A young Vancouver cook wowed judges with his quick thinking at a recent national culinary competition, walking away with $10,000 and a chance to further develop his skills at a globally renowned restaurant.

The Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship competition is a black-box contest, where participants are given several mystery ingredients minutes before the competition begins and must create an award-winning meal on the spot.

On The Coast food columnist Gail Johnson sat down with this year's winner, 26-year-old Connor Sperling, to hear what it takes to become the Top Young Chef of Canada and the details of how he won the title.  

Award-winning creations

Sperling had 2.5 hours to make a main course and dessert using seven mystery ingredients: lobster, rack of lamb, rutabaga, banana, maple syrup, buttermilk and pine mushroom.

For dinner, Sperling came up with a parsley-mushroom crusted lamb and butter-poached lobster tail.

Dessert was a roasted banana and maple purée mixed with pastry cream, served alongside vanilla-and-grapefruit iced parfait with raspberry coulis.

Parsley Crusted Lamb

Parsley crusted lamb, one of the winning creations Connor Sperling came up with. (Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship )

Although the focus of the competition is on spur-of-the-moment creations, Johnson said, there is still a lot of preparation beforehand.

"For several months leading up to the event, he would go into the restaurant on his days off and there would be a black box waiting for him," Johnson said. "He would practice having to cook with mystery ingredients and also developed recipes for sauces using basic pantry items."

Foot in the door

Sperling got his start in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher in Surrey and later joined the opening team at Vancouver's Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar in 2014.

Johnson said he credits his win in part to the encouragement and guidance from Boulevard's executive chef Alex Chen and chef de cuisine Roger Ma, who travelled to the final competition in Toronto with him.

"He said the kitchen team at Boulevard is very much like a happy family, which makes it that much easier to learn and grow," Johnson said.

For other young British Columbian chefs, Johnson highlighted a second initiative to help them get their start: the Fairmont Hotels' three-year Culinary Apprenticeship Program.

"Apprentices complete 6,000 working hours, including a four-week segment at a community college," she said. "Upon successful completion, they are awarded a Red Seal certificate and a designation of journeyperson cook."

Each year, all of the Fairmont hotels from the Pacific Northwest region come together to host a grand multi-course Culinary Apprenticeship Dinner.

The 13th annual event takes place at the Fairmont Waterfront this Wednesday.

With files from On The Coast