Creating a stir in the restaurant world

FROM the windows of Craigie's farm cafe on the Dalmeny Estate, you can feast your eyes on the kind of view that gives tourism bosses the goose bumps.

&149 David Goold is a finalist for the Young Chef of the Year award

Edinburgh is laid out like the suckling pig of a grand banquet, surrounded by a swathe of green entrees; the odd tower block just a toothpick on the landscape.

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It's a view that Scott Spink has been able to gaze on every day. But he will soon have to forget all about it. After this month, the teenager - who could soon be crowned Scotland's Young Chef of the Year - will be leaving the sedate life of being a cafe pastry chef far behind for the heat, sweat and stainless steel of the Balmoral Hotel's Michelin-starred kitchens.

For even if he doesn't pick up the coveted title at the Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards, his journey to the final has seen him impress food luminaries such as Martin Wishart, Tom Kitchin, and even Jeff Bland. So much so that the latter has offered him a job.

The 19-year-old is up against tough competition for the Oscar of the food and drink industry. Another young Edinburgh talent, David Goold of Thistle Street's Cafe St Honore, is also in the running to win the title, as is Ross Marshall of the Road Hole Restaurant at the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews. There's a lot at stake. Last year's winner Alan Robertson of The Malt Barn restaurant at the Glenfiddich Distillery in Dufftown is now working in Michel and Albert Roux restaurant at the Rocpool Reserve Hotel in Inverness.

Perhaps it's the confidence of youth, but Scott seems undaunted by the fact his competitors have at least four years more experience than him.

"They are older, they've been cooking longer, and in proper restaurant kitchens, but I think I've done a good job getting to the final three. In fact it's been unbelievable," he says, a broad grin spreading across his face.

"I was encouraged to enter by the owners of Craigie's, but to get to the final... and then to be offered a job, and also a day's experience in Tom Kitchin's restaurant... well it's beyond anything I expected.

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"Of course it would be great to win the competition, but already I feel like I've won as my career is definitely going in the right direction."

Originally from Dunfermline, Scott says he's never had any doubt about what he wanted to do in his life. "I've always loved cooking. I was taught to bake by my mum, that's where it all started. Then I did home economics at school... there weren't too many lads doing that, so I got some stick from my mates, but I knew it's what I was interested in. As the years went on the ratio of boys to girls changed though, and I think that's the impact of celebrity chefs on television. For me it's been great to be able to watch these guys on TV and to be able to pick and choose the best bits."

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A Higher in hospitality at Carnegie College followed and at the same time a stint with Johnston Butchers in Dunfermline which he admits was "a real eye-opener", and then the Garvock House Hotel until he finished his course. "Then I came here. It's been fantastic."

Here is the renowned deli and cafe of Craigie's Farm, but while he's been whipping up enormous cakes, turning out perfect sponges, chocolate traybakes and sausage rolls by day, Scott continued to hone his cookery skills at home.

"One of the reasons I entered the competition was to keep my hand in, doing the kind of cooking I aspire to which I don't really get a chance to do at work. I have felt a bit constrained by that, as I do think with food you're expressing yourself on a plate."

As part of the contest the chefs had to enter a signature dish, then once the final three had been chosen, they had an intensive day at Martin Wishart's cook school where they were given a mystery bag of ingredients and had an hour to whip up a Michelin-standard dish, all before being grilled by the judges.

Scott's dish was a new take on the beef Wellington, using water buffalo meat and a haggis pate rather than mushroom. This was served with potato and kale gratin, wild mushroom foam, Chantarelle carrots, purple sprouting broccoli and asparagus. "Working at Craigie's has given me a real insight into the value of good, fresh vegetables, and looking for new ways of cooking and presenting them," he says. "But the competition was really intimidating.

"Getting the mystery bag... it would have been easy to panic, but I managed to hold it together," he laughs. He ended up creating a dish of pan-fried monkfish with spring greens ravioli in a buerre blanc sauce. "It all went well, but being judged by someone like Martin Wishart, well it was intimidating."

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His fellow competitor David Goold agrees - even though he's been working in a fine dining restaurant for three years. The 23-year-old, who is chef de partie in charge of sauces at Cafe St Honore, home of the newly crowned Scottish Chef of the Year Neil Forbes - says: "It was a nerve-wracking experience.

"While I do get to offer my opinion on dishes in the restaurant, and obviously practice creating dishes of my own, and I am used to dealing with 40 covers a night, it's not the same as having an hour to produce something great and then serve it to judges," he laughs. "It was pretty full-on."

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While David, from Cramond, has had a long interest in cooking like Scott, he didn't turn his hand to it until he had completed a degree in ancient history at Edinburgh University.

"Not quite the obvious start to a career as a chef, but I knew it was where my real interest lay," he says. "I always cooked with my mum and I was the one who did the cooking for my flatmates at university so we didn't just live on beans on toast, and I would hold dinner parties so I could practise. When I left university I knew the head chef at Cafe St Honore as he'd gone to school with my brother so he gave me some work experience. I was here for about two weeks and someone quit so I was offered a job."

Like Scott, David started on pastry and desserts to gain experience and has now risen through the ranks to be the sauce chef - the highest stratified position of chef de parties, who are basically the chef in charge of a particular station in the kitchen.

"It never stops. When I'm home I'm cooking, or reading cookery books, or watching cookery shows. I'm always looking for inspiration and always cook for friends. Working with chefs like Ben Radford (head chef at the restaurant) and Neil (chef director) also inspires me a lot. It's a great place to work and learn. We get in whole animals every Friday, like deer, pigs, lamb... so I've also learned butchery skills and there's a huge emphasis on fresh, Scottish produce."

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, David's signature dish for the contest was braised sticky Scotch beef tongue with Shetland black crisp and watercress salad. And when it came to the mystery ingredients, he whipped up deboned monkfish tail with a spinach, shallots and garlic cream stuffing, a monkfish tortellini, cabbage mousse and fondant potatoes.

"It was a lot to do but I entered for the experience of working in that environment and under that kind of pressure. We were given five minutes to come up with a dish from the mystery ingredients, and an hour to produce it.

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"There was a lot of pressure - and although there's pressure every day at the restaurant, there was no-one to back you up.

"But it was great to be a finalist. Now we just have to see who they've chosen to win."

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The crowning of the 2011 Young Chef of the Year takes place on May 26. Until then David will be stirring his sauces, while Scott gets ready to move on.

Back at Craigie's Farm he says: "The contest has been good for me stepping back into the game for when I start as commis chef at the Balmoral next month, working under Jeff Bland. It's kind of like going from the frying pan to the fire, but I am looking forward to it."