Paul Hodge, chief executive of Cater Plus Services, is passionate about the Waikato Culinary Fare.
"We are here to encourage youth into the hospitality industry, not scare them off."
Paul Hodge, chief executive of Cater Plus Services, talks passionately about the Waikato Culinary Fare, and preparations for the 13th annual event to be held on July 6-7.
His two fellow fare directors, Wintec Centre for Hospitality team manager Peter Radojkovich, and Barry Finch, a faculty senior academic staff member, nod vigorously in agreement.
The directors of the Waikato Culinary Fare are Paul Hodge, left, Peter Radojkovich, centre, and Barry Finch.
Classes cover cookery, food and beverage services, and categories range from secondary school students to junior tertiary cookery students to commis chefs. Such is the interest from intermediate schools, a category has been devised for those students, too.
Response to the Fare has been growing every year, and this year is the biggest ever with more than 400 entries. "Ours is now the biggest culinary competition as far as entry numbers go in New Zealand," Barry says.
From attracting just four schools the first year, the competition is bringing in schools from Thames to Otorohanga and Auckland.
Year on year skill levels of secondary school students have also increased, and that's down to the backing of their food technology teachers, Peter says. "The competition has created awesome relationships with them. They're more knowledgeable and they're passing that knowledge on to their students. TV programmes have also created a lot more interest in our industry.
"Teachers and competition are building their skills and confidence, and the students have the courage of their convictions, they think 'I can do this'.
"They aren't afraid to experiment and their standards are incredibly high. Judges ask us, 'Did a school kid actually make that?'."
The secondary school student who earned top marks in the 2011 Waikato Culinary Fare went on to do the Wintec Culinary Arts programme and at the end of that year was awarded most outstanding student in class. She's now working in the industry in the Waikato.
"That happens year after year," Barry says. "One cookery student here wants to go on to university and do a degree in nutrition."
Increasingly, secondary school students are entering the fare's live competitions and the Mystery Box section.
"It's a big ask, but they're eating it up and spitting it out in the Mystery Box," Barry says. "We've had to increase the number of competitions.
"In the live section the judges have been impressed with how creative the kids are, clean and tidy and efficient with their work, and that adds to their marks."
The students respond so well because they are competing against a mark sheet, competing against themselves.
"Teachers say this is a fantastic opportunity for some who wouldn't be top academic students, to excel and get a gold medal," says Peter. "It's a huge boost to their confidence."
The winning team in the Waikato College Challenge will represent the region at the National Culinary Fare in Auckland in August.
Tertiary students face fast and furious competition in their categories. These include Junior Year 1, studying Year 1 Cookery; Junior Year 2, studying Year 2 Cookery; and Commis Chef for commis chefs working fulltime in the Industry.
Job opportunities also come out of the Waikato event, with local chefs among the judging panel, which is made up of a cross section of professionals from the hospitality industry, scoping out new talent.
Like the school students, tertiary students are contending for gold, silver and bronze medals, but also for qualification to the national competition in their own right.
It's a prestigious event. The Waikato Culinary Fare was conceived as a gap bridger for local contenders. Other tertiary institutes use the competition as a trial run for the nationals, too.
Peter, Paul and Barry are chefs themselves. "We've all done a number of years in kitchens throughout the world, and we saw the importance of developing hospitality stars of the future, giving youth a platform for entering the hospitality industry. We're also showcasing Wintec and what it has to offer, it's a combination of industry and Wintec putting it together," Paul says.
He puts the event's longevity down to "the Waikato's can-do attitude with a smile".
"The Fare has lasted so long because of the support we get and the event's credibility. It unites people of the Waikato with purpose and structure. They know the marking is credible and the medals are quality, and the faculty here at Wintec has fabulous commercial kitchens for competitors to work in.
"And all profits from the Fare go back into grants to each school."
WHAT: Waikato Culinary Fare
WHEN: July 6-7.
WHERE: Centre for Hospitality, Wintec's Rotokauri campus. The public is welcome.
BEST OF THE WAIKATO
Favourite coffee shop? How do you take your coffee? I love the coffee at The Hub Cafe at the City Wintec Campus. I have an Americano with some milk on the side.
Favourite brunch spot? What would you order? Should I actually say this? The Hillcrest Bakery, lamb sandwich, on brown bread with salad, mint sauce and gravy $6.50. The thing is, now they see me coming and make it straight away.
Best park? My best park is Narrows Golf Club. I'm not that good so I get to see an awful lot of it.
Best watering hole? What's your poison? The Helm. It's so friendly and the great outdoor flow is fantastic. I enjoy a Heineken, but any of their tap beer is great.
Best date spot? To the top of the Hakarimata Walkway. Not only great exercise, the view is to die for.
Best view? My season tickets at Waikato Stadium without doubt offer the best view in town.
Where would you take tourists? I'm lucky enough to travel outside of New Zealand a few times a year, and without a doubt people want to come to see Hobbiton! But I think Zealong Tea is also worth a visit.
A fond memory from the region? The last time the Lions were in Waikato and played the New Zealand Maori All Blacks. It was an incredible event like no other game I have been to.
Favourite weekend/holiday getaway in the Waikato? Raglan is a great spot for shopping, beach walks and swimming. The fish and chips from the Raglan Wharf are worth the visit.
What are you drinking? You can't go past a Good George brew, especially Amber Ale. What's great is now when you are out of the Waikato it's available everywhere.
What Waikato product/ produce can you not do without this season? Profile Foods, their range of products is everywhere now and is just great quality.
Favourite day trip with the kids – where and why? Karapiro Domain is a great spot for camping and water skiing.
What is Waikato's best-kept secret? Hamilton Gardens and our walk/cycleways along the river. They're absolutely world class.
Source: Waikato Times/Fairfax NZ