Imagine being handed a mystery box of ingredients and being asked to prepare two courses in 30 minutes. Now imagine doing the same thing in front of a giant crowd.

This is precisely the challenge that Zeb Gilbert of Wasabi Restaurant in Noosa, Michelin star chef Luca Ciano, and their teams of North Coast TAFE apprentices were given during a unique and inspiring event at the Sample Food Festival last weekend.

Gilbert and two apprentice chefs, Ben Layton and Christine Stephens, won the day. After an action-packed 30 minutes, they presented two fresh and modern Asian-inspired dishes: prawns and chorizo with a crunchy cucumber and tomato salad with fresh Asian herbs and a seared Thai-spiced kangaroo fillet.

Layton and Stephens admitted being nervous to work with Gilbert and cooking in front of such a large crowd, but by the end of the challenge, they were beaming.

“Zeb made the whole process easy and fun and he was very nurturing,” Layton says. He was excited to discover kangaroo in the mystery box. “It’s a specialty mine, and it’s important for chefs to promote different kinds of meat.”

The experience was a valuable one for both Gilbert and his enthusiastic team.

“The food festival is a great opportunity for chefs and apprentices to see what local produce is around and see that you don’t need to leave the region to cook good food,” he said.

He added, “The opportunity for the apprentices is beneficial for learning new skills and networking. It exposes them to a new experience. What they learn in TAFE is a set curriculum, this gives them a chance to see something new, try new ingredients and give them the skills and confidence to try new recipes.”

Stephens agreed. “I was not so familiar with kangaroo but I’m excited now to go away try it myself,” she said.

Layton and Stephens said TAFE provides excellent opportunities for students to gain real-life, hands-on cooking experience through catering and cooking at local events. When the school offered them the opportunity to take part in the challenge, they both said they would be crazy not to take it.

Gilbert said he was excited to have been invited to the Sample Food Festival. “The opportunity to cook food using the incredible range of local ingredients from the Northern Rivers region is very cool,” he said. “The amount and variety of local products and ingredients is unique.”

He said the opportunity to meet local producers and hear their stories is really important.

“Their stories sell stuff. In my restaurant I like to tell the stories to customers of where their food has come from.”

Stephens, who is originally from Sydney, said she didn’t have an appreciation for where her food and produce came from came from until she moved to the Northern Rivers region. “It not only gives you an appreciation of where the food comes from,” she says, “but actually what farming and producing products and ingredients involves.”

Layton and Stephens would like to stay in the region when they complete their apprenticeships and open their own restaurants.

For Stephens, this would be a combined patisserie, book shop and café, while Layton is keen to promote the paddock-to-plate experience and indulge his passion for local produce and sustainable farming and cooking practices.

This story was produced as a part of “Eat Your Words by Le Cordon Bleu,” an immersive workshop on food and wine writing for new writers.

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