Picture this: a busy trade show, 10 cooking stations occupied by 10 young chefs, television cameras and stills photographers roaming in and out incessantly, a packed audience within spitting distance of the chefs following every culinary move, and some of the biggest names in the culinary world strolling around clutching clipboards with marking sheets. That's the Gordon Ramsay Scholar final in a nutshell.
If this sounds intimidating, it was - at least to the casual observer. The young chefs competing in the cook-off on the first day of this year's Restaurant Show, on the other hand, seemed to be unfazed. As 25-year-old Alex Thain, who eventually won the day after three hours of labour at the stove, told me, "I just concentrated on what I was doing. I very rarely looked up".
Thain, recently appointed head chef at Edinburgh's Cosmo restaurant, had some handy practice at coping with similar conditions when he took part in last year's National Chef of the Year competition. Maybe that explains his sang froid.
Having a few years in age on most of the other competitors probably helped, too. There's no substitute for experience - you've just seen more and dealt with more in pressurised kitchens than your rivals.
In this year's final, Ramsay and his chairman of judges, Steven Doherty (one of a select few chefs in the UK to have become a Master of Culinary Arts), decided to test their young competitors on some building blocks of the culinary canon. The task for the finalists was to cook a three-course meal, but within that brief they had to make a salad nioise starter and a chocolate tart, two classic dishes. "You can't hide behind things like these," commented Doherty. "The ingredients have to stand out for themselves."
The main dish, a free-interpretation recipe, had to be centred on sea bass, with the stipulation that it couldn't be cooked whole on the bone. But an extensive goody box of mystery ingredients - received, like the information about the set dishes, on the day - gave the chefs a plenty of room for manoeuvre.
Included in the mystery box were seasonal root vegetables, fennel, celery, mushrooms and tomatoes, alongside some teasers like pomegranate. As a bit of fun, while the competition was taking place I asked some of the judges what they would have come up with for the sea bass course. Those who humoured me - and there were some who were reluctant to commit - almost all included fennel among their ingredients, fish and fennel being one of nature's classic matches. And, to a man, they referred back to dishes on their own menus - something which Thain himself did - but more of that later.
For the record, here are some of the judges' dish suggestions. Last year's scholar, Marcus Eaves, opted for pan-fried sea bass "to get a nice crisp skin" matched with fennel and wild mushrooms. Luke Tipping developed the fennel idea further, injecting contrasting textures but retaining the bulb's linking flavour notes in a fennel salad and fennel stew alongside roasted sea bass.
Mark Sargeant decided that a lightly smoked cullen skink-style soup with confited fennel and roasted sea bass was a good idea; Richard Corrigan settled for poaching the bass and serving it with, "a bit of fennel, a bit of spinach"; and Mark Askew went for roasted bass with roast Baby Gem lettuce velout. David Pitchford's thoughts, on the other hand, took him towards a pure of root vegetables topped with wilted spinach and served with potato and Parmesan gnocchi as an accompaniment to the fish.
It was Thain's central sea bass course which scored him most points with the judges - "It was the best-cooked fish out of the 10," remarked Askew - although his starter and dessert were also highly competent and helped to demonstrate consistency in his cooking across the board. Several of his competitors scored superbly on one course but let themselves down in one, sometimes two, of the other dishes. For instance, Neil Mackenzie's tart was declared by Angela Hartnett to be delicious, with "the best pastry base", but his fish course was poorly seasoned - a cardinal sin in cooking.
Interestingly, the salad nioise - on paper the simplest of all dishes - caused the young chefs the most problems. Portion sizes of the tuna were often wide of the mark; eggs more than once over-boiled; vinaigrettes too acidy, heavy-handed in quantity or not detectable; and, again, seasoning notable in many offerings by its absence. "The person who makes the best nioise will be the winner, because if he can make that, then he'll be able to cook the bass properly," commented Hartnett at the start of the judging process - and this proved to be the case with Thain's starter, which set the benchmark for those that followed.
Speaking after he'd had time to reflect on his success, Thain said: "I cooked the fish using techniques that I've used regularly on menus, so I felt comfortable when I served it up." Pan-seared bass with fennel and onion confit, braised celery and leeks, and a haddock sauce was the dish he put in front of the judges.
Did he think that he'd won? "I thought I'd done pretty well, and I would have been disappointed if I hadn't been placed in the first three," he told me, "but my legs nearly gave way when my name was called out by Al Murray at the award reception."
If you're thinking about trying your hand at becoming next year's Gordon Ramsay Scholar - or any other competition for that matter - here are some tips for you to consider:
- Make sure the competition is suitable for you.
- Always read instructions carefully - make sure you follow the directions required.
- Make sure you carry out plenty of timed practices of classical methods and techniques beforehand.
- Take time to practise your dishes - if you know beforehand what you're cooking - and take on board comments from others about taste. Get your chef to judge you.
- Stop practising 2-3 days before the competition.
- Have a day off before the competition.
- Do not make your dishes overcomplicated. Competing flavours will hinder you.
- Keep everything in your head.
- Taste your food.
- Work in a clean and tidy manner.
- Make sure your food is served at the correct temperature.
- Try to serve your dishes 10 minutes before you need to - it will always take longer in a strange kitchen.
- Relax, try to enjoy the competition and don't make it a chore.
- Listen to feedback from the judges after the competition.
- Watch and learn from other chefs. Ask questions, and try to understand what the judges are looking for.
(List compiled for the 2006 Caterer and Hotelkeeper Chef Conference by Steven Doherty, Jonathan Harrison, Nigel Haworth, Simon Hulstone and Steve Munkley.)
The Gordon Ramsay Scholar competition and its sister event the Gordon Ramsay College Scholar have been running for four years. In the short time since their 2001 launch, both have established themselves among the competition world's handful of elite events.
The reasons for this are many. First, Gordon Ramsay's own involvement with, and commitment to, the competition is vital in giving it gravitas. Second, the competitors are given genuine encouragement and, sometimes, basic help by the judges (in last year's final, for instance, one judge demonstrated the correct way to deal with an artichoke to a bemused young chef who hadn't cooked them before).
In addition, prizes are extremely generous and include stages, for the scholar, at two of the world's most prestigious restaurants and, for the college scholar, at one of the Gordon Ramsay Group restaurants and in Spain. A car, several other trips abroad, knives and a cash prize of £3,000 - all courtesy of various sponsors - are also among the scholar's spoils.
For information about the 2006 competition e-mail email@example.com or telephone 020 7592 1360.
The finalists Alex Thain (winner), 25 - Cosmo, Edinburgh
Neil Mackenzie (second), 24 - Lindsay House, London
Marc Hardiman (third), 22 - Charlton House, near Bath
Ka Fu Choy, 23 - Gordon Ramsay College Scholar 2005, Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies
Nick Ghinn, 22 - Chapter Two, Blackheath
Paul Kavanagh, 24 - Montague Arms, Beaulieu
Jamie Raftery, 22 - Gidleigh Park, Chagford
Darren Smith, 25 - Warehouse Brasserie, Southport
Peter Snelgar, 21 - Sharrow Bay, Ullswater
Andreas Wingert, 24 - Lucknam Park, Chippenham
The judges Steven Doherty (chairman), proprietor, First Floor Café at Lakeland, Windermere
David Pitchford, chef-proprietor, Read's, Faversham
Richard Corrigan, chef-patron, Lindsay House, London
Angela Hartnett, chef-patron, Menu at the Connaught, London
Marcus Wareing, chef-proprietor, Pétrus, London
Marcus Eaves, 2004 Gordon Ramsay Scholar, sous chef, Hibiscus, Ludlow
Yannick Alléno, executive chef, Le Meurice, Louis XVI hotel, Paris
Andreas Antona, chef-proprietor, Simpson's, Edgbaston
Mark Askew, executive head chef, Gordon Ramsay Holdings
Mark Sargeant, head chef, Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's
Luke Tipping, head chef, Simpson's