* This article first appeared here in the Saturday Citizen
Climbing into our private airport shuttle, I immediately had my laptop out to answer some urgent emails, both tired from the journey and not overly intrigued by usual airport-industrial buildings, and overnight hotels. It was some twenty minutes later, when I looked up, and the penny dropped.
After not having travelled internationally for almost two years, seeing streets lined with ancient neoclassical architecture and alfresco cafes with immaculately dressed people sipping espressos, I breathed in deeply as a smile forced its way across my face. I was in Italy.
I’d arrived in the country for more than just some sightseeing. After pandemic-related delays, the Grand Finale of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy Competition 2019-21 was about to unfold. From the initial thousands of hopeful applicants, ten talented chefs from 10 regions had made the final cut and would be cooking up a storm for the coveted top spot.
Milan has a long association with fashion and equally, has no shortage of gastro-glam -making it the perfect fit for hosting the competition. The excitement around the event was with good reason; the Grand Finale was to have been held nearly two years prior but was pandemic-postponed. After a tumultuous time for global gastronomy, the event offered a much-needed injection of hope.
For over 120 years the premium Italian brand has played a central role in the world of gastronomy, more than earning its place at the table. San Pellegrino along with Clearworld Suppliers (the Distributor for South Africa) had invited me to join the South African delegates and help document the journey.
At the centre of the excitement, was Paul Prinsloo – the South African regional winner who had qualified to compete in the final leg of the competition. He is based at the prestigious Gåte Restaurant at Quoin Rock, Stellenbosch. Under the mentorship of Chef Gregory Czarnecki, Paul perfected his ‘Bouillabaisse 2.0’ – his contemporary interpretation of the French classic Provençal fish that had won him a place in the global finale.
Each finalist was given five hours to prepare their dish and then serve the Jury of six sages – which comprised of some of the world’s most respected culinary names – and then after an exhausting day of cooking, it was time to hear some of their opinions. The awards ceremony was a glitzy affair held at the Palazzo del Senato, where Sweden’s Jerome Ianmark Calayag was crowned the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Academy winner, having wowed the judges with his dish ‘Humble Vegetables’.
Travelling with us were also two talented young South African chefs who were finalists in special award categories, representing the Africa & Middle East region, Marcus Gericke, from Franschhoek’s Le coin Franҫais, was nominated for the Fine Dining Lovers Food for Thought Award for his dish ‘Remembrance’, which was in his words, “a combination of elements my dad and I used to experiment with in our kitchen at home, with the produce we grew and techniques we tried. The original dish was with chicken, but I decided to change it to quail to make it a little bit more elegant to further showcase the skills and recipes that we had worked on.”
Callan Austin previously from Chefs Warehouse Tintswalo, was the second chef, nominated for the S.Pellegrino Award for Social Responsibility. There was a roar of excitement from team South Africa when it was announced that Callan would be bringing home the award for our region. He told me afterwards “Winning the award for social responsibility was a huge feather in my cap and I feel very proud that I was able to represent my country in such a prestigious international competition.” To which he was quick to add: “Of course, having Massimo Bottura tussle my hair was up there too!”
The following morning, still basking in the elation of the previous night, the offer was given of an excursion to visit the mountainous source of S.Pellegrino mineral water. Heading North into Bergamo the confines of the city slowly gave way to winding valleys where the hills were dotted with postcard villages, each featuring an ancient steeple of sorts, and pastel-coloured houses. I was reminded that Italy is a country that wears its history on its hills. Being November, most traces of summer had gone, and the forests were wearing a hundred shades of autumn allure.
After a drive-by of the flagship factory, we were in for a fascinating water, wine, and food pairing with sommelier Julia Cru. After an hour under her eager tutelage, none of us would look at sparking water the same way. We learned to appreciate that due to its minerality, S.Pellegrino’s structured mouthfeel embraces the palate – making it much more dimensional than regular water. We had a first-hand experience of its particularly poignant ability to accentuate fine food and wine flavours.
Like an excellent wine, the sparkling water is a mark of terroir – rainwater makes a nearly unbelievable 30 years of filtering through minerals down to 100 meters below the surface where it is extracted, and much like champagne or rather regionally-made premium drinks, it must be produced and bottled at source.
In addition to being home to the sparkling water, visitors flock to the village to experience the mountain water in another way – the thermal baths of the QC Terme San Pellegrino. In true European fashion, for decades the wealthy travelled to the mineral-rich waters of the San Pellegrino spa for its healing powers.
Today the modern spa complex and accompanying QC Rooms boutique hotel, embrace a shift from medicinal to leisure purposes. The chic complex offers a labyrinth of indoor and outdoor wellness spaces including saunas, relaxation rooms, and naturally countless heated pools. Sitting in one of the latter, with water jets coursing about my body, I couldn’t think of a more tasteful place nor moment, to look back on the past few days celebrating global gastronomy topped with Italian excellence.