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Best chefs are men?

What would you do if you were challenged to create two award-winning dishes from the contents of a box containing, among other things, a calf's innards, an ugly wet fish, an odd-looking vegetable, blood oranges, puff pastry, hand-dived scallops in the shell and a couple of organic carrots? Not only that, but you had to create and cook your dishes within 90 minutes, under the beady eyes of Scotland's top chefs?

The chances are that, like most of us, you would throw in the towel and switch on Masterchef. But on Monday morning, eight young Scottish chefs will not have that option. As finalists in the prestigious Scottish Food Scholarship awards - launched two years ago by Michelin-starred chef Martin Wishart to encourage and develop the culinary skills and talents of young working chefs in Scotland - they have to stay the course. Although they will have had two weeks to devise and practise their all-important dishes, the heat will be on: the standard of the cooking this year is at an all-time high.

And lest you imagine they're all men, think again. Three women have reached the finals and - sacre bleu! - are absolutely up for the challenge.

The three are already working full-time in their own kitchens. Not for them relegation to the pastry section while the men get on with the tough business of running things. Each has steadily worked her way up through the ranks to become a serious player in the field, and each is aiming for a Michelin star of her own.

Yvonne Noon, 23-year-old sous-chef at the Grill Room at the Square in Glasgow (and the only Glaswegian to have entered since the competition was launched) puts it simply: "My kitchen is fierce, it's hardcore, and I'm not afraid to shout and swear when I have to."

Likewise, Lesley McQuiston, the 20-year-old sous-chef at Lochgreen House Hotel in Troon, says: "I tell people exactly what I think, and people do the same to me. You have to make your presence felt. I have quite a temper now - it comes from cheffing and going through all the grades."

However, she's not afraid to ask male colleagues for help when lifting a hot stock pot, and suggests this is one of the differences between men and women in the kitchen. "A man will insist on doing it himself, even if it means putting his back out," she jokes. Her inspiration is Michelin-starred Angela Hartnett, a Gordon Ramsay protegee and the UK's most high-profile female chef, who ran the Connaught in London and will be in charge of two new Ramsay restaurants in London from April.

By contrast, Aberdeen-born Paula McEwen, 24-year-old junior sous-chef at the Witchery in Edinburgh, is giving nothing away. She comes across as reserved and self-contained - but says she is confident and highly motivated in the kitchen. "I'm steady," she says. "I have no low points and no stress. I really enjoy the buzz." In a truly high-octane job, she cooks double sittings at lunch and dinner.

But why on earth would a young woman want to become a restaurant chef? After all, the hours are long, you have no social life outside work, you're on your feet all day - and toiling in a hot kitchen for hours at a time must play havoc with your skin and your hair. On top of that, you have the traditional macho environment in which to make your mark. Even Delia and Nigella have given this option a bodyswerve and are happy to be cooks rather than chefs.

The three young Scots deny that cheffing's bad for the skin, but agree the social aspect isn't great. Yet passion for their work takes precedence at this stage in their careers. In any case, getting to liaise with suppliers and doing paperwork, as Yvonne and Lesley do, elevates the job to kitchen management, which they say is vital for their future careers: they intend to open their own restaurants.

Each of the girls left school early because they already knew they wanted to study catering. Yvonne and Paula left at 15, while Ayr-born Lesley was 16. Yvonne started working straight away as a commis chef at Ferrier Richardson's Eurasia restaurant in Glasgow while studying part-time for her SVQs. She was promoted to pastry chef within six months. After college, Paula's first job was commis chef at the five-AA-starred Marcliffe at Pitfodels hotel in Aberdeen. She was promoted to chef de partie within two years, then became pastry chef. She left three years ago to join the Witchery as chef de partie, and is now junior sous-chef on the sauce section, doing main courses.

Lesley left school at 16 and attended Ayr College. Her first job was commis chef at the Park Hotel; she joined Lochgreen House four years ago as a commis chef and has been there ever since, working her way up to very near the top.

As high-powered as they already are, entering the running for the Scottish Food Scholarship has been good for them, they say, because having to devise recipes and work with good-quality raw ingredients is a sharp learning curve. "The ingredients this year have been interesting and it's been a challenge to come up with something good," says Lesley, who entered the inaugural competition in 2006.

"I'm still trying to work out what to do with the pink rhubarb and where to find more golden beetroot," says Yvonne happily.

WINNING the scholarship will be a major boost for one of the eight chefs, not least because of the valuable experience and exposure it offers. The top prize is a series of internships, including a stint with Martin Wishart in his eponymous Edinburgh restaurant and with Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, plus the opportunity to cook on the Flying Scotsman and a trip to the Villeroy & Boch family chateau in Luxembourg. The winner will be the chef who comes up with the recipe most deserving of the title Edinburgh's Signature Dish, which will then be included on different menus around the city over the year, including Martin Wishart's lunch menu.

"Winning means other chefs start to look at you differently - and you might even be poached by another restaurant, so it's good for the CV," says Lesley, who wants eventually to open a 120-seater restaurant "somewhere in Europe" serving Scottish cuisine. Paula says she'd like to open her own small fine-dining establishment in Aberdeen, while Yvonne would prefer a place in Glasgow.

Martin Wishart, who co-runs the awards with Braehead Foods, the Scottish game and fine-food supplier in Kilmarnock, believes it will help alleviate the shortage of professionally trained staff in the industry. He will be joined on the judging panel by fellow Scottish Michelin-starred chefs Tony Borthwick, Keith Braidwood, Jeff Bland, Matthew Gray, Chris Frith-Bernard and Tom Kitchin. They will be looking for competence, ability to work with seasonal ingredients - and individual flair.

Do women have more flair than men in the kitchen? Paula doesn't think so. "I don't believe there's such as thing as the feminine touch," she says firmly. "Flair and finesse are what every chef strives for, and it's neither male nor female."

Wishart, who has had a number of female chefs through his kitchen, agrees. But he concedes there are more men than women in the industry, and that women have to fight more to make their mark.

This year, for the first time, the ingredients list has been put together with desserts in mind. Wishart explains: "This is a new twist. A lot of chefs focus on the hot kitchen rather than desserts. We wanted to help them develop their pastry skills. But they still have to think on their feet."

Surveying her list of ingredients once more, Yvonne sighs. "You know, they look so simple on paper. But you could do so much with them. Doing this really makes you think."

The winner of the Scottish Food Scholarship will be announced on Monday at the George Hotel, Edinburgh.


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