AT JUST 22 years of age, Patrick Thompson was not the obvious choice to do well in the final of this year's Roux Diners Club Scholarship. The other five finalists were all at least four or five years older and employed in the kitchens of such exalted establishments as Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, near Oxford, and the Lanesborough hotel, London. Thompson, on the other hand, worked in a country pub in the heart of Bedfordshire.
It may have come as some surprise to the gathered audience at London's Four Seasons Hotel when Thompson, head chef at the Falcon at Bletsoe, was declared winner of the 1998 Scholarship. But the judges, headed by brothers Michel and Albert Roux, and including Brian Turner, Gary Rhodes, Victor Ceserani, Frances Bissell and Simon Hopkinson, were unanimous. They put Thompson's preparation of the classic Escoffier dish, filet de boeuf camargo, served with a free interpretation of a salsify garnish, firmly in first place.
"The most difficult part of the dish was ensuring that the beef and the stuffing were evenly cooked," says Michel Roux. "In Patrick's dish, the stuffing held well and the cooking and taste came together perfectly. He made a very tasty salsify garnish, without masking the flavour with too many other bits and pieces."
For Thompson, who had admired the Roux brothers from a distance since deciding, at the age of 10, that he wanted to become a chef, his victory was a dream come true. "I'd been inspired by watching them on television many years ago and it was just amazing to win the competition at my first attempt," he says.
Although Thompson had been surprised to reach the final, he knew he had nothing to lose and went into the competition feeling mildly confident.
The filet de boeuf dish was a testing one, requiring the contestants to open up the fillet lengthwise and remove the meat from inside, leaving a wall of meat only half an inch thick all round. The meat which was removed had to be finely chopped and combined with foie gras, truffles, cream and seasoning to produce a forcemeat which was then stuffed back into the fillet. Once rolled up, the fillet was covered with slices of bacon and tied before being roasted.
For the garnish, Thompson cooked some salsify in water, cream and lemon juice before draining and then sautéing it in butter, parsley and thyme. A juniper sauce, using a recipe taken from the book Sauces by Michel Roux, also had to be prepared and served to the judges with the finished dish. "I was very pleased with the way the beef came out, judging it just right after deciding to put it back in the oven for an extra five minutes," he says.
While Thompson is now very much looking forward to his three-month scholarship at Lucas Carton in Paris under three-Michelin-star chef Alain Senderens in September, as well as spending his £1,500 prize money and using up his 10,000 air miles from sponsors Diners Club International, he is currently focused on building up the reputation of the Falcon as a food destination.
The pub and restaurant reopened for business only at the end of March, having been closed for 18 months. New owners Charles Wells Brewery installed landlords Jan and Lynne Zielinski, who appointed Thompson as head chef.
Until March, Thompson had been working as sous chef at the nearby country house hotel, Woodlands Manor in Clapham, on the outskirts of Bedford. In fact, he had spent five-and-a-half years at Woodlands Manor, since studying catering at Bedford College of Higher Education, and had worked his way up from commis to sous chef.
"Many people might say I'm too young to be a head chef at 22, but I think it depends on the individual. Ultimately, I want to own my own restaurant by the time I'm 28 or 29."
Certainly, Thompson displays a maturity beyond his years and appears to have kept his feet firmly on the ground since winning the scholarship.
At lunchtime, he prepares food for a tasting menu, which is served in the bar, while in the evening all meals are ordered from an à la carte menu in the 50- seat restaurant.
He has gone through a period of experimenting with different styles of menus, to see what suits both the customers and his kitchen. At the moment, he has just one commis chef, Michelle Harper, working with him, and so finds that a monthly changing à la carte menu works best.
The Falcon specialises in fish and seafood, and Thompson enjoys working with the variety of fish available. He uses two fish suppliers - Larderfresh in Birmingham and M&J Seafood in Aylesbury. "Larderfresh provides a 24-hour fish prep operation, which is particularly useful for me with just two of us in the kitchen," he explains.
Selling well on the present à la carte menu - which offers a choice of six starters, eight main courses and four desserts - is a starter of sautéd langoustines with a caramelised pineapple sauce (£7.50). Three or four langoustines per portion are sautéd in clarified butter with black pepper and served with a selection of salad leaves and blanched baby vegetables. The intense sweet and sour style sauce is made from ginger, garlic, shallots, white wine, white wine vinegar, tomato juice, orange juice and redcurrant jelly, while slices of caramelised pineapple garnish the dish.
Cooking to order
With a lot of customers not booking, Thompson and Harper have to be thorough in their mise en place. All main courses are finished to order at point of service, taking a maximum of eight minutes cooking time.
For instance, a fillet of salmon is wrapped in advance "en papilotte" with spring peas, courgettes, carrots, mange-tout, fennel, butter, fish stock and white wine (£12.75), and baked in the oven for eight minutes when ordered.
Desserts have had to be scaled down to some extent since the reopening of the Falcon. "We started off with an assiette of chocolate (£5.25), which incorporated a bitter chocolate tart, milk chocolate mousse and a white chocolate and rum ice-cream, served with a purée of raspberries, fresh fruit and chocolate curls. But this proved too much for just the two of us," says Thompson. Consequently, the chocolate component was scaled down to a bitter chocolate tart with cinnamon cream and burnt orange sauce (£4).
Thompson currently buys in items such as bread, rolls, ice-cream sorbets, filo paste, and one of the desserts - a caramelised apple tart from Larderfresh. But he hopes the appointment of a sous chef, and perhaps another commis, will help ensure that every element of the menu will soon be home-made. He is hoping to come back from his stint in Paris with a whole host of new ideas which will eventually appear on the menu at the Falcon. n