Two hard-working culinary students Nhý Cao and Da Som Lee, were both recently announced as finalists for the 2022 Restaurant and Catering Association (RCA) Apprentice Chef of the Year Award.
The Hospitality Awards are announced annually by the RCA in order to recognise excellence across the culinary sector. Students and apprentices are invited for nomination, even if they haven’t completed their training. Nhý Cao and Da Som Lee have just this month graduated from Torrens University Australia.
Nhý and Da Som were both thrilled to be considered for their titles when we interviewed them about the award earlier this month.
“I'm just surprised I was even nominated for the award in the first place. I feel like I don't deserve it still, but I'm really thankful. I'm really happy that I’ve been given this opportunity,” said Da Som.
“I am humbled to be a finalist of the ‘Apprentice Chef of the Year’ award in New South Wales. Of course, I am happy as I never thought I would get this. I appreciate all the support and recognition from lecturers in William Blue and from my workmates, who pat me on the shoulder for all my hard work,” Nhý explained.
Some of the other awards include Chef of the Year, Front of House Employee of the Year, and Manager of the Year.
We caught up with Nhý and Da Som recently, to hear their inspiring stories about how they discovered their passion for cooking and ended up at Torrens University.
In the process we discovered a few of their favourite recipes and heard their thoughts on what key ingredients make for an exceptional fine-dining experience. But, let’s start at the beginning.
How exactly did Nhý, who is from Sai Gon, Vietnam, and Da Som, originally from South Korea, both end up studying Culinary Management at William Blue College in Sydney, Australia?
“Torrens was recommended to me by friends who said that this course is a good balance between theory and practical learning. The school also has flexible options to study online and face to face.
I started studying patisserie when I first arrived in Australia and I worked for a bakery. While working, I realised that I wanted to learn more about cooking, management, and how to operate a restaurant… and that was how I ended up at Torrens University,” Nhý, who just officially graduated in January, explained.
“I have been in Australia since 2014 as an international student. I previously studied cookery and hospitality management at TAFE, and I wanted to study further in the culinary profession. One of my workmates was studying at William Blue and recommended Torrens to me,” Da Som said. Da Som also just finished their course at the end of 2021.
Aside from coming to Australia as international students, Nhý and Da Som have another big thing in common; both of them found their passion for food through their mothers.
“My mother is an inspiration to me. She is an amazing cook and has a great entrepreneurial mind. She taught me what good food is, and she also taught me the art of selling and serving customers.
My house has a small coffee shop. Since I was fourteen years old, I had to help my mother with the business, so I learned a lot from her about the hospitality industry and developed my passion there for hospitality.” Nhý said.
“I have always liked cooking since I was very young, especially making desserts.
My mum influenced me a lot because she is a great cook at home. She taught me different cuisines and passed on her knowledge while I watched her cook meals for our family.
As a Korean, it was not very common to eat different cuisines at home or to have an oven to bake in. When I was young most of my friends would only eat Korean food all the time.
But thanks to my mum, I had a special chance to experience something that was unusual for my age and culture, and it made me treasure cooking. My mum made me believe that cooking and baking is something special and unique,” Da Som explained.
Although all cuisines have different textures and flavours, every chef or apprentice usually has some favourite recipes they love to go back to.
What are some of the favourite flavours and recipes of these two award finalists and apprentice chefs?
For Nhý, it’s a difficult pick but ultimately the favourite is a traditional dish from home; “It is hard to choose favourites as all cuisines have their unique beauty. I think my cooking style is influenced by Italian and Vietnamese cuisine; they both honour the simplicity and goodness of food more by its freshness and home-grown ingredients, rather than fancy cooking techniques.
I love to cook mung bean vermicelli chicken soup with bamboo shoots as soon as I get a chance: it's one of the typical Northern Vietnamese dishes cooked to celebrate New Year.”
Da Som also finds it hard to choose with so much variety in the world; “To be honest, I never liked choosing a favourite cuisine, as there are still many in the world that I haven't even heard of. I enjoy cooking Korean and Japanese cuisine because those are the most familiar to me, and also since there is a lot of history behind these cuisines that I am still learning.
It might sound silly, but I love making pancakes. I put so much effort into making pancakes look perfectly round and golden brown without any mistakes. It's just a very meditative thing to do when I feel stressed.”
A Bachelor of Culinary Management is designed to equip students with the whole range of skills they need to run a restaurant business, as well as work in the kitchen.
Students learn core subjects such as Customer Experience Management, Business Communications, and Organisational Creativity and Innovation, as well as Cookery and Menu Design.
Every student has to understand what makes a restaurant successful across the board, and not just in terms of its food.
Nhý takes an unconventional view on the key ingredient for a successful restaurant; “I think it is love. I remember my teacher, Richard Bruno, my lecturer and facilitator at William Blue Dining, taught me that what you put in is what you get out.
If you put lots of love and care into the dish and the servers take care of the customer with their full heart, the plate will come out extraordinarily delicious and complete.”
For Da Som, fine dining is at it’s best when the entire experience is treated as an art form; “I believe that an exceptional dining experience requires a good appearance. This can mean the atmosphere of the restaurant, or the presentation and flavour of the dish or the service.
I think that's what completes the face of any business and leads to an overall good dining experience. I remember being really impressed dining at Ormeggio before; that is an example of what I think an exceptional dining experience looks like.”
Both Nhý and Da Som finished their Bachelors of Culinary Management at the end of 2021. So, what’s next for these two hard-working graduates?
“I've always wanted to open a small bakery café in my hometown. During the last seven years in Australia, I have worked hard and constantly learned, changing places to try different environments, gaining experiences that can support my business in the future. I hope this dream will soon come true in the upcoming two years,” said Nhý.
“I want to live a balanced life where I can focus on work life and my personal life together.
Working in the hospitality industry, especially in a commercial kitchen, often means that workers have to spend more time at work than at home. My dream is to find success as a chef - because I do enjoy working under pressure and in a fast paced environment - but I also hope to have spare time to do other things that I enjoy,” explained Da Som.
As finalists for two different apprentice awards already, it’s clear that these two graduates are off to a good start and ready for any challenge that comes their way.