CHEFS at the Garden restaurant, at Orsett Hall, are used to working side by side to create their acclaimed fine-dining dishes.

But now head chef Robert Pearce and junior sous chef Andrew D’Amery are facing off in the Essex Chef of the Year awards.

It is the first time two people from the same restaurant have made the final of this particular category in the Essex Tourism and Hospitality Awards.

But judges were so impressed with their applications they were named as two of the three finalists.

The story of the apprentice facing up against his former master is as old as time.

But head honcho Robert, 26, insists the knives weren’t out for his co-worker.

“It is good for him to be in something like this and good for me, because it shows I can bring out the skills in younger chefs,” he insists.

“It also shows that, despite being a head chef, I can still cook.

“People have been asking what it was like facing Andrew in the competition, but for me it is a win-win situation.

“We have been supporting each other through it.”

Despite threatening to derail my story by denying their rivalry, Robert insists the pair are evenly matched ahead of the results ceremony on October 23.

Both he and Andrew completed a cook-off in front of a panel of six top judges, including Coggeshall-based TV chef Mark Baumann and last year’s winner Aaron Skerritt, who is a chef at Le Talbooth in Dedham.

“It went well and we both stayed inside our allotted time,” Robert says.

“We had two and a half hours to produce our dishes.

“I was a lot less nervous than I thought I would be. The worst part was being in a strange kitchen and not knowing where everything was.”

The young chefs were filmed as they cooked, with the results to be shown at the Boreham House awards ceremony.

Winners of the main Tourism Awards will also go forward to represent Essex in the national 2014 Visit England Awards for Excellence.

The Garden restaurant is set in the stunning hotel grounds, with views across the gardens. It has eye-catching decor, with emphatic floral walls, quirky mismatched chairs, a garden terrace and space for around 60 diners.

Owner Alice Barton-Wright opened the restaurant around two years ago after noticing a gap in the market for a fine -dining experience that you did not have to travel to London to experience.

The menus are contemporary British and often offer something new and original.

That is, in part, down to Robert’s influence and his creative flair.

“I like taking traditional ideas and giving them a twist,” he says.

Robert began his culinary career in a pub kitchen in Chingford, where he grew up.

He had been inspired by trips away with the Scouts, where he learnt the first basics of cooking.

Those early days consisted of a gruelling schedule, torn between college in the week and work in the evenings and all weekend.

He adds: “You see your mates going out and wonder if you are doing the right thing.

“My schedule really tested my friends. But I knew I loved cooking and I would regret it if I dropped out.”

This hands-on pub experience was followed by work at London restaurant Plateau, where Robert was cooking for city slickers and Canary Wharf bankers.

He moved on to Mayfair’s Quaglino’s, where he would cook for up to 900 people each day.

After the hustle and bustle of the London restaurant scene, Robert decided his next step would be a little further afield.

He booked his flights and packed his bags for Sydney, Australia.

“I had always wanted to travel and I knew it doesn’t matter where you go, people have to eat,” he says.

“I like Australian food, the Asian influences and the unusual fusions. They only use produce they can get in their own country.

“I worked in a restaurant overlooking the Sydney Harbour Bridge.”

When he returned to London, he worked in a hotel, before being headhunted to work at Orsett Hall.

The plush setting and quality food has attracted diners from all over the world, as well as dignatries and the odd celebrity.

Robert says: “Everyone gets the same consistent service, whether they are famous or not.

“Obviously, if someone big is in it ripples around the kitchen a little bit, but we’re too focused to let it affect us.”

In September, the restaurant was told it had been chosen in three categories in the Essex Tourism and Hospitality Awards 2013.

In the coming weeks, it will be hoping to bag the Chef of the Year title for Robert or Andrew and the Garden itself could be named Fine Dining Restaurant of the Year.

Andrea Ince, marketing manager, said: “We are extremely proud and truly believe that the Garden Restaurant at Orsett Hall is one of the best restaurants in Essex for fine dining.”

The Garden has previously been awarded two rosettes by the AA, in 2012.

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