Chef competitions in the UK
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Awards and competitions can bring rich rewards and open important doors to chefs sharp enough to win them. But how do you increase your chances of victory?
Little wonder then that chef’s competitions are thriving. From head-to-head battle, such as National Chef of the Year, and new talent searches like the Roux and Ramsay scholarships, to the team events like Restaurant magazine’s own College Restaurant of the Year, there’s a competition out there to suit every student or professional chef, whatever their abilities or aspirations.
The Question is: do you have the cojones? “I went in there strong, hard and fast” says Sat Bains, of his 1999 Roux scholarship victory, making it sound more like an SAS operation than a classical French cookery competition. Similarly, Eyck Zimmer – who has won the Knorr National Chef of the Year and the Master of Culinary Arts – reckons that only certain, steely chefs can handle competitions like National Chef, in which they’re asked to create dishes against the clock from mystery ingredients. “It’s so hyped up I wouldn’t describe it as ‘fun’. There are some bigwig chefs out there who just aren’t competition chefs, because they can’t perform under that pressure: being judged, having top chefs watching over our shoulder. They cramp up.”
When Zimmer first got into competitions, he had a point to prove. Namely the chefs working in contract catering, as he was at the time, were often just as gifted, individually, as their more glamorous restaurant rivals. To thrive in a competition environment, away from your team, your kitchen and your own ingredients, you have to have a “natural talent and understanding of flavours”.
Down on the relative nursery slopes of the Roux and Ramsay scholarships, competitions are a useful way for young chefs to announce themselves into the industry. The Roux, in particular, is not just a prestigious bump to any CV (Sat Bains was 28 and unemployed when he won it), but it opens up membership of an elite club. For instance, Roux scholars get together for trips to Tuscany or Dubai. “It’s like joining the family,” says co-ordinator Alison Jee. “Scholars know they can contact the Rouxs at any stage and ask for guidance.”
But how do you win? Contrary to official advice, Bains didn’t practice his Roux dish. “I’m not good at doing something over and over. You’ve got to feel it. It’s off-the-cuff cuisine.
Zimmer, meanwhile, who has also completed at the international Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, thinks competitive cooking is a specific skill that takes dedicated practice to master. “You have to be very lucky or exceptionally talented to win first time.” His advice is to get the judges’ feedback, keep it simple, concentrate on purity of taste, good flavour combinations, consistency and to keep cool. “There will be moments when something goes wrong, but just like a kitchen in everyday life, it’s how you solve the situation.”
Remember, also, that no competition is a substitute for hard graft. As Bains puts it, “The Roux scholarship shows you to a door, but it’s up to you to kick that door down.”
THE BEST OF THE REST FOR...
PRECOCIOUS KIDS: Futurechef
Annual competition for 12 to 16-year-olds that attracts about 7,000 entries springboarduk.org.uk
TRAINEE TALENT: World Skills UK
Competitions for trainee chefs, the winners of which compete internationally. worldskillsuk.org
COMPETITIVE CATERERS: Salon Culinaire
80+ competitions, including chances for football stadium and NHS chefs to square up at the hob. hotelympia.com
FISH FANATICS: Norwegian Seafood Recipe Challenge
THE RESTAURANT SHOW NATIONAL CHEF OF THE YEAR
As the UK’s most prestigious and respected culinary contest The National Chef of the Year competition shines a spotlight on the fresh talent coming out of the kitchen. Since it launched in 1972, previous winners like Gordon Ramsay, Alyn Williams and Mark Sargeant have seen how it helps fast-track careers to put winners firmly on the map, and on the path to Michelin stars
Good for: Established professionals who can hold their own in the heat of battle
Who’s eligible: Open to all chefs over the age of 24 , from across all sectors of the industry.
Deadline: Usually February each year
Previous winners: James Devine, Mark Sargeant
Read more at http://www.therestaurantshow.co.uk/ncoty
Larry Jayasekara, 2016 Winner said “I never thought I was good enough, the standard [of the competition] is so high. The first year I reached the final, I thought, ok, the second year, I thought, ok, but the third year I really had to push the boundaries. It's not just about winning, it's about your career and what the title can do for it.”
THE ROUX SCHOLARSHIP:
Launched back in 1983 by the Roux brothers to offer a mentoring framework to chefs
Good for: Talented young bucks. About 50 chefs apply each year
Who’s eligible: Chefs aged 22 to 30 in full time employment in the UK.
Deadline: Mid to end of January for Stage One – a written recipe using specific ingredients (listed on website)
Previous winners Sat Bains, Andrew Farlie
Read more: http://www.rouxscholarship.co.uk
Michel Roux Sr “The most important aspect is the training. We established the scholarship with the prime objective of providing a springboard for chef’s to achieve their full potential”
MASTER OF CULINARY ARTS:
Inaugurated in 1987, The Master of Culinary Arts (MCA) is held every four years and is seen to be the ultimate accolade, awarded in recognition of outstanding craftsmanship for Chefs, Pastry Chefs and Restaurant Managers in the UK.
Good for: Seasoned chefs / pastry chefs
Who’s eligible: Experienced Chefs or Pastry Chefs or Restaurant Managers, each with over 10 years full time UK experience
Previous winners Anthony Worrall-Thompson, André Garrett
Top prize The title of Master of Culinary Arts, awarded to “all or none of the entrants depending on whether or not they reach the required standard”
Brian Turner, Academy President “This award is based on perfection. It takes courage to enter and exceptional skill to reach the final”