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An aspiring East Grinstead chef has been crowned champion of the inaugural Crawley College Mystery Box Cooking Challenge.

Maisie Barnes, 16, won the contest – which were held at the college’s training kitchens – after impressing judges and the public with her spontaneous homemade gnocchi.

She was one of 20 trainee chefs and amateur cooks who put their skills to the test, when the college challenged them to cook a vegetarian dish from a selection of mystery ingredients – donated by suppliers, local shops and hotels.

The competition was fierce, with the cooks drawing inspiration from across the globe including traditional English, Asian, Indian, Italian, Spanish and Moroccan influences.

The best four dishes – as selected by the team of college judges – were then put out to a public vote, and it was Maisie’s inspiring Gnocchi, served with a spicy tomato sauce and griddled eggplant, which took the top prize receiving more than 40% of the overall public votes.

Sam Carey, chef lecturer, said: “A lot of technique was demonstrated in Maisie’s dish. She really challenged her skills, stretched her creativity and unquestionably delivered well-made gnocchi.

“The sauce also had a good, fiery flavour which balanced the dish nicely.

“We were all very impressed with Maisie’s dish – she showed great ambition and confidence, and it really paid off.”

Maisie, who will be joining Crawley College in September to study catering and hospitality, said: “I was really surprised to find out that I had won.

“It was really daunting, but when I saw some of the ingredients I started to form an idea of what I could serve.

“I really enjoyed being in the kitchen and I’m looking forward to starting my course. It’s exciting.”

Maisie was presented with her prize – a luxurious afternoon tea for two at the Holiday Inn London Gatwick Worth – by Chris Schoeman, General Manager of Holiday Inn London Gatwick Worth.

Chris, who is also the deputy chairman of the Gatwick Hotels Association, said: “It is really important to employers to support our local college and the young people who study there – they are the future of our industry.

“It is inspiring to see young people like Maisie embracing challenges like this. It’s not easy to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

“So to not only enter this competition, but to also demonstrate this level of technical ability at just 16 shows a real passion and determination, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing great things of her in the future.”

Sam added: “We are proud of the relationship we have with the Holiday Inn Gatwick Worth and all of the other employers we work with.

“Events like this competition, and last month’s apprenticeship showcase, really give our students and apprentices an opportunity to demonstrate their skills and passion to the public and more importantly, work alongside industry experts.

“The support we receive from the employers is invaluable to ensuring we can continue to offer fantastic fun opportunities and pathways for the next generation to secure a successful future in hospitality.

“Courses offered at the college are adventurous and rewarding. Careers in hospitality and catering are extremely varied – there is no limit as to what can be achieved.”