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Winner

01 January 2000
Winner

An outstanding performance on a single day last February has given a major boost to Kevin Viner's culinary career. At his third attempt, the chef-proprietor of Pennypots restaurant in Maenporth, near Falmouth, Cornwall, scooped the title of Craft Guild of Chefs National Chef of the Year 1998.

Since then, Viner has found himself at the centre of local and national media attention and has seen bookings at his one-Michelin-starred restaurant grow by 120% compared with this time last year.

Gaining media attention and increasing bookings are just two of the reasons that drive hundreds of chefs to enter the 300 or so culinary competitions in the UK each year, not to mention the numerous contests abroad.

Michael Kitts, head chef at Les Ambassadeurs Club, London, admits that prize money was one of the reasons he entered the 1996 National Chef of the Year contest, although he also saw the good it could do his career. In the event, he reached the finalist stage.

For Jonathan Harrison, winner of the 1993 Roux Diners Club Scholarship and now chef de cuisine at the Swallow hotel, Birmingham, it was the challenge of putting his reputation on the line that made him enter. "It is very easy to do what you can do in the kitchen, but having to go out there and do your stuff in front of a live audience is completely different."

Paul Gayler, executive chef at London's Lanesborough hotel, says entering competitions provides a good learning curve for young chefs, as well as being an excellent addition to their CVs. "When someone comes to me with competitions on their CV, it shows me they have keenness and are hard-working."

Gayler also thinks meeting fellow chefs, both at the same level and above, is another benefit of taking part in competitions. It was through the Mouton Cadet contest (now no longer running) that Gayler met Anton Mosimann, then executive chef at London's Dorchester hotel. As a result, Gayler was eventually offered the position of sous chef at the hotel. No wonder, then, that he believes competitions are almost like a talent-scouting exercise.

But despite all the advantages thrown up by competitions, they do have a downside.

The 1996 National Chef of the Year, David Everitt-Matthias, says his bookings hardly went up at all following his victory. Everitt-Matthias, chef-proprietor of Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham, adds that it is extremely stressful putting in extra hours on top of a hectic working schedule to prepare for a competition. He says the extra pressure affected not only him, but his family too.

In extreme cases, entering competitions can be partly responsible for a breakdown in people's private lives. Michael Kitts says his "addiction" to competitions certainly did not help him maintain a healthy marriage - it ended in divorce.

To try to prevent extra pressure being put on young chefs, Dave Boland, senior chef lecturer at Bournemouth and Poole College of Further Education, tells his competing students that it is not the winning that matters, but the taking part.

Boland, who has had numerous successes at the Nestlé Toque d'Or, says: "You have to go into competitions with your eyes open. There is no point doing them if you are going to whinge about them afterwards."

But there are those who disagree with this attitude. "You go into a competition to win it," says Kitts.

He says he expects drive and determination from anyone in his brigade who enters a competition. "Anything coming out of my kitchen has my name on it. If they are not going to go into a competition in the frame of mind to win, then they shouldn't enter at all."

But John Burton-Race, chef-proprietor of L'Ortolan restaurant in Shinfield, Berkshire, says some head chefs put undue pressure on their staff to shine in competitions.

He has known head chefs tell members of their brigade: "You had better not let me down. You had better not disgrace the company."

And if the youngsters cannot match those expectations, it can have a devastating effect on them, says Burton-Race. "Losing ruins the morale of a very good chef. I have seen them get angry, and crying in total disappointment, and I have seen them totally, physically melt."

The British judge at the Prix Pierre Taittinger competition, Marjan Lesnik, says he has also seen chefs destroyed by failure in competitions. "In extreme cases, some have given up their career. Failing can destroy your self-belief. I have seen chefs crying and slamming the table. But some will believe they have been totally misjudged and then compare themselves with those who have won."

Other judges agree that difficult situations can develop with some competitors. Peter Griffiths, salon director of salon culinaire at Hotelympia and Hospitality Week, says: "If a judge sees a competitor is nervous, they will walk away and not hover over them. They have been there themselves and know what the pressure is like."

Reputation destroyed

Griffiths says he understands the importance that chefs place on doing well in their colleagues' eyes - something that is just as important to older chefs as to younger ones. Losing a competition can not only destroy a young chef's confidence, it can also destroy an older chef's reputation. So when should a chef hang up his competition whites?

"Before he becomes an embarrassment," says Simon Hulstone, 23-year-old head chef at the Mirabelle restaurant in Eastbourne's Grand hotel who is already a veteran of 28 competitions, gaining the top prize in three-quarters of them.

Hulstone thinks that if an older chef fails to win a competition, it does them no favours with their brigade.

Lesnik agrees. "Competitions are a young chef's game, possibly up to the age of 35, because after that you can fall into the embarrassing situation of being beaten by a younger, sharper person. Losing can damage an older chef's reputation."

Such remarks prompt an angry response from Burton-Race, however. "I went in for the MOGB competition eight years ago and didn't get past the semi-finals," he says. "I had two Michelin stars at the time, and was beaten by people who hadn't even achieved any stars - so does that make me a bad chef? I went in for it because I thought it would be a great honour to get it."

But no matter what motivates or dissuades chefs when it comes to competitions, or the pressures it puts them under, it seems there is a never-ending supply of people willing to put themselves forward. Peter Griffiths says he was oversubscribed for all the competitions at Hotelympia '98, and he anticipates the same for Hospitality Week '99.

The allure of competitions, it seems, shows no sign of diminishing.

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