February 2024

Student chef trio take Zest Quest Asia podium – and are crowned sustainability champs

By Melanie Hall

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Read time: approx 9 mins

A trio of student chefs are off on an incredible educational trip abroad after being hailed overall runners up in a national Asian cooking competition – also scooping first prize for producing virtually no waste. 

Final year Culinary Arts Management undergraduates Oliver Herrington, Mikayla Johnson and Matteo Salvato won a trip of a lifetime to France - complete with a masterclass with a top chocolatier - after impressing the judges of Zest Quest Asia, the brainchild of celebrated chef Cyrus Todiwala OBE.

Representing University College Birmingham, the team were presented with their trophy and the Least Wastage Award at a gala dinner at Hilton London Wembley in front of 230 guests from industry and education.

At the final live cook-off, the trio had to present their own contemporary twist on classical Asian dishes, going head to head with students from colleges across the UK. They then had to give a 30-minute presentation covering food culture, provenance and sustainability to put their knowledge under the microscope.

Oliver, Mikayla and Matteo's award-winning Asian menu

The team’s innovative menu centred on the cost of living crisis crippling many Asian countries and families, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic.

This concept took judges on a journey of Asia, starting with the most expensive countries, and featured an amuse bouche from Japan, a Singapore starter, a Malaysian main and a cost-effective, humble, yet refined, Pakistani dessert.

By presenting dishes from different countries with different economic standards and ways of life, the team aimed to show that flavour doesn’t just come from money, but how you utilise produce, and it's about what you do with an ingredient, not how much you spend on it.

Team mentor and chef lecturer Emma Shephard said: “It was a really clever concept and they learned so much about the different cultures. I believe they were also the only team who asked the judges for feedback, which shows how much they’ve learned to value improvement. I am so incredibly proud of them all and am looking forward to the trip to France.”

The organiser, the zen and the funny guy

Oliver is no stranger to Zest Quest Asia, winning the competition’s Tilda Challenge Award, a spin-off of the main competition during Covid-19, in 2020.

He then went on to represent the University in the full Zest Quest Asia competition in 2021 and 2022 when he was in the first two years of his degree.

But it was in 2023 that the 23-year-old, from Sheffield, would put together a dream team that would take a coveted place on the competition podium and win a trip to the ‘home of classical cookery’, courtesy of the Grande Cuisine Academy.

Oliver said: “I had always been interested in Asian cuisine and the competition was a great way for me to expand my knowledge. During my last year in education, I jumped at the chance to compete in it one last time.

“I straight away wanted Matteo for the team as he had worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and knew how to lead, while Mikayla knows her flavours. Matteo’s the comedian, Mikayla is cool and calm, while I’m the organiser. It all set the tone.”

Twenty-year-old Mikayla, from Kettering, became a chef because she enjoyed cooking with her mum, aunt and grandma and “loved making people happy” through food. She wanted to enter Zest Quest Asia as she hadn’t competed before.

She said: “It was completely out of my comfort zone and opened my eyes to cooking different Asian dishes, which I've always had an interest in. Especially in terms of the way spices are used to elevate the dishes.”

Matteo, aged 20 from Blackburn, wanted to compete after a year-long paid placement at three Michelin-starred L’Enclume in the Lake District – after which he got a job at Aktar Islam’s two Michelin Star restaurant, Opheem, in Birmingham.

“The impact my placement year had on me as a chef cannot be emphasised enough,” he said. “It not only broadened my knowledge of different cuisines, but helped me embrace the sustainable aspect of cooking, how to cook with what is at its best at a particular time.

“When the opportunity to compete in Zest Quest Asia popped up, I grabbed it with both hands.”

The trio were determined to be as sustainable as possible

No compromise on sustainability

The team, who also won Best Use of a Halide Processor, winning an industrial processor for the University, and a year’s student membership of the Institute of Hospitality (IoH), started putting together their concept five months before the competition.

It was based around the fact an estimated 155.2 million people in developing Asia and The Pacific lived in extreme poverty as of last year.

They then spent 200 hours over 40 practice runs in the University’s Bocuse d’Or competition kitchen to hone their menu, often working until 9pm and in the holidays.

Crucially, the team was adamant they would be as sustainable as physically possible during their competition run, a mindset Matteo really got into at L’Enclume, which not only holds three Michelin Stars, but Michelin Green Star status.

Matteo said: “All the waste from the restaurant went into its farm for composting and 87% of the produce in the restaurant was grown from this,” he said. “I started to naturally question when I saw anyone throw anything away.

“For Zest Quest, we decided as a team not to use single use plastics or sous vide vacuum pouches. We didn’t leave the taps running or leave the hobs on. We became so conscious about it and got our waste down to almost nothing. It’s quite difficult to do in competitions, but it can be done relatively easily in a domestic environment, buy food for meals for six days, then use leftovers for the seventh.  

“We hope we are also setting the bar high for the next generation of students, to encourage them to think a different way and want to set the bar even higher.”

In pictures: Zest Quest Asia runners up

Friends for life

As for the future, Oliver wants to travel to Japan to learn more about its food history and culture – and has even been learning Japanese for two years to help immerse himself in the experience.

Mikayla also wants to travel and one day, open her own Ghanaian restaurant, cooking dishes she grew up eating fused with British cooking. 

Here, she plans to use techniques she learned during her NVQ Level 2 and 3 in Professional Cookery at University College Birmingham, from French trimming a rack of lamb to filleting fish, and the culinary management skills she’s learned throughout her degree.

After graduation, Matteo has his heart set on going back into fine dining at L’Enclume, broadening his skill set and ability. After that, he plans to travel to Singapore and, hopefully, work in the celebrated Restaurant Zén, experiencing Asian cuisine in a fine dining setting.

Ultimately, however, Matteo's goal is to become a college or university lecturer.

“I want to teach with the same love for cooking as my lecturers had with me,” he said.

One thing is certain, Oliver, Mikayla and Matteo have made friends for life.

“Zest Quest was such an experience,” said Oliver. “To get through and cook the menu you have been working on together for so long is amazing. And it wasn’t just the cooking, we had to do a presentation in front of the judges in a boardroom, which was difficult and we had to be ready as a team to answer any questions.

Mikayla added: “Everyone wants to win, but getting to the finals was amazing in itself, and we now get to go on this trip to the home of classical cookery.

“We made so many memories and are really proud of ourselves. And the three of us are now planning to live together.”

For more information on Zest Quest Asia, which University College Birmingham won in 2020, just before the pandemic, and in 2017, visit www.zestquestasia.org.

University College Birmingham's acclaimed Birmingham College of Food is a leading provider of specialist training for the food and hospitality industries, with students learning in our award-winning training restaurant as well as having a wealth of opportunities to put their skills to the test in prestigious national and international competitions.

Discover our full range of courses here.

Dishes prepared by the Zest Quest Asia university team

The Zest Quest Asia team menu

Amuse bouche

Miso Shirv

King oyster mushrooms with stir-fried vegetables and ramen broth


Orh Jian

Oyster omelette with chilli jam and tuille

Main course

Ayam Goreng with Nasi Lemak, Ulam and Sambal Sauce

Malaysian fried chicken with anchovy rice, salad and a spiced sauce


Ambh Burfi

Mango burfi with a cardamon-soaked sponge, sweet tuille, toasted peanuts and ginger granita

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