Pumpkin puree, topped with pumpkin discs, pan-fried black pudding, prawns and whipped goat's cheese, served with pumpkin seed lavosh and roasted pumpkin seeds.

It's called the Pumpkin Patch, and sounds like a restaurant dish - but in fact this plate of food was created by two secondary school students, Keita Henry and Sose Ailepata from Aorere Trades Academy.

It was one of the pair's winning dishes in the annual National Secondary Schools Culinary Challenge at Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) held recently. Their other dish was a mouth-watering Supreme Chicken Boil Up: sous vide chicken breast filled with watercress with Agria potato dumplings, steamed seasonal NZ veg and a hot chicken broth.

Sadly I didn't get to taste the dishes on the day - but they looked and smelled amazing; certainly on a par with any restaurant dish I'd happily pay money for.

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The Culinary Challenge is in its fourth year, and is part of an industry-wide push to encourage more young people into the hospitality industry.

It's an acknowledged problem that restaurants struggle to find both skilled and trainee kitchen staff. At MIT, they have capacity to teach more students than they can attract across all the hospitality courses on offer, including cookery.

That people don't see the preparation of food as a worthwhile career concerns me. It seems to me that the job of feeding people is at least as important as the jobs of other caregivers: teachers, nurses and other health care and education professionals.

As we choose to eat more and more of our food away from home, we're relying more and more on other people to prepare that food.

Cooking for others is really important. And it's more important than ever that our culinary professionals have an understanding of, and an interest in, feeding people with nourishing food.

Last week I gave a talk on nutrition in the media to the students of the Bachelor of Culinary Arts programme at Auckland University of Technology. These students - who will graduate to go into chef roles - are getting 12 weeks of nutrition training as part of their course.

The courses at MIT offer the same. It may surprise you to know this is more nutrition education than the average medical student receives (and as much as some people who call themselves 'nutritionist' - but that's another story).

That nutrition is integrated into culinary training is really good to see. It reflects the growing interest, I think, of the dining public; we're more interested than ever in choosing food that's good for us when we're eating out.

Learning about nutrition means the next generation of chefs coming through will pay much more attention to this than we have ever seen. And while we're seeing lots more vibrant, healthy food on offer in our restaurants, there's still a long way to go. We just need more young people willing to step into the kitchen.

Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large for Healthy Food Guide