"Four teams of student chefs had to create a three-course meal in collaboration with one of the four sponsoring wine farms," one of my Oldenburg Chardonnay table-mates explains as we take our seats in Reuben's Restaurant. "Each team then presented their dishes to the seven judges at a Nobu dinner last month. And now we get to taste the best of what they made. So it really is a great opportunity for them to showcase their talent!"
Indeed it is, as many of the 120 guests agree between mouthfuls of the finalist dishes served at the gala lunch. The entrée is a Franschhoek trout salad with beetroot ravioli and horseradish foam. The starter is smoked salmon cheese roulade served on potato cakes with chive mayonnaise and vegetable salsa. The main course - designed to look like Table Mountain and the three Disa Towers - is braised pork with bok choy and wontons served with butternut, asparagus, and Shimeji mushrooms.
Annette Kesler, editor of online food portal showcook.com (organiser of the Inter-Hotel Challenge and this event), captures the collective sentiment. "The standard has changed and improved dramatically, which mirrors the improvement in South African cuisine that is beginning to come of age," she says. "These young chefs have raised the bar tremendously."
Of course, as many a reality TV show proves, not everyone who can cook can also be a competitor. But keynote speaker Nadia Bilchik offers hands-on exercises to help the young chefs and wine stewards handle the complexity and stress of the hospitality industry. As President of Greater Impact Communication and an Associate Producer of CNN - where she's interviewed the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Richard Gere - it's clear that she's learned a lot about self-confidence and inspiring a crowd.
But even after the upbeat presentation (which includes a few Oprah-esque giveaways) the finalists are still nervous. Glancing over at them, it's easy to understand where the phrase "on the edge of your seats" comes from. Good thing it's almost time to announce the prizes, starting with the Brandy Cocktail winner.
Christelle Reade-Jahn (Director of the South African Brandy Foundation) presents the award, which was judged by Johan Blaauw (Assistant Food & Beverage Manager One&Only Cape Town) and Danie Pretorius (general manager of the South African Brandy Foundation). The winner is Matthew Rohleder from Granger Bay for his creation 'The Brandle'. I make a note to look out for it at next year's Fine Brandy Fusion.
Next up, food and wine commentator Michael Olivier announces the wine steward winners. He points out how challenging it must be for chefs to know what to do when scientific research on carbs and salt and fats seems to change and contradict every other month. "But the future of our cuisine is in very safe hands," he says, although he does insist that some of the students learn how to use a corkscrew in mid-air.
Fourth prize goes to Leandré Müller of The Hurst Campus (supported by Oldenburg Wines). Third, second, and first prizes all go to students from the Cape Town Hotel School (part of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology): Morgan-Rae Doose supported by Slaley Wines, Stephanie Boettger supported by Villiera Wines, and Thandoxolo Nqaphayi supported by Solms-Delta.
Finally, celebrity chef Reuben Riffel announces the chef winners. "It's been a privilege to be a judge and a nice way to give back," he says. "I am very impressed by the standard. But remember that you are only as good as your last plate. And even though criticism is never easy to handle, you have to keep giving it your best."
Fourth prize goes to Mackayla Heneke and Olwethu Kondu of Cape Town Hotel School (supported by Solms-Delta). Third prize goes to Zachary Shaik and Joshua Mara of International Hotel School (supported by Oldenburg Wines). Second prize goes to Cuan Butterworth and Natasha Jacka of Silwood Cookery School (supported by Slaley Wines). And first prize goes to Stirling Shaw and Natalie Pinto of South African Chefs Academy (supported by Villiera Wines).
"You need a trolley to take all these prizes home!" Olivier laughs as winners struggle to hold up their bounty while smiling for the cameras. The lot includes appliances from key sponsor KitchenAid South Africa, books from Struik Lifestyle, Lancewood cheeseboards, and an assortment of other goodies from SA Brandy, the wine sponsors, the South African Pork Producers Organisation, Scanpan, Lindt, and One&Only Cape Town.
With the formalities out of the way, it's time to enjoy dessert, which happens to be the winner's dish: caramel mousse, milk ice cream, lemon cremeux, and pecan brittle. "I wonder if Tim Noakes would approve?" someone at my table asks. She takes a sip of Oude Meester Demant Brandy and a piece of nougat from the tray of One&Only chocolate treats. My suspicion that Mr Banting wouldn't be pleased doesn't stop me or the rest of us from indulging in what's on our plates.
I'm tempted to spend all afternoon wining and dining with the crowd. But, much like many are already doing, I leave to beat the traffic. The traffic beats me instead. "It's 15:30 on a Friday afternoon," my Uber driver says. "Most of Cape Town is already on their way home from work!"
I suspect this wouldn't be the case in Johannesburg. But it's hard to be upset after such memorable cuisine. Perhaps I'll do the smart thing next year and clear away my afternoon appointments so that I can linger longer. With such good food, you might as well stay and make a meal of it.