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International Chef of the Year Competition 2010
28 September 2010

Imam Uddin lighting up the kitchen
Imam Uddin lighting up the kitchen

         I have reported on Tommy Miah's International Chef of the Year Competition many times before but I have never been a judge - until now.

In past years the judging of the final was held in Edinburgh where Tommy Miah is based. Luckily for me, the competition has changed its format this year and has moved down to London. Not only that but the London competition is now only a semi-final. The final will be held on 17 October in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

Six contestants whose menus were good enough to gain them a place in the semi-final took part in the gruelling 2½ hour cook-off in the training kitchens at Tower Hamlets College. After donning the regulation white jackets my fellow judges and I proceeded to watch the contestants cook their chosen menus. The rules of the competition state that each contestant has to cook two main dishes with meat, poultry or fish and two vegetarian side dishes. Each dish should be made to feed four people.

It all started off calmly enough with the chefs doing their preparation and chopping their vegetables. Then the fun started. There were onions being sautéed and tossed and flamed. Spices being roasted. Garlic and ginger being fried. Pans of sauces reducing down. Shanks of lamb with spicy coatings baking in the oven. Beautiful aromas coming off the hot pans.

Some dishes looked to be finished far too early but tasted wonderful when the judging began. Other dishes looked like they'd never be finished in time yet were presented for judging right on cue. I have watched competitions where it all unravelled for some poor contestant towards the end of the cooking period but not this time. As the morning wore on the pace in the kitchen speeded up but I saw no disasters or felt any panic among the chefs.

Then suddenly it was "time's up" and the chefs set out their four creations on the serving plates and laid them out on the table for the judges to assess. Judging the merits of 24 different dishes with hugely varying tastes is not an easy task. Enjoyable, yes, but not easy. So we judges took ourselves off to a quiet room to make our assessment.

It was an honour to be asked to be a judge and a privilege to watch six such talented chefs cook their best dishes and present them so attractively. All the dishes I tasted were good enough to warrant the chef being chosen for the semi-final. It's ironic but three of the dishes I enjoyed the most did not belong to any of the top three contestants. Imam Uddin's chicken dish with its thick spicy coating was sublime. Philip Riley's cod was cooked to perfection and set off wonderfully by his piquant sauce. Mohammed Miah's potato, spinach and chick pea tikki were a delight to eat. But, in this competition, one great dish doesn't make you the winner. It's about all four dishes and how they go together, how they were made and how they are presented.

So now it fell to the chairman of the judges, Nigel Terry of Pinguin Foods, to announce the winners. Third place went to Nick Jones, a part-time builder from Tutbury. whose dishes were expertly spiced. Second place went to Abdul Hussain Babul, chef at the Sajna Grill in Osborn Street London, whose dishes when all set out on the judging table looked a picture. But the winner of the semi-final was Muhammad Ali, chef at the Karma restaurant in Oxford. His winning dishes were Chot Poti, Goa Fish Curry, Bengal Lamb Shank and Rajasthani Chilli Murgh. And extraordinarily tasty they were too.

And finally Muhammad Ali was congratulated by competition organiser Tommy Miah and by Principal of Tower Hamlets College, Michael Farley. After it was all over Muhammad Ali told us "I really didn't expect to win, maybe to get third place, but to win? It's amazing!" He will now enjoy an all expenses paid trip to Bangladesh to compete in the final. I wish him the very best of luck.
the winner, Muhammad Ali, in action
the winner, Muhammad Ali, in action

the competitors and the judges
the competitors and the judges

related links :

International Chef of the Year Competition
Tower Hamlets College
Karma, Oxford

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© 2010 David W Smith