AS THE last precious seconds ticked away, Pierre Chan worked furiously to finish his dish. Beads of sweat began to form on his brow and he struggled to ignore the frenzied activity around him. Amidst the popping of flash-bulbs as the other competitors proudly displayed their creations to their supporters and the waiting media, Pierre put the finishing touches to his entry. He had made it, but only just Pierre, a Form Four student at Lai King Catholic Secondary School, was competing in the finals of the Chinese section of the 19th Towngas Inter-school Cooking Contest, held at the company's cooking centre recently. He was one of 24 budding young chefs from 11 schools who had successfully made it through the preliminary rounds of the competition. Along with fellow competitors, he sliced, diced, steamed and fried his way to create a whole series of culinary masterpieces. Competitors were judged on the preparation, presentation and flavour of their dishes. One of the judges, Ms Nancy Yiu who is Principal Lecturer of Home Economics at the Northcote College of Education, offered warm praise to the competitors and their entries. She said: ''The standard's extremely high this year, there's been a definite improvement from previous years.'' The contest allowed youngsters of very different ages to come together and compete in the same culinary arena. One of the youngest entrants in the junior section was eleven year-old Kennie Ko from the Good Hope School. She was, nevertheless, completely unconcerned about competing against people much older than herself. In the heated, tense atmosphere of the kitchen, she more than held her own against more experienced rivals. She said she has found cooking to be an extremely rewarding activity. ''I became interested in cooking when I was in Form Three and I joined a cooking club. When I cook I can make something beautiful - if it also tastes nice then I feel I've succeeded.'' So, have we found the next generation of super-chefs who will secure Hong Kong's reputation as a centre of culinary excellence well into the next century? Kennie says cooking is still only a hobby and Pierre was similarly nonchalant, confessing: ''I usually don't cook. The main reason I'm here is because I have some school friends who entered and I thought that it would be fun.'' And it was. Results will be announced this weekend.