There’s a mountain of fresh ingredients, a fridge full of protein and a hefty display of dry goods. You’ve got three hours and the eyes of the country’s top chefs and food icons on you. This is the national final of the 2014 Electrolux Appetite for Excellence, Young Chef of the Year. Now in its 10th year, the competition rounds up the finest of Australia’s up-and-coming young chefs (as well as waiters and restaurateurs in their own categories) to single out the best in Australia. Standards are high and what happens here makes reality TV cooking competitions look completely insubstantial.

Given the pressure and the variety of challenges leading to the final cook-off, what inspires a young chef to enter and what do they hope to get out of it?

“I think it’s too good an opportunity not to enter,” says finalist George Tomlin of Victoria’s The Town Mouse. “The things you get out of it we don’t usually have access to, especially for younger chefs,” says Tomlin. For instance, the chance to meet and be judged by the industries best, and the chance to network and meet producers. “We’re just in our own kitchens most of the time and it’s hard to meet people in the industry, and to get judged outside that environment is great.”

Prizes at various levels of the competition include workshops, professional portraits, produce tours, networking dinners and work experience in renowned restaurants. The winner secures the opportunity to represent Australia at the S. Pellegrino Cooking Cup in Venice, as well as assistance with overseas work experience. The competition is filled with opportunities at all levels and provides a respected arena for young chefs to test themselves in.

Finalist Dale Sutton was encouraged to enter by his employer at Sydney’s momofuku seiobo, while Hanz Gueco, from Sydney’s Cafe Paci, found the opportunity so valuable he’s having a second crack at it.

“I entered last year and made it to the state finals but didn’t do that well. So it’s kind of like trying to beat my result from last time. It’s a whole new ride from last year, but I feel I’m a bit wiser and that I’ve grown a lot as a chef.”

To get this far in the competition the finalists have submitted comprehensive CVs including an outline of future aspirations, their food ethos and details of an application dish including method. From there selected individuals compete in various cooking challenges, all under the scrutiny of new judges at every stage, with this year’s panel including Mark Best, David Thompson, James Viles, Lyndey Milan and Guy Grossi.

The national finals for 2014 take place in the Sydney TAFE kitchens high above Harris Street, with finalists stepping up to their last challenge knowing only that they have three hours to create a three-course menu representing their skills and food philosophy. The lucky few are given staggered start times, allowing judges to cluster around the stainless-steel cooking stations and observe individuals as they plate up.

“As an industry you need to look at your next generation,” says Judge Peter Gilmore who is also the chef at Quay in Sydney. “It’s important that there’s a system like this that actually makes note of the next generation of chefs and gives them a platform that carries them a bit further.”

“I’m really looking forward to seeing where the young chefs are at in Australia. What they present to us is where the younger generations feel the industry is heading. Hopefully we’ll see a bit of their mentors in what they do, but the unexpected and original is always great, and if they pull that off it’s always a stand out.”

The Young Chef of the Year will be announced in Melbourne on August 11, 2014.

The finalists for 2014:
• Dale Sutton, momofuku seiobo, NSW
• Hanz Gueco, Cafe Paci, NSW
• Simon Tarlington, Quay, NSW
• Adrian Walker, Magill Estate, SA
• George Tomlin, The Town Mouse, VIC
• Jake Kellie, The Commoner, VIC
• Emma Barnes, Clarke's of North Beach, WA