Introducing The 2017 Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship Champion

After spending his teenage years helping out in kitchens across Vancouver, it made perfect sense that Connor Sperling would soon commence from the culinary school at Vancouver Community College with an accolade of “Student of the Year” and Honours designation. Immediately after graduating, Connor joined Chef Alex Chen in Vancouver as a support teammate for the 2013 Bocuse D’or competition.

Fast-forward 4 more years, Connor had three more top restaurants under his apron – La Belle Auberge, the Met and Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar – upon entering the 2017 Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship Competition from which he arose a champion.

We recently spoke to Chef Sperling about his experiences throughout the competition with delicious takeaways including advice for future competitors and 3 main ingredients he can’t do without.

You’ve officially been crowned the 2017 Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship Champion. Congratulations! How does it feel?

It feels great, I'm just relieved and really happy with the results now that it’s over.

Describe your favourite dish you created during the competition and why?

It definitely has to be the main course from the finals which was a lamb and lobster dish with rutabaga and pine mushroom. All of the ingredients really just came together so nicely. I'd worked with them before and I have a love for root vegetables, lamb and lobster. I was happy with the flavours, the textures and the presentation; there wasn’t much of a struggle because I was prepared.

What were the top (3) pantry staples you relied on the most during the events?

Butter, shallots and garlic; I used those ingredients so much throughout the competition. If I had butter, there were shallots and garlic in it. If I was cooking shallots, it had garlic and butter in it. All of my vegetables, everything goes in butter with shallots and garlic. It just really enhances the flavour of what you're cooking as it gives it a little push so it's not just a vegetable or a piece of fish.

Share with us which parts of the competition you found that you thrived in and also those that you found to be the most challenging. 

They both pretty much go hand in hand. What was most challenging for me was the mental part of it, leading up to the competition. You're stressed out, nervous, tired and there's a lot of second guessing. These are all elements that I like to step up to and something I thrive on is being able to overcome that anxiety. Once the clock starts ticking, all of the pressure I put on myself mentally, I overcome it. I just sort of relax and rely on all of my training, skills and instincts.

If you could go back and do it all over again, what would be the one thing that you would change?

There are little things in my dishes I would have liked to make nicer if I'd had more time. In hindsight, it's in the past now, I'm happy with the results and, under the circumstances, I wouldn't change anything. I stand behind those dishes the way they are.

What’s one piece of advice that you would give to emerging chefs looking to compete in this competition?

Preparation. The amount of preparation I put into it was definitely a huge part of my success. You're going to feel an extra bit of pressure when you go into it and that comes from people watching you, judging your food and that's not something you do on a normal basis. I practiced with people watching me and giving me criticism for my dishes. It's not just about cooking when you're going into the competition, there's always that extra pressure that some don't realize is there and you need to be ready for that.

I also did quite a bit of research about the competition. Thanks to social media like Instagram and Facebook, I was able to track down pictures and descriptions from its previous years. I looked at that and said to myself, "okay, this is what's accomplish-able, this is what isn't, I need to go in this direction." Just do your homework.

What’s the big plan for your winnings and do you have any idea where you’d like to complete your stage?

I don't have a good answer for that right now. Since getting back, I've been straight to work and haven't had time to decompress. I'm going to save the money for travel as I definitely want to do some travelling next year.

As for the stage, I don't have a restaurant in mind but I want to go somewhere that is out of my comfort zone. I think that's a big part of developing yourself as a chef. I just need to find a restaurant that feels like a right fit to me.