VIDEO: Gala performance

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Cooking for one of the toughest food critics in the business is a formidable challenge – and it’s equally daunting to serve one of the nation’s most illustrious chefs…

But a team of Sheffield’s finest undertook both at once last Thursday night – and pulled it off with apparent ease.

Skills for Chefs gala dinner with (foreground) organiser David McKown and special guests  Rosemary Shrager and Matthew Fort

Skills for Chefs gala dinner with (foreground) organiser David McKown and special guests Rosemary Shrager and Matthew Fort

The occasion was the Skills Conferences gala dinner, a glittering occasion that turned Sheffield University’s Firth Hall into a star-studded banqueting suite.

Guests included Guardian food writer Matthew Fort, celebrity chef Rosemary Shrager and executive chef of the Park Lane Sheraton Andrew Bennett.

The job of deciding on a menu, and delivering it, fell to Tracy Carr, the university’s executive chef and one of only four female Master Chefs of Great Britain. Her kitchen team comprised her deputy, Debbie Gooder, three Master Chefs from Sheffield College – Mick Burke, Neil Taylor and Len Unwin – and an army of students.

This was the 16th Skills for Chefs conference organised by director David McKown: “This is a showcase event for Sheffield, with senior chefs from industry and education coming from Thailand, Spain and all across the UK,” he says.

Gerald Meah, head chef at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, is a regular: “It gets better and better. And tonight I’m impressed by both the cooking and front-of-house.”

The gala dinner is the climax of the week and its highlight is the awards presentation. Excitement mounts as results are announced and the ‘home’ crowd goes into a frenzy as Sheffield’s own City College wins Young Restaurant Team of the Year.

The dinner itself is indeed a masterpiece, combining flavour, skill and exquisite presentation with slick service. If we’re kept waiting between courses it’s hardly surprising considering that 200 guests are seated simultaneously.

Our starter is a cocktail of vibrant green pea pannacotta and vodka jelly, with tiny smoked salmon and caviar blinis and vodka shots, served in a theatrical flourish of dry ice.

Next comes an Oriental chicken salad, a sublime affair of little dim sum dumplings, a tiny supreme of spiced chicken, sushi-style terrine and a bundle of crisp shoots, zinging with bursts of citrus and coriander.

“This is fantastic! We have no right to expect food this good!” declares my neighbour Gordon Cartwright – who should know, being a Master Chef himself.

Main course is lamb: a neat leaf-wrapped dome of rich, slow-cooked shank and a piece of juicy, marinated loin. It’s topped with truffle shavings, served with a tangy stuffed tomato and tiny potatoes carved into mushroom shapes. Delicious!

Dessert is a pomponette of summer fruits: juicy rum baba surrounded by a garden of berries, leaves and flowers, crowned with a disc of marbled chocolate and a ball of intense raspberry sorbet.

And then there’s a selection of artisan cheeses, followed by freshly-brewed coffee and a chocolate centrepiece for each table. What a show!

Ten out of ten to the team for putting Sheffield well and truly on the foodie map.