A young chef has spent the summer holidays diligently perfecting his cheese-melting, sauce making and filleting skills ahead of an international competition.
Dominic Muollo-Gray, who grew up in Marlborough, leaves for India on January 26, where he will represent New Zealand in the Young Chef Olympiad 2020. The culinary cook-off tests kitchen etiquette and sustainable practices as much as taste and presentation.
The 22-year-old was selected while halfway through a City and Guilds cookery course at WelTec. He "just slid under" the cut-off age of 23.
When the selection team visited the class, Muollo-Gray "grabbed a nice plate" and decided to cook cauliflower au gratin with spring onions.
"It was just what we were making that day for the course, but I thought, 'I'll have to make it special', so I added the spring onions," he said.
"I just made sure everything was grilled properly, and the cheese melted just right. And they could see the effort I was putting in. I worked fast, worked cleanly, but they could see I knew what I wanted to do as well."
The one-year tertiary course was "done at a pretty high standard", as an internationally-recognised qualification, and Muollo-Gray had been enjoying the "science behind each recipe".
"They teach you a lot of old school ways of cooking, that people don't even use any more. Even things like a croque monsieur, which is really just like a toasted sandwich.
"This week we're doing fish, like filleting a full fish. We made gnocchi with sage beurre blanc, which is really just gnocchi cooked in like a butter sauce, but you cook it til it's just brown, with parmesan and sage. It's an old classic recipe, but you can go to any restaurant and find it, even though it's been around for hundreds of years."
Muollo-Gray learnt his love of food from watching his mother in the kitchen, who had also trained as a chef, cooking family favourites such as ribs, Indonesian meatballs, and self-saucing pudding as a Christmas staple.
"I just watched her, spending time cooking recipes for her big family, it's always such an inclusive thing to do.
"Coming out of college I was looking at going into the army, but I sustained an injury, and I didn't know where to go with that."
Working at Domino's, he liked the "seamless" organisation of the pizza kitchen, but despite "levelling up" to manager of a Hells Pizza branch in Wellington, "I wondered where I would go from there," he said.
"I started applying to work in restaurant kitchens but nobody would take me. So I signed up to do a one-year course, just to get a piece of paper to say I can cook. One month in, I was getting job offers, even from places I'd just been turned down at. People figure as a student chef, you must know what you're doing."
Balancing coursework, a part-time job and training for the competition had been "completely draining".
"But it's a really awesome opportunity, and I wouldn't have the opportunity if it wasn't for WelTec. I'm just really honoured. It's a pretty surreal experience," he said.
"I'm still kind of waiting for the emotions to kick in. It's a really big competition. The biggest thing for me will be meeting a whole lot of people and, not to take the fun out of it, but I'll have more of a brand after and that will help me get a job after all this."
Muollo-Gray will compete against six other chefs in the first round, hopefully progressing to a second round, before competing in the Top 10 and the finals. The young chefs would be marked on taste, presentation, cleanliness, hygiene and minimising waste.
"It's not just about cooking, it's about kitchen etiquette too ... They will even check your bin and make sure you're not wasting lots of vegetables."
He hoped to find a job back home in Marlborough, having heard that the restaurant scene had developed since his college years.
"I'll still want to be learning a bunch of stuff.
"People talk about getting a job you love, because then you'll always love going to work, and I never understood that. I knew I'd like making money. But now I get to do what I would have been doing anyway, experimenting with food, and if I can get paid for it, that's amazing."
Written by Jennifer Eder for The Marlborough Express
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