Last November, Lai Jia Yi’s life became very, very hectic. The 20-year-old culinary arts student from HELP University had just registered for the 9th Nestle Professional Culinary Arts Award (CAA) and needed time to practise his cooking skills. But he also had an internship at a major hotel in Kuala Lumpur which took up 12 hours of his day, five days a week.

So on the two days of the week that he was free, he didn’t sleep in like most young students would have. Instead, despite the weary ache in his bones, he pushed aside the addictive tug of sleep and woke up bright and early, splitting his time between studying French (he intends to pursue extra culinary training in France) and intensively practising and honing his cooking skills in the kitchen for six hours a day.

His coach, Shanmugam Rajoo also pushed him to go big or go home, meeting him a couple of times a week to discuss recipe ideas and talk about food trends and plating.

Last Saturday, all the months of hard work paid off when Lai emerged victorious at the CAA, held in UNITAR International University. He beat out his closest competition, first runner-up Tan How Mun from Berjaya University (who himself practised 12 hours a day leading up to the competition) and second runner-up Munirah Aisyah Ibrahim from USCI, as well as eight other eager culinary arts students from various colleges and universities in Malaysia.

Nestle Professional’s CAA competition is a three-day battle to be the best. From left: Second runner-up Munirah, champion Lai and first runner-up Tan.

Nestle Professional’s CAA competition is a three-day battle to be the best. From left: Second runner-up Munirah, champion Lai and first runner-up Tan.

Shanmugam also bagged the award for Coach of the Year, his first win in six years of entering the competition.

“I’ve always wanted to be a chef since secondary school, and this was a great challenge for me. It tested my efficiency and ability in the kitchen,” said a jubilant Lai.

Now in its ninth edition, the CAA is only open to top students from colleges that offer culinary arts diploma programmes and is supported by Skills Malaysia, a programme developed by Jabatan Pembangunan Kemahiran (JPK) and endorsed by the Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH).

As the winner, Lai not only wins a cash prize of RM3,000 but will also intern for six months at Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur under the guidance of the hotel’s Executive Chef, Antoine Rodriquez.

On top of all that, perhaps the most lucrative carrot dangled his way is the chance to participate at the 2016 Asean Skills Competition in Kuala Lumpur. If he emerges victorious there, Lai will go on to the 2017 World Skills Competition in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Wong said Nestle is committed to supporting the CAA competition for the foreseeable future as it understands the need to groom promising students into professional chefs.

Wong: The students put a lot of hard work and passion into the competition.

According to Jasmmine Wong, Nestle Professional’s Country Business Manager, the three-day competition really put the competitors through their paces. “When I went around the kitchen watching these young chefs in action, it dawned on me that it’s not easy at all. There is so much hard work and passion that goes into it, and every year the standards are higher and it’s very competitive,” she said.

The 11 contestants had to go through three gruelling days of competition, and were tested on their ability to make stuffed pasta and canapes (day 1) and tenderloin steak and panna cotta (day 2). On the final day, there was a black box competition where contestants were given mystery ingredients which they had to transform into a three-course meal.

The judges for the competition included head judge Rodriquez as well as other culinary bigwigs like celebrity chefs Johari Edrus and Sabri Hassan; Sheraton Imperial KL Director of Culinary, Restaurant & Bar, Chef Rajesh Khanna; owner of German Delicatessen Chef Nazrin; and Executive Pastry Chef of Cilantro School of Patisserie, Chef Chern Chee Hong.

The judges kept watch over the contestants, dissecting their work and judging them on kitchen skills, visual appeal of their food, taste and texture, among other things.

Rodriguez said this year’s CAA showed improvement in terms of how students managed safety and hygiene issues in the kitchen, as well as plating and mastery of new cooking techniques.

Rodriguez said the competition gave students a taste of whether they could hack it in the real world.

Rodriguez noticed that while certain things improved dramatically this year – namely hygiene and safety in the kitchen as well as plating and mastery of new cooking techniques like slow-cooking and sous vide – other elements, like mastering the doneness of meat, were still lacking.

“I was still a bit disappointed by the doneness, which was average,” he said, not mincing his words.

Given the intensity of a proper commercial kitchen, Rodriguez said the competition also gave students a taste of whether they could hack it in the real world or not.

“At culinary school, students pay the school and are considered clients, so they are pampered. But when they arrive in a commercial kitchen, a mistake is money down the drain, so it’s another world. Some people can take it and others can’t, and this competition gives them more exposure to that environment,” said Rodriguez.

Recognising the importance of the CAA competition in moulding promising culinary talents, Wong said Nestle will continue to support the competition in the future.

“It’s in our DNA, it’s a long-term plan to develop future chefs,” said Wong.