I ARRIVE at Carrick Institute’s Docklands campus to interview the winners of the inaugural International Students’ Cooking Cup expecting hallways of flustered chefs scurrying about in wafts of steam and vapour – I am instead greeted by a modern amalgamation of glass and steel.
In the elevator, I am duly informed by the built-in television the forecast for the weather and temperature, and side-by-side smiling snapshots of Carrick’s diverse student body.
I meet the winning team in their school’s spacious cafeteria and, fresh from another interview, the five participants are still raring to go.
The team of twenty-somethings is diverse; each member hailing from different motherlands. I meet Vibha Somesh from India, Jeffry Jeffry from Indonesia, Kay Goh from Korea, Soravit Rirermkul from Thailand, and Daniel Southwell from England.
A chance to shine
Despite being surprised (but pleased, of course) at winning the Cooking Cup, the competition meant much more to this team of international students than a mere title.
As trailblazers of international hospitality students, Daniel said the team “felt a great deal of pride”.
Kay said “the most interesting thing was seeing what all these international students can do, what they can do for Australia”.
Vibha said it gave the students the opportunity to showcase their skills.
“We’ve never had this kind of competition to showcase our skills, so I think it’s great that it allowed us to be put to the test,” Vibha said.
Daniel said it allowed students to try something new.
“You can see that international students come and really work hard to do something positive, to really learn a skill – which is quite often alien to their culture,” he said.
“It’s French cooking, the basis of Australian cooking … it’s fantastic.”
After training for nearly a month, the Cooking Cup was a tough challenge. The competition saw the teams beginning the day at 9.30am, when they opened the box of ingredients that were to use to create their three-course meals.
Finishing the competition at 3pm, they continued to a dinner event completely handled by international hospitality students, discovering that they had won the competition only at 11pm.
The team’s description of their winning meals had my mouth watering. It consisted of an entrée of chicken mousseline with braised fennel and watercress sauce. For the main dish, Jeffry said they prepared lamb with feta cheese and black cabbage, topped with pancetta and a side of caramelized onion with figs.
Kay’s description of their dessert blew my mind at the artistic creativity these five students put into their work. Meant to be reflective of Melbourne, they replicated a sense of Melbourne’s ‘four seasons in a day’ on a plate. The dessert included chocolate mud cake with chocolate mousse, wine jelly, and poached and caramelized pear with raspberry ice-cream.
Two sides of the same coin
As a pioneering event for all international students in the hospitality industry, the five are the first-of-the-first in an industry riddled with the unhealthy stereotype of being a visa factory.
This impacts the way their qualifications are viewed. Kay said the Cooking Cup was a “great opportunity for maybe not all of us – but some of us, to show that we are really focussed on cooking and can melt the stereotype.”
“It’s very sad,” she said.
“It’s like a coin with two sides – some students come because of the visa, and some are passionate and really want to work.
“We really pay it forward in this industry, and we have the passion to continue fighting.”
Kay said she felt the team did not want to be “considered a bunch of immigrants who want to be a part of Australia at any cost”.
“That’s so wrong. We are here for the right reasons and we’re doing the best we can,” she said.
Industry perceptions are slowly changing, though – but not quickly enough, according to Soravit.
“They’ve only just started to learn that we have this potential to work,” he said.
“That’s why we have this competition to showcase that we can do better than some of the local guys.
“I know some Australian apprentice chefs that don’t even know how to roast a chicken, and everything they make is overcooked.”
Kay said it was “important for schools to focus on developing training methods for commercial cookery students”.
“If they really want to take out the image of visa factories, they really need to focus on training to make the students (stand),’‘ she said.
“However hard you try, there will always be people who focus on the negatives,” Vibha added.
“So when they see people who are really working hard, and when you bring a difference to the industry, the stereotype might wash out.”