TUCO Competitions return for 2017

Warwick University hosts prestigious catering awards over two days, welcoming more than 400 delegates and 150 entrants

By Charley Rogers 

In April this year, Warwick University welcomed over 400 delegates from the catering and higher education industries for the 24th annual TUCO Competitions. The prestigious event is expanding every year, and 2017’s outing at Warwick was no exception. With over 150 entrants, and new and expanded competitions, this was TUCO’s biggest competition ever.  

Amongst the competitions was the new Cook and Serve Challenge, which saw a team of two chefs and one front-of-house server combine efforts to serve a three-course meal along with carefully paired wines, to four covers. Teams were scored on service, quality of food, presentation, and wine pairing, and the Gold went to the team from host university Warwick, consisting of chefs Phil Thorpe and Zoran Zivkovic, and front-of-house server Samantha Chick. Each team is given a set of ingredients, and can create whatever dishes they wish from what they have. The meal is served in front of a live audience, and the team has just 90 minutes to complete the challenge. 

One element of the competition that always captures the imaginations of the competitors is the Salon Culinaire. This year saw the biggest Salon to date for TUCO, and the array of entrants was certainly very impressive. From extravagant novelty cakes, to stunning bread displays and enticing plated mains, the display in Warwick’s Butterworth Hall drew a lot of attention. The Salon was expanded this year to include awards for Amuse Bouche, Afternoon Tea Cakes, a Cookie Challenge, and a Tray Bake Display. Awards included a Gold – Best in Class medal to Imperial College London, Royal Holloway, the University of Birmingham, and the University of Cambridge, as well as two Gold – Best in Class awards to each of the University of St. Andrews, Chester University, and Warwick University. The overall Best in Salon award went to Robert Blackwell of the University of Cambridge.

Speaking to UB about his expectations for the competitions, TUCO Chair Matt White commented: “It’s about that wow factor, as well as ensuring that the product delivers what the customer’s looking for. One of the big things about this competition for me, is transferring the skills we see here back into the commercial environment.” 

This is the first year of TUCO Competitions for Mr. White as Chair, and he was thrilled at the level of expertise he witnessed, and is keen to keep TUCO’s legacy of teaching and responding to feedback going. Telling UB about TUCO’s Academy programme, he said: “Our Academy is probably our biggest area of focus at the moment, in terms of putting our resources into it for our members. I think it’s the thing that pays the biggest dividends back to them.” 

One of the skills that serves all chefs well, and especially chefs that are tasked with cooking for swarms of hungry students without compromising quality, is speed cooking. Competitors taking part in TUCO’s Speed Cook Challenge have 30 minutes to cook and present two plates of a hot dish, with rice, pasta, or a grain as the main ingredient. Again, teams were under the keen eyes of both judges and audience as they battled the clock to produce their meals. This competition tested not only speed and efficiency, but also cleanliness and quality. The Gold award for this challenge went to Chef Chris Murphy of the University of Chester, with David Webb of Warwick and David Cattle of Cambridge in Silver and Bronze places respectively.

General Manager for Warwick University, Clive Singleton, spoke to University Business about the catering trends that are emerging throughout HE in the UK, and one of the trends that he identified was speed-cooked, or ‘street’ food. On the topic of the street-food market that visits the Warwick campus up to 10 times per academic year, Mr. Singleton commented that, “Students like a variety in terms of diet. They like the trends that are out there, but from the inner city areas. [The street market] started off three years ago with only one a term, and it’s grown from around a dozen stall-holders originally to 30–40 now.” 

Students’ growing interest in food has also led to developments of the quality of food available on university campuses. 

The intensive Chef’s Challenge is designed to test a team of two chefs in the areas of teamwork, cleanliness, skill, and presentation. The teams are presented with a list of ingredients three weeks prior to the competition, and as part of their entry submit menus for fine dining, alongside cooking a three-course meal for two covers. Glyn Jacklin and Richard Dutton from University College Birmingham took home the Gold this year, with Silver and Bronze being picked up by teams from the University of Cambridge and the University of Chester respectively.  

On the topic of the increasing knowledge of food, Graham Crump, Executive Chef at Warwick University, comments that the biggest difference he has seen in university catering over his impressive career span is “the quality and the standard”.

“At one time, if chefs didn’t quite cut the mustard in the hotel and restaurant industry, they tended to fall into the category of what they classified then as ‘institutional catering’. But around 20 years ago, universities saw some avenues for earning additional income, and have gone down that avenue.” Mr. Crump goes on to name Warwick as one of the leading names in this food revolution, and cites its lifelong appreciation of international cuisine as one of the reasons for its development. 

The relatively new Barista Skills Challenge is now in its fifth year at the TUCO competitions, and is still growing in popularity. The 10-minute slots task baristas with creating two espressos, two cappuccinos, and two speciality non-alcoholic coffee-based drinks. Entrants are tested on the quality and originality of their drinks, as well as how clean they keep their prep area, and their knowledge of the coffee they are using. 

This year was a particularly tight competition, with Dana-Maria Danut from Warwick University taking the top spot, and Matt Haw from Lancaster winning Best Speciality Drink. 

The diverse array of skills on show at the TUCO Competitions is growing every year, and the mission of the organisation to raise the profile of the fantastic work being done by university caterers across the country is being fulfilled. With competitions spanning the width and breadth of the university food and drink experience, the term ‘institutional catering’ is well and truly gone. And gone it shall remain, if TUCO has anything to do with it.  

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