The next generation serves up a mouthwatering treat
AT 10am on a recent cold Sunday morning, three budding chefs turned up with bagfuls of ingredients, to compete for the title of Junior Masterchef.
At a time when most teenagers would prefer to be in bed, Kelsie, Charlie and Joe were brisk, well organised and raring to go. The rest of us were blearily clutching mugs of coffee; one of us was wondering whether her husband would remember to put the lamb in the oven at the right time, another knew that lunch would be up to her when she got back. It was cheering to see that there was a new generation who were going to be more than able to cook Sunday lunch.
The Balsam Centre at Wincanton is the kind of community facility that any town would give its eye-teeth for. Bang in the middle of Wincanton, next to a large car park, it offers something for everyone – advice on health and nutrition, a vegetable garden, divided into neat plots, to help demonstrate both in the pleasantly light and airy kitchen, banks of computers for use by children and the elderly alike, rooms full of toys to help mothers while away time with their toddlers.
It has grown bit by bit over the past 12 or so years, starting with an old NHS building and now boasting a well-designed wing that offers a large room for hire, to help with costs. It is one of the pleasantest places I've been in for a long time, and just the sort of place to hold a competition to encourage children to learn to cook.
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Our three finalists have already learnt a lot. Kelsie, sister to a Michelin starred chef, made her own pasta, and stuffed neatly folded tortellini with a prawn and crab mix, to be partnered with a seafood bisque, made with fish stock and subtly flavoured with star anise. At almost 16 this was impressive stuff; she is going to do a fortnight's work experience in a restaurant later this spring, just to see if she can stand the heat of a professional kitchen. She was certainly amazingly calm faced with several simmering pans and a chocolate torte still to make.
Charlie,14 and not so interested in becoming a chef, said he just wanted to be an ordinary cook, but certainly one who will please his family and make lots of friends. We were impressed that his light and healthy combination of penne, al dente vegetables and mackerel, the cauliflower and carrots cut to match the size of the penne, was imaginative, very well seasoned and done well within the time limit and to a tiny budget.
Joe, 15, donned a stylish headband and set to work on his dessert – this was another point that made us smile, that all three began on their desserts first, to give them time to chill in the fridge. This sort of attention to detail bodes well for the future. If Joe rather over-folded his raspberries and Greek yoghurt into his stiffly beaten egg whites, his meticulous tasting of everything at every stage more than made up for that. For his paella he fried off the slices of chorizo first to yield enough of that wonderful paprika flavoured fat to then brown pieces of chicken breast. In the end, and after much soul searching (it isn't much fun being a judge) we gave Joe the first prize. He has a palate that'll take him far – his paella, deep saffron yellow, colourful and presented in a well-used paella pan, complete with wedges of lemon, was as good as any of us had tasted.
All three had mastered the brief, had shown real skill and were able to demonstrate that they knew about healthy eating. Their talent to clear up as they went was awe-inspiring – were they as good as that at home, we wondered, and presentation was polished. We would have liked a little more seasonality – all three chose raspberries for their desserts, and this is the rhubarb season, and the vegetables tended towards the mange-touts and away from kale, but teenagers don't always actually like kale and rhubarb. So watch out for Joe Rawlings, Kelsie Bugg and Charlie Wilkins, Masterchefs in the making.