Chef of the year

When Sunshine Coast chef Tom Hitchcock won 2023 Australian Professional Chef of the Year it was part of a plan for success he hatched a long time ago. The 29 year-old father of two and Head Chef at award-winning Spirit House at Yandina, Queensland, decided he wanted to become a chef in year eight. “Cooking was the only subject I ever got straight A’s in,” says Tom with a grin.

This year he won the much-coveted title and around $10,000 in cash and prizes at Foodservice Australia. It was a high-stakes black box cooking competition against the clock and 32 other finalists from across the nation. Top chefs such as Scott Pickett and George Calombaris judged the final dishes.

“They judge you, not just on the final dish,” says Tom. “It’s not MasterChef. They judge you on real life criteria all the way through the cooking process. Things like hygiene, benchwork, organisation and flow, the very basics of cooking.” These core skills were something Tom learned in his early days working in high volume hotels such as Mercure, Yeppoon, and Novotel, Twin Waters. He also learned to appreciate the discipline of repetition. “We would make croissants,” he says. “But not just a dozen. We would bake hundreds. Every day. Breakfast buffet, lunch, dinner, room service. Day after day. I would not change that experience for all the money in the world. It defined my skill base as a chef.”

The black box challenge sees every one of the 32 finalists given key ingredients with which to make four serves each of an entrée and a main dish. The aim of the challenge is for the chef to highlight the flavours of the key ingredients. The judges taste the dishes and award further points for eye appeal and flavour. “The entrée almost did me in,” says Tom. “I was going to sear the scallops but then decided to make a ceviche instead,” he says. “I started making the dish and found myself with my scallops in a searing hot pan. I pulled them out, let them rest and then finely sliced these scallops into a fan with a fine sear mark on one side only,” says Tom with a laugh. “George Calombaris came up to me and asked if that was a new technique!” Tom finished the scallops with a sauce made with the cooking juices, fish sauce and sugar with cream. He served them alongside finely sliced Swiss brown mushrooms marinated in kecap manis which gave them a caramelised look and cooked flavour.

The main course was also a tightrope. Tom decided to use the squid for the main. “You know that arrowhead squid toughens quickly,’ one of the judges warned me,” says Tom. “But I trimmed and pounded and tenderised it, and cooked it in oil and butter and then hit it with lime juice to kill the heat and stop the cooking. I made a split green curry using a pre-made base they gave us in the box but freshening it up with kaffir lime, fresh galangal and lemongrass. I used both coconut cream and cream because they each carry flavour to different parts of the palate. To highlight the split, marbled look I made oil with warrigal greens to emphasise the green.” The judges awarded the prize to Tom saying that he was the most consistent, even during the heats. His bench was immaculate, he was confident with the ingredients and his flavours always hit the mark.

Tom says the Australian Professional Chef of the Year competition was an amazing chance to see raw talent from a cohort of mostly younger chefs.” You can pick the passionate ones,” says Tom. “The people who love cooking. Even if I didn’t win, I would be super stoked to take part. I had my focus on just getting through the heats and I would have been happy.” Tom has invested the cash component of his prize money and will put that towards his own restaurant that he plans to open in the future. He was one of the leading creative forces behind The Curated Plate on the Sunshine Coast in July and will be cooking at Fine Food Australia in Sydney in September. In the meantime, he is focusing on his work at Spirit House, particularly the periodic chef’s table. This is an exclusive eight-course dinner for just 16 guests where he teams up with other chefs to highlight different cuisines. He recently worked with Michael Nugent, his French-born Sous Chef, to show how French technique can work with Asian ingredients. “It took me eight years to win chef of the year,” says Tom proudly. “Now I need to set myself some new goals.”

As seen in Spring 2023

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