Nelson Freitas of Portugal has been named this year's winner of S. Pellegrino's Young Chef Academy, following two intense days of competition, with 15 regional finalists competing to impress the grand jury of globally renowned chefs.
Freitas was crowned the 2023 winner thanks to a dish featuring crispy red mullet, sea urchin and homemade black garlic, which the jury praised for its "powerful yet delicate flavours".
"Most of all, the chef demonstrated respect and love for the region and its heritage, memories and traditions. This dish was intense, creative and perfectly balanced," said Vicky Lau on behalf of the grand jury.
Competitors were each given five hours to prepare and cook their dish in the competition arena, before presenting it to the grand jury, which comprised Nancy Silverton, Vicky Lau, Hélène Darroze, Pía León and Riccardo Camanini.
Australian chef Robin Wagner, who won last year's Pacific regional final to qualify for the grand finale, made a strong showing with his dish Smoked Celeriac/Granny Smith Apple/Crispy Taro, impressing the judges with its technical complexity and strong sustainable focus.
The vegan dish uses just three core ingredients to create multiple contrasting elements that play with texture and temperature. As he presented it to the judges, Wagner explained that he wanted to hero vegetables and give them the same attention and respect typically reserved for proteins in fine-dining kitchens.
The judges praised Wagner's technique and innovation, but most importantly, the flavour of the dish, with Silverton declaring she would have kept eating it if she didn't have so many other dishes to try.
Wagner wasn't the only Australian in the competition, with Tasmanian-born Daniel Garwood representing the United States. Based in New York, where he is chef at the two Michelin star restaurant Atomix, Garwood began his career in Hobart, training under Luke Burgess at Garagistes, before moving to Copenhagen and, later, New York.
Celebrated Australian chef Dave Pynt of Burnt Ends in Singapore also served as a mentor, supporting the regional finalist for Asia, Ian Goh, who made it into the top three of the grand finale, alongside Freitas and France's Camille Saint-M'Leux.
The competition, which began in 2015, is designed to celebrate the future of fine dining and help young chefs build their careers through mentorship, networking and professional development, as well as helping to build their public profile.
As part of the event, an industry forum discussing the future of the industry took place, with an opening address by Virgilio Martinez, whose restaurant Central Restaurant in Peru was recently named the best in the world by World's 50 Best Restaurants.
Martinez focused his remarks on the importance of going beyond the buzz word of sustainability and instead focusing on transparency. "We need to humanise that word," he said. "From producers and farmers and fishermen to the pass," he said, encouraging chefs to really look at every layer of their supply chain and to "evaluate and redesign" if needed.
Massimo Bottura echoed this sentiment during his awards' night address, saying "The colours of ethics and sustainability must shine the brightest… I urge you to consider the ethical implications of every ingredient you use."
Emotional sustainability was also a hot topic at the forum, where chefs discussed the importance building a gentler, more respectful culture in kitchens to make hospitality a more appealing career choice for young people, and to prevent experienced staff from exiting the industry.
Hélène Darroze discussed how she had reduced her staff's working week to four days and set up a laundry room on site for staff to do their personal laundry at work, stressing how small changes can have a profound impact on kitchen culture.
"One of the most important issues to resolve is communication," added Pía León. "We need to take time to sit down and listen."