Last night at an awards ceremony at the Glass Brasserie in Sydney’s CBD, the winners of the prestigious Appetite for Excellence awards were announced. The awards were co-founded by chef Luke Mangan to celebrate and nurture the Australian hospitality industry’s young talent. Finalists are mentored by some of the most respected people in the industry, including restaurateur Guy Grossi, Quay and Bennelong’s Peter Gilmore, and Brae’s Dan Hunter. Former entrants include Saint Peter’s Josh Niland and Biota’s James Viles.

Finalists in three categories were chosen via written applications. Young chef applicants participate in a three-stage cook-off. Applicants for young waiter of the year are assessed via interviews and knowledge tests, and young restaurateurs are grilled in a series of panel and one-on-one interviews, where they discuss their business plans and direction.

The winner of the 2019 Appetite for Excellence Young Chef Award was Bianca Johnston, from Tom McHugo’s in Tasmania. She’s the first woman in Appetite for Excellence’s 14-year history to win the prize. The runner-up in the category was Anna Ugarte-Carral, from Sydney’s Momofuku Seiobo.

“Following several stages, including cooking and an interview process, we let the participants cook within a tight time frame from a range of ingredients they had not seen prior to entering the kitchen,” Hunter tells Broadsheet. “We ate the food and then we grilled them on the ‘why’ and ‘how’. Basically, whoever cooked the best dishes went to the top – if they then appeared to be a person worthy of such a huge prize, in the sense that we believed they would be a great ambassador for our industry and a future leader, then they won. If you’ve seen who the judging panel was at the final you can imagine it was a tough crowd.”

Olivia Evans, a waiter at the lauded Fleet in Brunswick Heads, was awarded the Young Waiter Award, and Sophie Gitterle, from Sydney’s Quay, was named one to watch.

“The judging process is pretty intense and it's as much a journey for us, the judges, as it is for the finalists,” says Momofuku Seiobo general manager Kylie Javier Ashton, who helped judge the category. “During the two days of competition we try to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each finalist, their skill and ability to perform under pressure and get a sense of who they are as people.”

Luke Piccolo, from Limone in Griffith, NSW, was named the Appetite for Excellence young restaurateur.

“I like to look at it holistically, and although it’s important that they execute their dishes well for the judges, they need to have good hospitality aspects to their personality,” Grossi tells Broadsheet. “How they present themselves, their determination and their nature.”

This year, some of Australia’s best young bartenders were also challenged to create a cocktail using Perrier. The winner of that prize was Icebergs Dining Room and Bar’s Matty Opai.

Part of the Appetite for Excellence prize is ongoing mentorship by some of the hospitality industry’s key players, as well as a stagiaire (internship) at an international restaurant, with flights covered by Virgin Australia. The young waiter and chef winners are awarded $3000 each and the young restaurateur $5000 to invest in a business project.

“I actually think it takes a special breed and a level of aptitude to stay focused over the long term in this industry,” says Hunter. “Having other interests outside of the restaurant industry – music, art, design, aesthetics, good communication … a general level of fitness, being open to always learning something new and a commitment to refine skills you may already possess every day are the basics to longevity in the industry.”

“Being willing to make sacrifices and surrounding myself with good people has helped sustain me in an industry where you give a lot of yourself to everyone else,” says Javier Ashton. “I've given up many weekends with my family and friends. But I've also found a family in the people I've worked with over the years. We can all be kinder and more empathetic towards each other. It sounds so simple but we still have a long way to go.”

See the full list of finalists, winners and judges here.