Frying their way to a scholarship
Dabbing off the last bit of stray sauce from the plate, the last 10 chefs step back and wipe the sweat off their foreheads, waiting for their dishes to be collected and judged.
They are among 59 culinary students from the Vocational Training Council's (VTC) Chinese Cuisine Training Institute competing for a chance to win a chunk of the HK$1 million in scholarships offered by Hong Kong Disneyland. More than 175 students in the VTC's tourism, culinary and design institutes are eligible for the awards.
Each chef presents the same stir-fried meat dish, prepared within 30 minutes. Half the candidates will be picked, so tensions ran high.
The selection process spans two months and includes two rounds of interviews that test the applicants' practical skills and attitude.
A candidate's performance in class is considered, but the adjudicators are looking for more than just a student with good grades. They want someone with potential to grow, a person who has a good attitude and a determination to do well.
The selection process is divided into two parts: a team interview and a test of practical skills. During the team interview, the applicants' ability to take orders as well as to lead, problem-solving skills, and attitude are tested. There is also an individual question-and-answer section in which an applicant's ability to react to problems on the spot is tested. For example, he or she may be asked to perform a song or even a dance.
In the second part, applicants must solve a practical problem, such as cooking a stir-fry dish within a time limit.
One of the judges, Vivian Fung, director of external affairs at Hong Kong Disneyland, says the theme park is looking for people with team spirit, who, regardless of their roles, will 'pick up rubbish off the floor' to keep the environment visually appealing for visitors.
Another judge, chef Mak Kam-kui - a former VTC student who now works as the executive sous chef of Western cuisine at Hong Kong Disneyland - says that in the second round, the taste of the food is not the key. Instead, he says, 'safety [of the food and the kitchen environment] and the passion of the chef are more important factors'.
The passion and dedication of the students can easily be seen in the works they present to the judges, Mak says.
'The most dedicated students will make sure that even the garnish on the dishes is uniformly shaped' and will remember to 'wipe the rims of their dishes' to enhance the visual appeal and provide the customer with the best possible culinary experience.
This is not the first time the VTC and Disney have worked together. In the past few years, many students from various faculties have been offered apprenticeships with the theme park operator.
Josephine Kea, the VTC's deputy academic director, says: 'Learning in class is only one part of the equation. Hands-on experience is crucial for students to understand the industry.
'Most students come back from these work placements with a better personal and work ethic.'