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Nobel Prize for Chefs

Chef in whites wearing red neckerchief smelling herbs

A university dedicated to food has set up a prize fund, which is being likened to a Nobel Prize within the culinary world.

The Basque Culinary World Prize will be awarded by the Basque Culinary Centre, a university which only teaches courses dedicated to food.

A Nobel Prize

The idea behind the prize is to award food that not only tastes good, but does good too. It’s a lofty concept, and the winner will receive 100,000 euros – the equivalent of around £77,000. The creators will be judged on how much their work on a culinary scale has improved society, not just how good they are at cooking.

Chef making sushi

The judging panel is made up of international representatives including celebrity chef and renowned experimenter Heston Blumenthal. He commented that the award seeks to praise those chefs who are "striving to improve society through gastronomy". He also added that it’s about "making a difference beyond the kitchen". The winner will be announced on the 11th July, with a shortlist having already been drawn up.

Many of the finalists focus on sustainable produce: Alicia Gironella from Mexico looks at protecting local species from becoming extinct through the production of food. Charity is also a large element: Daniel Boulud from France is shortlisted thanks to his New York-based project which offers healthy food for the elderly. Ann Cooper, also based in the US, has been tackling childhood obesity, while Jose Andres, the Spanish entrant, has been helping to set up kitchens and self-help projects in areas affected by natural disasters.

The UK’s entrant is Alberto Crisci, and he has taken a different approach, creating restaurants and workshops in four prisons. His aim is to teach employable skills to inmates, therefore making them less likely to re-offend on their release.

A Food University

The university offers unique chances for students to learn the greatest culinary skills in San Sebastian, which is situated in the Basque region of northern Spain. The building itself has stunning architecture, having been made to look like a stack of white plates – an apt setting for kitchen-based learning.

Joxe Mari Aizega, head of the centre, admits that there was originally some doubt that a university dedicated just to cooking could be a success. But the accredited and rigorous four-year degree course they offer was the centrepiece of his vision, and the idea was to take things to a new level not seen in existing cookery schools and training courses. The facilities include lecture halls with kitchens on stage, classrooms dedicated to baking, and wine tasting sinks.

"We have the standards of a university, the standards of science, but applied to something used by everyone," said Prof Aizega.

A Broad Outlook

When most students arrive, Professor Aizega says that they are interested in taking chef jobs when they depart. But by the time they have finished their course, some have expanded their horizons, considering other positions within the food industry. They learn how to run restaurants, and take in many new skills which could have them working international food jobs on a broad scale – he says students "could end up working in New York or Shanghai".

In his view, food is a form of cultural expression – not just about nutrition, but also about the social identity of the person making the food, as well as the person who will be eating it.

"No one used to listen to chefs, they were expected to stay in the kitchen," he says. "Now we can see food as a tool of economic regeneration. It's an important part of the tourism industry."