Margan head chef Thomas Boyd's milk parfait with macadamia, honey and thyme won the popular vote at Hunter Culinary Association's annual Food Fight on Monday.
His cleverly balanced dessert was a hit with the event's 320 guests, giving him the edge over worthy competitors Eilish Maloney (formerly Saint Peter Paddington), Troy Crisante (Quay Restaurant) and George Mirosevich (Restaurant Mason).
In what is essentially a four-course blind tasting judged by the diners themselves, Malone created the first course: dry-aged snapper with last season's birch fermented tomatoes and preserved lemon. Crisante's second course was a flavour-packed nduja with peas and black olive, and the third course by Mirosevich was a roast and braised lamb with garlic and Jerusalem artichoke.
There's friendly competition but at the end of the day it's all about raising funds for the industry we love.Thomas Boyd
The chefs were collectively referred to as The Ledbury All Stars as each has spent time, elbow to elbow, with Brett Graham at his acclaimed London Michelin-starred restaurant The Ledbury.
Speaking to Food & Wine the morning after the Food Fight at Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley, Boyd said the day was "a bit of a blur".
"I was very confident with the preparation of the dish itself. We've been working on it for a while and I thought it was a good contender but seeing the quality of the food from the other chefs was a little bit rattling," he said.
"We've all worked together and we all have a very high standard when it comes to food and everyone was definitely on point on Monday."
The inspiration for his dessert was honey harvested from hives "on the hill" at Margan Estate in Broke.
"Lisa and Andrew [Margan] gave us the first batch of this honey and I started thinking of the soft white colours of milk and macadamia nuts combined with a very floral honey from local wattle," he explained.
"We were hoping to supply all our own honey but we didn't have enough at Margan. I needed seven kilograms of honey for the recipe so I grabbed some from Little Hill Farm, who have their own beehives, and the thyme just brought it all together nicely. This dish is very light and airy and is perfect to end a degustation or multiple course meal - you don't want something too heavy and rich."
Boyd has worked behind the scenes at Food Fight for many years and was thrilled to be given the opportunity to star at the 10th anniversary event.
"There's friendly competition but at the end of the day it's all about raising funds for the industry we love," he said.
"I've worked at Margan for a while now, first as an apprentice. Moving to London and coming back has allowed me to develop and grow with the garden and the team. Lisa and Andrew are so relaxed; they're happy if we're happy. It can be a tough industry to work in but at Margan we have a good balance."
Another winner on the day was Hunter Valley restaurateur, chef and culinary advocate Andrew Wright of The Cellar Restaurant and The Wood Restaurant. He was awarded the honour of Outstanding Contribution by an Individual.
"What's extra special about this event is that it not only gives chefs a forum to showcase their talents, but the Food Fight auction we hold on the day also raises money for our range of scholarships," association chairman Gus Maher said.
"The Brett Graham Scholarship is one of those, providing a young chef the opportunity to work at The Ledbury."
Food Fight is Hunter Culinary Association's signature fundraising event. The banter between hosts Colin Fassnidge and Matt Kemp, combined with auctioneer Sean Redpath's wit, is always a highlight.
Raffles and an auction raised close to $30,000 for young culinary and front-of-house talent in the region. The final figure is still being determined.