The concentration is palpable inside the Sleeping Beauty ballroom. In the space inside the Disneyland hotel, a group of young women put the finishing touches to a cold buffet for 30 people. As the clock ticks toward the 6pm deadline, the room is a blur of chef's whites. It's the final practice run for the Hong Kong Chefs Association (HKCA) team, which is competing against 10 other teams from around the region, including Korea, Japan and Taiwan, at the annual Food & Hotel Asia Gourmet Challenge, taking place in Singapore today and tomorrow. The challenge requires teams to 'plate', or assemble for presentation, 24 original dishes - salads, meat and seafood platters, tapas and cold appetisers, desserts and a bread basket - all in an hour. The completed buffet will be graded by three judges on ingredients, presentation and, most importantly, the taste and texture of the food. Points are deducted for improper hygiene at any time. 'You're looking at the result of meeting every week for three months. This is our third full trial,' says 26-year-old team captain Harmony Pang Oi-man, gesturing at the multi-tiered buffet table lined with plates of hors d'oeuvres and sliced terrines. 'We're each responsible for executing a different section, and I'll be the one bringing the judges around to explain the whole spread.' The HKCA cooks have today to unpack and prepare the materials, equipment and food they've brought from Hong Kong before tomorrow morning's plating - working without a designated hot kitchen and fielding unannounced visits from judges throughout the day. 'We've never worked together before but we've gelled as a team,' says Pang. 'I've been too busy to get nervous about the actual event.' On the eve of their departure for Singapore, the five young women that comprise the team seem unaware of the benchmark they're setting for Hong Kong's professional kitchens. 'My aim has always been to encourage aspiring chefs,' says team manager Mak Kam-kui. 'And with this year's competition, in particular, the opportunity goes to young women in the industry. There are some aspects in which our female cooks are excelling - attention to detail and cleanliness, to name a couple. As far as I know, there has never been an all-female team from Hong Kong entering an Asian regional culinary competition.' Hunched over the tiny plating dishes during rehearsal, oblivious to the growing number of taste-testers gathering, the first-time competitors demonstrate the all-important focus prized by head chefs. 'We have a very smart bunch who are very persistent,' says Mak. 'They have been working full-time kitchen jobs on top of preparing for the competition. They're every bit as hardy as the old-timers and haven't complained once.' Mak, who works as chef de cuisine at Disneyland Hong Kong with executive chef and HKCA president Rudolf Muller, is no stranger to competitive cooking. Representing Hong Kong in international competitions since 1994, he was part of chef Angelo McDonnell's 'Hot Tomato Team' that brought home the Best Gourmet Team prize from the 2006 competition. Within the competition circuit, Mak had observed the growing number of women on certain teams, and the frequency with which those teams met with success. In January, he pitched the idea of an all-women team to the HKCA for the 2008 competition. It was received with enthusiasm and the requisite HK$250,000 expense budget was met well before the fund-raising deadline. Without holding formal tryouts or one-on-one interviews, Mak relied on the recommendations of his peers in his search for talent. From a pool of 10 candidates, Pang, Tammy Fan, Katherine Li Yen-ting, Milky Lui Si-yin and Jean Ho Man-yan - all women at the beginning of their kitchen careers - were chosen. These young cooks are often the sole female in some of the most prestigious kitchens in Hong Kong, which gave them the advantage of being easy to spot. 'A colleague of mine working at Nobu [in the InterContinental Hotel] told me about the recruitment,' says the team's pastry cook Fan, who works in the pastry kitchen at SPOON by Alain Ducasse in the same hotel. 'He encouraged me to apply, and when I told my chef [Christophe Grilo], he was very supportive.' To round out the delegation, Mak also recruited three more experienced chef advisers from the Langham Place Hotel, Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre and The Jockey Club. 'There may be remnants of institutional bias against women but we don't support that,' says Chris Gallaga, HKCA sponsor and PR rep. 'HKCA supports the mindset of equal opportunity, and these are the best cooks we've got.' Pang, who was nominated by McDonnell, started her journey into the profession in her dormitory kitchen in England where she was a theatre and fashion student. She taught herself by reading cookbooks and trying recipes. 'Great chefs are like celebrities in Europe,' she says. 'I realised there that cooking was a respectable profession.' On returning to Hong Kong, Pang took that path. Her first job was at Cafe de Paris and in three short years, her hard work and talent enabled her to move up the rank to sous chef at Silver Hero (I Lounge) in SoHo. Although the cooking profession is heavily dominated by men, the women say this isn't an issue at their workplaces. Ho, who is focusing on appetisers and tapas for the competition, worked in several western kitchens straight out of tourism school before joining the HKCEC in 2006, where she says she feels 'like one of the guys'. She doesn't see a division between the male cooks and herself. Instead, 'It's more about age,' she says. 'Those of us who are young and single naturally bond more; we'll go out for drinks after work and hang out. The married cooks have different priorities.' Fan, who grew up in Taiwan and went to hotelier school in the US, is the only one on the team who has worked in a kitchen outside of Hong Kong. For her, the initial differences were cultural. 'Because I wasn't brought up in Hong Kong, I found it hard in the beginning to blend in with the rest of the kitchen team. The work hours seem endless here. I definitely miss overtime pay,' she says, laughing. 'But I'm young and I'm here to learn. Every day there's something new that crops up.' One thing the women can all agree on is the enormous value in being on this team, and they're eager to tap competition veteran Mak's understanding of the industry. Strategising on their chosen theme of 'Flowers and Femininity,' each team member brought their own ideas to the table; Mak and the other advisers then helped them refine their vision while imparting tricks of the trade. The team's resulting menu uses Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian flavours in the savoury dishes, and citrus fruit and chocolate combinations for the desserts. It showcases light and colourful ingredients, using olive oil instead of butter for most of the cooking. 'Nowadays, more people are health conscious,' says Mak. 'Foie gras and other heavy delicacies are no longer as popular. The team members can take that knowledge and apply it to their own repertoire.' Pang regards this challenge as a lesson in leadership and the start to bigger and better things, which she hopes will include other opportunities to travel and work abroad - in particular Spain, home of restaurant El Bulli and the cutting edge cuisine of its chef, Ferran Adria. For Mak, the goal is to raise Hong Kong's profile as a global hub for fine dining, and to foster a new generation of team players and talent. 'Many of the cooks who have participated in past competitions come back to help, and enjoy the excitement,' says Mak. 'It's a good bonding experience.' On the day of the third and final test run, the team has gone a little over time, but Mak eyes the display approvingly. 'I'm pretty confident about our chances of winning,' he says. 'But the important thing is for the team to make the most of this experience. I hope our young women see the success of my generation, and know it's possible for them to excel as well. Frankly, we need more women in the industry.' Pang agrees: 'I know I need to go abroad and see what's out there. But further down the line, when I start my own restaurant here, there will definitely be a more balanced mix of men and women in my kitchen.'