event, adding even more beauty to the proceedings. 20 emerging stylists were asked to design a garment or accessory to match their assigned finalist’s food. The brief was to be inspired by the chef’s dish and let their creativity flow.

The S. Pellegrino Young Chef Awards took place in the new Porta Nuova district in The Mall, which was transformed into three parts. The first section, where the 20 chefs prepped the day before, was for the incredible kitchens that were brought in, with an insane set-up of equipment, from ovens to chill blasters.

The second part was an arena for each designer to set up their garments and sketches, and the third area in the middle featured cooking stations for final plating, plus a large stage, where the prestigious judges sampled and scored each dish. They looked for freshness and uniqueness of ingredients, beauty and charm, communication of the personal vision, and the genius in the dish.

The dream team of judges included Grant Achatz from Alinea in Chicago; Yannick Alléno of Ledoyen in Paris; Gastón Acurio of Astrid & Gaston in Peru; Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy; Yoshihiro Narisawa of Les Creations de Narisawa in Tokyo, Japan; Joan Roca of El Celler De Can Roca in Girona, Spain (number one restaurant in the world); and our very own Margot Janse of The Tasting Room in Franschhoek.

The S. Pellegrino Young Chef awards in Milan

Designers at The S. Pellegrino Young Chef awards in Milan

The day was packed with energy and excitement. Each chef cooked away and presented the dishes that they’d worked on for months and months, perfected for just this day. The matching garments and accessories, judged by Vogue Italia’s editor-in-chief, Franca Sozzani, ranged from funky glasses to handbags and stylish couture. Franca walked around chatting to the designers and feeling the fabrics.

I witnessed some incredible things: German chef Tobias Wussler from the Black Forest region made a pine green-currant liqueur ice cream using the milk from his dad’s farm, which was presented for the judges to taste in a milk bottle encased in a cedar wood casket from that very forest. This pure storytelling was mesmerising. Then the chef from Japan, Ryoma Shida, presented his fine-art umami dish on a board painted with squid ink and scattered with rice-paper origami butterflies.

The winning dish was, of course, mind-blowing. Irish chef Mark Moriarty created a courageous vegetarian dish of celeriac baked in barley with fermented hay, cured and smoked celeriac, hazelnut and toasted-hay tea. His presentation was inspiration on another level: a black board embellished with copper metal, and a microplane with a cross section of dehydrated celeriac that resembled a walnut. He even lit hay at the judging table to allow the tea to smoke, before pouring it into teapots and then onto the plates, so the aroma circled the air.

I could go on and on about the surprising elements of each dish, but I must also share with you the welcome dinner the night before. It took place at the Palazzo Serbelloni, where we sipped Ferrari Champagne (just saying) and moved through each exquisite gilded room, through stations of parma hams, gigantic wheels of parmigiano reggiano, traditional saffron milanese, steak crudo and then – l’ultimo – a chef making burrata by hand from a wooden bath of warm water. Between Margot, David and myself, we ate our fair share, and when Massimo Bottura offered me one, I knew I had definitely made it as a foodie.

The dish created by Angelo Scirocco at The S. Pellegrino Young Chef awards in Milan

The dish created by Chef Angelo Scirocco at The S. Pellegrino Young Chef awards in Milan

I have often heard chefs described as rock stars, and that night the description really hit home. I was in a room full of the best rock stars in the world, and I had a VIP backstage pass…

Angelo’s magnificent dish was called ‘Milk is thicker than water’. I still have the lingering taste in my mind. It was set on seven handmade grey plates that he brought with him to Milan, wrapped in bubble wrap as hand luggage. (Thank goodness with an extra, as one did break.)

It was pure white on white – a rice pudding with mozzarella cheese, perfumed elderflower and white jasmine flowers, all encased in a paper-thin circle of panna cotta that was sealed around the edges with a blow torch and then topped with a shard of crispy tuille to resemble the milk skin often formed when baking a traditional rice pudding.

It was a revelation together with his designer’s garments, a creamy array of crisp silk-flower-embossed wedding gowns. Designer Ashi Studio from Beirut captured the texture and colour completely, from the way the fabric folded, to the raised flowers and the crisp starched fabric. In my eyes, the perfect match.

I was a bit like a mother hen when Angelo was plating, watching every line and eye movement of all seven judges. (I definitely lip-read Massimo Bottura saying, as he pushed the dessert plate aside, “Bueno!”)

The S. Pellegrino Young Chef awards in Milan

Chef Angelo Scirocco in the kitchen at The S. Pellegrino Young Chef awards in Milan

Unfortunately Angelo didn’t make it into the top three, but he was a calm and composed chef while plating, now and again getting assurance from his mentor, David Higgs, who never left his side. To enter the competition took real guts and I have huge respect for his amazing achievement.

And the relationships and friends that Angelo made at the event will be priceless in the years to come. This is what S. Pellegrino prides itself on – being a brand that honours chefs and restaurateurs around the world.

Chef Angelo is one to watch, and I can’t wait to see him grow into a truly extraordinary chef.

The S. Pellegrino Young Chef awards in Milan

Chef Angelo Scirocco backstage at The S. Pellegrino Young Chef awards in Milan

You can see my first tweet above when I arrived in Italy. A lucky girl, indeed! The two days inspired and delighted me; I made special friendships and relationships; and was thrilled to share the passion of young aspiring chefs pursuing their dreams.

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