Devised by Mark Murphy, senior lecturer in culinary arts at the Institute of Technology Tralee, and Mark Doe of Just Cooking cookery school in Firies, the programme aims to promote the importance of healthy eating to enhance physical and mental wellbeing, while developing confidence and self-esteem.
It also encourages second-level students to consider a career in the culinary industry, to combat the current chef shortage crisis.
“A lot of these students might never have looked at the food industry, and that’s not just training to be a chef, it’s also about food product development, food product design, food photography, food journalism, environmental health officers — it’s a colossal industry,” says Mark Murphy.
The emphasis is less on competition and more on outcomes and skills learned through the mentoring programme. Students learn about the nutritional value of food and the importance of sourcing quality, local products, as well as how to present that at the table. Each student is assigned a mentor and communicates with them by email and photographs in the months leading up to the final.
Now in its fifth year, 2,000 students have been through the programme, from the 16 schools that participated in 2012 to the 500 students from all over Munster this year.
Chef Murphy hopes it will be rolled out through the institutes of technology nationally in the years ahead. “A food culture develops at the roots and not when someone is 23 or 24 years of age. We could solve our obesity problem in this country at primary and second level overnight if there was the political will to do so,” he said.
The students had to come up with their own recipe ideas after attending cookery demonstrations and a workshop with nutritional therapist Susie Cox.
For Orlaith O’Connell, 16, a transition year student at St Aloysius College in Carrigtwohill, Co Cork, a family holiday in Italy inspired her spinach and ricotta stuffed pasta in tomato sauce, served with a wild garlic and basil pesto dressing — the only vegetarian savoury dish to make it to the final.
Orlaith picked wild garlic near her home in Glanmire and used the flowers to garnish her dish, even bringing enough to decorate the plates of the other apprentices.
Ciara Hurley, 17, from Maria Immaculata Community College in Dunmanway entered for the second time with a healthy dessert with her lemon, courgette and pistachio cake served with beetroot yoghurt.
“I’d say the whole town of Dunmanway is after tasting it at this stage and they all liked it,” she said.
Coming in joint second place, Lauren Wall from St Declan’s Community College in Kilmacthomas, Co Waterford drew her inspiration from her locality.
“I grew up by the sea and I love fish, so I cooked herb- crusted cod,” said Lauren who revealed that she is considering the culinary industry as a career.
She tied with Emily O’Hara of Midleton College, who prepared pan-seared bream, while Kelly English from St Colman’s Community College, also in Midleton, came third with her lemon trio and chocolate surprise dessert.
It was a case of second time lucky for Supreme Apprentice Chef Padraic Randles, 17, from Pobalscoil Inbhear Scéine in Kenmare, whose duck with a potato rosti and savoy cabbage wowed judges.
Padraic took part in the programme last year and as a result chose home economics as a Leaving Certificate subject.
Head of Food Tourism at Fáilte Ireland, John D Mulcahy, said there was a shortage of around 5,000 chefs each summer but the Apprentice Chef Programme gave him hope.