NI's top chefs wowed at FutureChef talent as 2023 winner announced

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Annual competition where curious cooks aiming for hospitality careers attempt to shine

It’s the annual competition where curious cooks aiming for a career in hospitality chop, season and sauté their way to be crowned FutureChef NI champion.

This year’s winner, Kristen Nugent from Dungannon, created a Fermanagh Chicken Tasting Plate as her winning main course and an apple upside down cake for dessert, which judges Noel McMeel, Sean Owens, last year’s winner Michael Thompson and chef Geoff Baird from event sponsor, Henderson Foodservice, all agreed took the most points for taste, presentation, value, provenance and minimal waste.

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Kristen, who attends St Ciaran’s College in Ballygawley was the runner up in the competition last year, and was mentored by local Dungannon chef, James Devine throughout her time in the competition.

Kristen Nugent who attends St. Ciaran’s College, Ballygawley has won this year’s FutureChef Northern Ireland final, and will now go to London to represent Northern Ireland at the UK-wide final in MarchKristen Nugent who attends St. Ciaran’s College, Ballygawley has won this year’s FutureChef Northern Ireland final, and will now go to London to represent Northern Ireland at the UK-wide final in March
Kristen Nugent who attends St. Ciaran’s College, Ballygawley has won this year’s FutureChef Northern Ireland final, and will now go to London to represent Northern Ireland at the UK-wide final in March

FutureChef is the annual initiative from Springboard, the charity that is committed to nurturing young talent and promoting hospitality as a great place to work. FutureChef is Springboard’s flagship educational programme and is supported by supplier to the hospitality industry across Ireland, Henderson Foodservice.

Kristen was selected as the winner from 1,650 students who registered to take part in this year’s competition, which is more than double the number from last year.

Hannah Dunn, a student at Enniskillen Royal Grammar School, was named runner up. Hannah was mentored by Lough Erne Resort’s new head chef, Stephen Holland.

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Chef Geoff Baird, Business Development Chef at Henderson Foodservice commented; “Kristen is a hugely worthy winner, and blew us all away with her consideration of flavours, local produce and conscientious cooking.

“While the local hospitality sector has bounced back well thanks to its collective determination and graft post-lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, recruitment is still a significant challenge, alongside rising energy costs, which threaten our vibrant offering here in Northern Ireland.

“Initiatives like FutureChef enable us to keep the younger generation excited about the sector, and see it as a credible, exciting and ambitious career path. We don’t want them to see the challenges as a barrier to their cooking or management ambitions, as we need their creativity and energy, alongside the skills which each participant has shown and learnt throughout this entire competition.”

Dr Mark Browne, permanent secretary, Department of Education added; “The future successes of our local industries begin in our schools where learning often extends outside of the classroom. Our young people need to be encouraged with their creativity and initiatives like Springboard’s FutureChef will not only help them learn more about what they need to succeed in a future career in hospitality, but also arm them with vital and practical skills and knowledge from their professional mentors early on.

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“This is a fantastic initiative and I send my congratulations to all the finalists, and this year’s winner, Kristen.”

Kristen will now head to London in March to represent Northern Ireland in the UK-wide FutureChef final.

Caitriona Lennox, head of Springboard NI added; “Northern Ireland has a natural passion for local produce, farming, excellent restaurants and creative chefs, and many of them have been participants in FutureChef competitions over the past 24 years.

“We are delighted for Kristen and her winning dish, and are grateful to our mentors, judges and competition sponsor Henderson Foodservice for lending their time, knowledge and skills to our participants over the past few months. This has been a fantastic year for the competition, and if the talent and ambition we have seen this year is any indicator, the future of hospitality in Northern Ireland is in great hands!”

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The finalists who cooked up a storm at Belfast Met’s Titanic Quarter campus, alongside winner Kristen were runner up Hannah Dunn, mentored by chef Stephen Holland from Lough Erne Resort; Mollie Sloan, mentored by Chef Artur Fron from 2Taps restaurant in Belfast; Ella Wray, mentored by chef Jack Mooney from the Marine Hotel in Ballycastle; James Webber, mentored by Sodexo chef, Cathy Adamson; Alex Maguire, mentored by chef Chris Furey of Me and Mrs Jones in Portstewart; Cassie McAleavey, mentored by chef Darragh Dooley from Killeavy Castle Estate; and Lauren Blake, mentored by chef Stephen Higginson from The Square Bistro in Lisburn.

Last year’s FutureChef winner, Michael Thompson from East Belfast joined fellow judges as a floating judge for the final, and says his passion for cooking has only grown since winning the competition in 2022; “It’s great to be back and not feel the heat this year! Since winning last year, I have been cooking in a professional kitchen and feel grateful for this part-time job opportunity that came after winning FutureChef last year.”

Since the FutureChef competition began in 1999, almost 200,000 young people aged 12-16 have taken part and learned how to cook, developing their skills and knowledge with many going on to establish themselves within the industry. Throughout this time, the competition has progressed and developed to form part of the overall Springboard FutureChef programme which offers industry links, online resources, module learning, careers advice and guidance, and a suite of teacher resources.

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