In tall white hats and long aprons, the young chefs grinned nervously as they were introduced to the judges and audience in the television studio. They were the semi-finalists in the first nationally televised cooking contest. The winner's career will receive a great boost as they shoot to instant fame. The contestants on Thursday's show featured young chefs below the age of 30. In the first test the chefs were asked to display their skills by carving and arranging a cold platter. A young chef from Henan won by a slim margin by designing a peacock spreading its splendid tail of colourful edibles. The second section is a quiz examining knowledge of food and food preparation, which the chef from the southwestern Yunnan province won hands down. For the key part of the contest, the chefs had to prepare four dishes based on the theme, 'Looking for plum blossoms in the snow'. The chefs sliced, diced, chopped, carved, stuffed, blanched, fried, steamed and basted, as they raced against the clock. The Yunnan chef, with his quick wit and broad knowledge, emerged on top and won a place in the final. The five judges, comprising three nationally renowned chefs and two food connoisseurs, made comments that blended serious professional discussion with light-hearted banter. The final will be shown next Monday. The show promotes the art of cooking in a country that takes its food very seriously. Experts say China's thriving restaurant industry is a testament to the growing economy. Zhang Shiyao, chairman of the Chinese Cuisine Association, a sponsor of the show, said the catering industry will play an important role in boosting China's domestic consumption and developing its national economy. The restaurant industry is facing a serious task as it tries to get consumers to spend more money in their establishments. Chinese consumers are getting increasingly picky. They were constantly looking for new culinary experiences, said Lin Zepu, a special adviser to the China Cuisine Association and a veteran judge of cooking contests. 'The life cycle of eateries featuring specialty dishes is getting shorter and shorter,' he said. 'To stay competitive, top restaurants must constantly find something new to attract and retain customers.' Competition to find novelty approaches has often gone to extremes. A safari park in Hainan was recently reported to be planning to breed tigers for meat. Although the story turned out to be a hoax, it reflects the pressure to come up with something new. Generally, novelty fare takes a much more benign form. For example, obscure regional specialties, such as wild mushrooms and ferns from the old growth forest, have recently become fashionable. Herbal medicines are also used to create new dishes. Chefs had also drawn inspiration from foreign cuisine, Mr Lin said. While traditionalists may frown on China's nouvelle cuisine, the China Cuisine Association actively promotes innovation, in part to strengthen the domestic industry in the face of foreign competition. The Chinese restaurant industry could not afford to be complacent, Chen Hai, a columnist for World Cuisine, said. The spectacular success of American fast food outlets, as well as the popularity of Japanese and Korean restaurants in many Chinese cities, attest to the strong appeal of those foods to Chinese consumers. With the tariffs on imported foods coming down under the rules of the World Trade Organisation, Western cuisine will become increasingly affordable. Surveys indicate that if prices were the same for Chinese and Western food, many people, especially the younger generation, would often opt for the foreign option. To stay ahead of the competition, many restaurants try to devise new recipes. China's Patent Office accepts registration for new recipes, but it is almost impossible to enforce patent protection on new dishes. Key ingredients of a secret recipe can be figured out quite easily, Mr Lin said. 'Restaurants cannot rely on the patent law to protect their business,' he said. 'They are better off making a name for themselves by creating a unique dining experience, which includes not only food, but also the ambience, service, and so on.' The success of a restaurant hinges largely on its chef. These days the elite chefs command good salaries, enjoy rising social status and have the opportunity to work in Chinese restaurants overseas. Some have become wealthy restaurant owners. As a result, many talented young people are attracted to the trade. Some vocational schools, such as the ones in Chengdu, Yangzhou, Harbin and Wuhan have become known for their catering and management programmes. Famous chefs also take on apprentices to pass on their trade secrets. With competition so stiff, budding chefs are extremely keen to display their culinary prowess. Preparation for the fifth national tournament of chefs has begun for next year's contest. Yang Liu, vice-secretary general of the trade group, said the event was expected to draw more than 4,000 contestants.