If there was any doubt that Fiji's resort chefs are not as good as their overseas counterparts, then last week's 2012 Moffat Salon Culinaire has put that to rest.
In what was a display of the most beautifully crafted dishes, some of Fiji's top chefs have proved that they have come a long way in the past few years under the guidance and mentorship of their local and international executive chefs.
The three-day cooking competition at FNU Nadi showed just how much local chefs have gained a culinary passion for food, and you could have easily forgotten you were in Fiji with the exceptional high quality of many of the hot and cold dishes that were on display.
Outrigger on the Lagoon's Priya Darshani and her junior chef Navneet Reddy took out at top honours with Darshani proclaimed the 2012 Fiji Chef of the Year.
After coming third in past years, the win was a bittersweet victory for the senior chef who thanked everyone for believing in her hard work at the award ceremony. Junior Chef of the Year was awarded to the Sheraton Fiji's Abhinesh Sharma, a young chef with enormous passion and love of food.
After earlier winning several silver and gold medals in his individual competitions, Sharma was seen pacing up and down prior to the ceremony, wondering if his overall performance would be recognised by judges. He need not have worried! Kelera Nalewabau of the Hilton's Fiji Beach Resort, who also had earlier won many medals for individual cake and dessert classes, won the Pastry Chef of the Year.
One of the most refreshing and innovative entrants this year was the young team of Likuliku Resort, Fiji's most recognised and multi award-winning resorts.
Led by their 29-year-old New Zealand executive chef Ihaki Peri, sous chef Pranil Prasad and his junior chef Tomasi were proud runners-up in the Chef of the Year class.
As Prasad's first time in a culinary competition and a first for Likuliku in the Salon Culinaire, the silver medal was a surprisingly sweet victory for the Malolo Island chefs. Peri was determined to showcase his unique tropical island cuisine, and the judges were not disappointed to see his modern interpretation, and his chefs able to reproduce his food at competition level.
Likuliku's presentation of their dishes stood out against their competitors, with distinct use of tropical colours and more refined symmetry on the plate, but was often let down by a lack of flavour and depth.
The pressure of competition, and an inexperienced team who had never competed or cooked this food off the island, were no doubt the difference between silver and gold.
The judges agreed that Prasad is a young Fijian to watch in the future, with his understanding of classic and modern cooking techniques including sous vide (sealing food in a plastic bag with flavours, then steaming or simmering it for tenderness), smoking and foams normally only used by top overseas chefs.
Despite many great looking dishes, it was flavours, seasoning and portion sizes that let many chefs down and resulted in the deduction of crucial points.
Many of the competing chefs I spoke to after the competition were bewildered as to why they either missed out on a medal or deserved higher recognition, despite their dishes supposedly looking better than their competitors.
Flavours and seasoning can make or break a dish no matter what it looks like on the plate.
Beyond salt and pepper, flavours and smells that can activate the sensors in the nose and on the tongue are what the judges, and customer, is looking for in food whether in the restaurant or a culinary competition.
Clever use of herbal infusions, flavour and texture combinations and inspiring use of technique and local foods are some of the areas that Fiji chefs must continue to work on.
This lack of seasoning and flavour is born out of the fact that local chefs do not normally eat European-style foods and are therefore not accustomed to the Western palate of the judges. Many of the competing chefs said the food they produced tasted good to them, but obviously fell short of the judge's expectations. To help address this issue for next year's Salon Culinaire, chefs will need to spend more time eating out to discover these flavours for themselves because it can't be taught.
To do this, their respective resorts and executive chefs will need to help facilitate this by allowing the chefs to dine at different restaurants to let their tastebuds experience new flavours.
Last year's winner of the Salon Culinaire, Arun Naicker from the Sofitel, managed to come in a very close third place at the recent Pacific Rim Challenge held in Vanuatu behind New Zealand and Australia. If Priya Darshani can learn to develop her palate over the next 12 months, and combine the skills of Likuliku's Pranil Prasad, who knows. Fiji might just show the region what it is truly capable of in 2013.
* Lance Seeto was one of the head judges at the 2012 Salon Culinaire and a member of the Executive Committee of the Fiji Chefs Association.