July 2023

Amber bound for Brazil after winning national Toque d'Or competition

By Killoran Wills

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Read time: approx 6 mins

A student who took a leap of faith to study at University College Birmingham is bound for Brazil having brought a top trophy back to her adopted home.

Amber Clay swapped the beach vibes of Cornwall and then rural Tewkesbury for the UK’s second city of Birmingham less than a year ago - but the move paid off as she lifted the prestigious Nestlé Toque d’Or 2023.

And it means a once-in-a-lifetime culinary trip to Brazil, sampling high-end gastronomy through to street food, and learning about sustainability on a bean-to-cup journey with the world’s biggest coffee producer.

It was just last September that Amber enrolled on the Professional Chef FdA course at the University, having completed her NVQ qualifications in Gloucestershire.

Coming to Birmingham was a big step for the teenager, who has autism, and it was not without its challenges, notably being away from family.

“This makes us even more proud of her achievements,” said Amber’s year manager, chef lecturer Mat Shropshall, who mentored her through the competition.

"Autism can make day to day life difficult, but it works to my advantage in the kitchen. I can be hyper focused and dedicate all my attention to a task."

Amber Clay Professional Chef FdA

Finding her people

Amber undertook additional sessions to practise for the competition, but also found time during the year to support the University as a group representative and ambassador – as well as joining the jujitsu society.

“My flatmate suggested it. They are a really nice group and it has helped me gain confidence,” said Amber, who went on to compete in a national competition in April, winning silver in her category.

She admits student life has been “crazy”. “I am not an academic, so it’s been weird doing essays and theory,” she said. “I am a hands-on person, but it’s been good for me.

“I have been working in kitchens since I was 16 and I wanted time to be a student – time to make friends, join societies and find other hobbies – time to find my personality outside the kitchen.”

She was drawn to University College Birmingham by the variety of courses on offer and having a whole department dedicated to food. It’s location was good for Amber too as she dislikes noisy environments and can avoid the busier areas of the city if she wants to.

“Autism can make day to day life difficult, but it works to my advantage in the kitchen,” said Amber, now 20. “I can be hyper focused and dedicate all my attention to a task.”

So it proved in the Nestlé Toque d’Or competition.

Amber's sustainable menu

Amber’s sustainable fish dish of mackerel, beetroot salad, beetroot gel, pickled cucumber and horseradish espuma took her through to the heats at Gatwick, where she had to replicate a flatbread and plant-based chicken starter and then reinvent a Garden Gourmet burger to become a fine dining dish.

Amber’s vegan koftas with roasted butternut squash and pine nut crumb took her into the final six, and a week of culinary challenges starting with a dairy quiz. Then, after a chocolate masterclass, she was tasked with developing two flavoured doughnuts using Nestlé ingredients, creating a raspberry and milky bar treat and one themed around a mint Aero.

The third day was a cocktail challenge, followed by a forage food hunt and fermenting, while the final day saw the finalists deliver a Tommy Banks fine dining menu to 60 guests. “It was our first time in the kitchen together - from 8am to 11pm – and I felt like I stepped up and directed the team. Some people were struggling.”

Judges included award-winning chef Tommy Banks, MasterChef: The Professionals winner Louisa Ellis, sommelier and wine expert Raul Diaz and 2021 Toque d’Or winner Sophie Taylor. 

Brazil calling

When they announced their winner, Amber was in shock. “It was quite overwhelming - especially with the realisation that there were just 20 days before I would be going abroad – my first time abroad and my first time flying. I have got my head around it now and just feel 80 percent excited and 20 percent scared.”

Amber will be discovering the vibrant gastronomic scene of São Paulo, learning about coffee and sustainability in Espírito Santo, and sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro, as well as visiting a flavour development lab and coffee farm to learn more about regenerative agriculture and coffee. On her return, it will be back to her studies and a potential top-up in Culinary Arts Management

University College Birmingham features heavily in the Nestlé Toque d’Or roll of honour, having topped the competition six times in the past 14 years. This year, the University was also represented by Emma Pykett who made the semi-finals.

The competition provides industry-leading training and development for students and is supported by top names in the industry including Anton Mosimann, James Martin, Brian Turner, Paul Gayler, James Tanner, Simon Hulstone and Jamie Oliver.

University College Birmingham is a leading provider of specialist training for the food and hospitality industries, with students learning in our award-winning training restaurant and industry-standard kitchen facilities. Discover our full range of courses within our Birmingham College of Food.  

In pictures: Toque d'Or competition 2023

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