Early on a Friday morning at Woodlands Market Place, 14-year-olds Risha Banu Pereira and Nur Hidayu panicked when they could not find herbs at Woodlands Market Place inside Woodlands North Plaza. The teens were not fearing the wrath of their mothers waiting back home for the ingredient – they were just concerned that they would not be able to cook up the sweet and sour fish meal they had in mind.
The two girls were among the more than 20 secondary school students zipping around the market as part of the iChef competition organised by Republic Polytechnic’s School of Hospitality.
From the word go, Risha and Hidayu blended with the other competing teams that rushed into the jumble of fresh meat, spices and fruits in a bid to purchase pre-prepared ingredients for their traditional family dishes.
“We had to quickly find replacements for the items that were not available but thankfully, our mentor helped us to improvise,” the Bukit Merah Secondary students shared.
Armed with a list of items and the guidance of a mentor by their side, many of the teams split as soon as the challenge started. One teammate was in charge of getting the dry ingredients while the other had to look for wet ingredients. However, despite their young age, some students already had expertise in terms of picking the right items, in the right condition.
“Fruits can be easily rotten so it is important to check if there are any black spots or dents. It is best to get fruits that are rich in colour as they will help bring a great taste to our desserts,” C. Nishaa, 14, a Yu Hua Secondary student, said with the air of a seasoned cook.
Once the marketing was done, another challenge awaited the teams – the final cook-off, a la TV’s most famous cooking show Masterchef. The daunting task was to take place at Oliva Restaurant, RP’s very own student-run gourmet dining.
Nervous chatter and shrieks filled the holding room at Oliva before the students were escorted to the industrial kitchen. Students sought last-minute tips and tricks from their mentors as they were not allowed to refer to recipes during the cooking. Others took a minute to themselves to revise their strategies in order to finish on time.
However, the type of stove provided in the kitchen threw off Chua Chu Kang Secondary student Mandy Seah.
“The industrial stove will cause the food to be burnt easily since the heat is greater,” the 15-year-old said with an apprehensive tone. “My teammate and I have been practising on the normal stove at home so this is a game changer.”
As the head chef commenced the two-hour cook-off, the tension became so thick you could cut it with a knife. Donned in their chef hats and aprons, the students focused on getting their meat and vegetables cut. The quietness of the kitchen was punctured only occasionally by the sound of the metal blades on chopping boards and oil sizzling in frying pans. Not long into the process, a rather fragrant but sharp smell of a combination of curry, onions and chilli filled the medium-sized kitchen.
Meanwhile, mentors were nervously observing their respective teams by the window in hopes that neither ingredients nor steps were overlooked.
One of the judges, local actor Ben Yeo, broke the tension by cracking a few jokes during the presentation. He seemed eager to taste what the students had to offer and as soon as the dishes were served, he whipped out his mobile phone to snap pictures like any enthusiastic food blogger.
“I’m impressed at how every dish is served aesthetically, they are all definitely Instagram-able,” he commented and burst into laughter.
Eventually, yong tau fu, mochi and ginger chicken, prepared by the team from Yuan Ching Secondary School, outshone the rest with their presentation and refined culinary skills.
Despite going home empty-handed after a six month-long roller coaster, Mandy was grateful she was able to participate in the journey.
She said: “It does not matter if my team wins or not because I got to take away an experience that lessons in school are unable to provide me with.”