Winika Hutchins has always dreamed of becoming a top chef.

The 25-year-old Ignite Colleges student landed her first kitchen job at 15, working as a dish washer at her local café, Pukekohe’s Poco Loco. Now, nine years later, she’s sharpening her knives and heading to Spain where she will represent New Zealand in the world truffles championships – Cocinando con Trufa.

“It’s fair to say I’m a mix of extremely excited and extremely nervous,” Winika says.

That’s not surprising. Not only is this the first cooking competition she has ever competed in, but it is also the first time she’s ever set foot outside New Zealand.

“I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into but the journey of coming up with a competition dish has been amazing, and I’m really looking forward to meeting other chefs from around the world and learning from them.”

Now in its second year, Cocinando con Trufa – or Cooking with Truffles – takes place in Soria from December 2 – 4 and draws teams from all over the world keen to showcase their culinary skills. This year Winika and her teammate, acclaimed chef Alok Vasanth from The Tasting Shed, will be up against competitors from USA, UK, South Africa, Spain, France, Italy, Ireland, Ecuador and Argentina.

“Each team is made up of a professional chef and a culinary student or recent cookery graduate,” says Winika, who juggles her full time job as Head Chef at Poco Loco with full time cookery studies at Ignite Colleges in Manukau. It’s here, at the Ignite Colleges state-of-the-art training kitchens, that Winika and Alok have been honing their truffle cooking skills to prepare for the competition.

“I don’t want to give away too much about our dish, but it will feature truffle-infused New Zealand lamb and also include a leek and truffle tart.”

If the pair make it through to the final round, they’ll have to think on their feet for the much-anticipated mystery box challenge.

“It’s going to be an amazing experience. I’ll learn so much and the opportunity to make connections with chefs from other countries will be invaluable because my long-term goal is to work as a chef internationally.”

She will certainly have the chance to demonstrate her talents to some of the best in the business. The judging panel includes the likes of Chef Elena Arzak (named the world’s best female chef in 2012), Oriol Castro (chef and owner of Disfrutar, one of the world’s top restaurants) and Ricardo Costa, (one of Portugal’s most celebrated chefs). Also on the judging panel is award-winning chef Jasbir Kaur, General Manager of Ignite Colleges, president of the Auckland branch of the NZChefs Association, and the only New Zealand judge to be selected.

The competition will serve as a perfect entrée to next year’s main course when, as part of Ignite Colleges International Diploma in Culinary Arts Level 5, Winika will spend three months interning at a Michelin starred restaurant in Spain.

It’s high-profile stuff, and a long way from the daily grind in South Auckland.

“I grew up on the rough side of town. Lots of people just stay living in their bubbles but it’s nice to get out and do something different. I want to broaden my horizons.”

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