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National Chef of the Year 2017 winner profile: James Devine

Written by:
National Chef of the Year 2017 winner profile: James Devine
Written by:

The recently crowned National Chef of the Year, James Devine, sous chef at Deanes Eipic in Belfast, talks to Katie Pathiaki about the competition and his plans for the future

Congratulations on winning National Chef of the Year – has it sunk in yet?
It has, but I still feel like I’m walking on a cloud. I’m looking forward to going on the trips that came as part of the prize – I think the best thing about winning is that you can celebrate for a whole year!

This was the first time that you entered the competition. What inspired you to enter and how did you keep your cool?
I have my head chef Danni Barry to thank as she was the one who suggested I enter. To be honest, at that point I hadn’t heard a lot about the competition. I liked that the stages were spread across several months because you can fluke things like this, but the way it was structured meant you had to earn it.

Because I wasn’t expecting to win, there was no pressure, which helped. I just wanted to show up and cook food, and if the judges thought it was good, then great, but if they didn’t, then that was OK too. I think when you
are willing to lose something, you are more relaxed, and being relaxed is the key.

What were your initial thoughts when you saw the mystery box of ingredients and how did you shape your menu from there?
There was so much to choose from, which made it hard to focus. The menu development was difficult too because I didn’t want to copy our menu at Eipic, but it is difficult to step away from something you are surrounded
by for 16 hours a day. In the end, I took on board what Clare Smyth [chair of the judges] told us: keep it simple, pick three or four ingredients, and don’t let your mind wander.

How would you describe your cooking style?
My style has always been quite simple and tasty, but Danni helped me to polish the rough edges. She taught me how to cook properly, which I owe her a lot for. I’m very fortunate as Danni had to leave Northern Ireland to get to that level herself.

How much support did you have from Danni and the rest of the Eipic team?
Danni was great helping me with the menu development side of things. When you have an idea, you have to bounce it off somebody. I wanted to cook something that was very much my own because I knew I would feel
more comfortable. The company helped me with the financial support, which was crucial, because you practise by making a three-course meal for four people three times a week – and then it’s given to the staff.

Are the pressures of a competition different from the pressures of restaurant service? Is the cooking different?
It is different. In a kitchen you would never ever have a two-hour window to knock up a three-course meal for four people. You might make a component of a main meal in two hours but not a whole dish. So in that regard
it’s different, but the pressure is the same. You’re constantly under time pressure!

In terms of personal accolades, what other ambitions do you have? Would you enter any other competitions?
I would love to end on a high, but never say never! I would like to do the Great British Menu because I think it’s important to have the right guys representing Northern Ireland.

In terms of future accolades I have really enjoyed working in a Michelin-starred restaurant with Danni, but I don’t think I could physically run one myself and I don’t want to stress myself out trying. I think you have to
know where you are at in life.

So what’s next for you?
My next chapter would be to open something casual and accessible. My focus has shifted to being a chef-proprietor and starting to set up a life for myself. I don’t think that chefs have very long lifespans: most days my knees hurt and I’m only 31! I think you have to start planning for the future as early as you can. I would like to start a family and enjoying my life.

When do you envisage opening your own restaurant?
I leave Eipic at the start of next year on the best of terms. Everyone has been very supportive. They knew before the competition, win or lose, that I would be moving to my own thing. I think there’s an opportunity for something casual in Belfast, such as a diner experience that you can eat in two or three times a week. People might question why I would have gone from cooking Michelin-starred food to cooking buffalo wings, but I think that if you are providing a product which is still very good and you take great care with from start to finish, then it shows.

That’s the nice thing about winning the competition at this time. I have proven that I can compete at a high level and have done something that has made Northern Ireland proud. Now it’s time to make myself proud.

Was it always your ambition to develop a career in the kitchen?
No, I was very late to it. I was enrolled at Queen’s University Belfast to study law and was meant to have a glittering career as a solicitor. A really naive notion took me to this course. I remember watching Jamie Oliver’s
Jamie’s Kitchen and thinking I could do that – it was so arrogant! I went to college for the  enrolment day and started straight away. I was completely useless. At that time I was turning 21 and most of the kids were 16, so I got to skip the first year. I spent the whole year trying to catch up with these kids in their second year. I went from being this pretty smart guy to being a donkey. It was a culture shock.

What kept you going?
I am a stubborn bastard. I wasn’t sure if I liked the industry but, like everyone else, I got that buzz. At the time I liked the idea of teaching, so after doing my basic level, I did my foundation degree and a General Certificate of Education [GCE] while working full time. I’m glad I did that and don’t feel it was a waste of time, although I know now that I don’t want to be a teacher!

You were on MasterChef: the Professionals in 2013 and made it to the quarter-finals – what did you learn from the experience?
People are very nice about that, but I was absolutely gutted [about not getting further in the competition]. Since then I have thrown everything at every competition I enter. The highlight of the experience was meeting Michel
Roux Jr. He is a gentleman as well as being a legend. He came over off-camera and put his arm around me, and I’ll never forget that.

And in 2015 you were in the regional finals of the Roux Scholarship
I got to see Michel again and I think that was half of the motivation! It didn’t go well at the time. I didn’t have a boss above me or anyone to financially support me. I didn’t even have a chef to come in and wash dishes. Maybe a better chef could have done it – Ian Scaramuzza [the 2015 Roux Scholar], for example, did it alone and won it.

Do you think that winning National Chef of the Year was something you wanted to prove to yourself?
Absolutely, and to everybody else. Before this competition I couldn’t buy a win – I had MasterChef, the Roux Scholarship and a bad experience with a restaurant, which were three massive losses.

Although I was prepared to lose this competition, I needed to win it. That’s what pushed me forward to get up on a Sunday morning on my only day off and tell myself to get to work. I feel very content. I have proven that I can actually cook, and can look anybody in the eye, which is really nice.

Tees Valley rib of beef, braised Puy lentils and watercress

Serves 2
300g rib of beef
Sea salt
20g butter
4 heritage carrots
10g thyme
1 clove garlic
20g beef fat
100g Puy lentils
50g celeriac
40g butter
1 shallot
5g parsley
5g chives
5g Knorr beef stock
100ml red wine
20g watercress

Prep the beef: remove all fat and sinew. Render down the dripping separately and reserve. Keep dripping, sinew and bones for sauce. Place the cleaned eye of the meat in a vac-pack bag with the sea salt and butter. Place
in a water bath at 55°C for an hour. Remove from the bath, drain, colour on all sides in a hot pan, and then glaze the meat with butter. Rest for a further five to six minutes before carving, and season with an extra pinch of sea salt.

Roast the carrots in beef dripping with thyme and garlic in a low oven until tender. Blanch lentils in boiling salted water until tender, then drain and refresh. Sweat off diced celeriac, prepared carrots and shallot in butter,
add some beef stock and red wine, and reduce; fold in lentils. Finish with fresh herbs and butter.

Serve accompanied with sprigs of cress.

James Devine’s menu
Starter
Tortellini, roast chicken, butternut squash and sage velouté

Main
Tees Valley rib of beef, braised Puy lentils and watercress

Dessert
Soft-centred chocolate and coffee tart with passion fruit curd

The finalists

● Martin Carabott Senior sous chef, the Royal Automobile Club, London
● Stephanie Coupland Chef de partie, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay
● James Devine Sous chef, Deanes Eipic, Belfast
● Paul Foster Chef-patron, Salt, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire
● Luciano Lucioli Head chef, Lusso – CH&Co
● Liam McKenna Head chef, Trump International
● Danny Parker Head chef, House of Tides, Newcastle
● Charles Smith Head chef, Alyn Williams at the Westbury, London
● Adam Thomason Head chef, Restaurant Associates
● Kamil Wierzbowski Sous chef, Pétrus, London

The winner’s prizes

One year’s membership of the Craft Guild of Chefs

● Media training and the creation of a recipe book, plus consumer press coverage, courtesy of Knorr
● Over £1,200 worth of vouchers for Lockhart Catering Equipment products, along with a study trip for the winner and a guest in March
● A trip to Switzerland, courtesy of Nespresso, to take part in the Nespresso Chef Academy training programme
● Courtesy of Churchill, an exclusively designed framed winner’s plate and £500 worth of Churchill products
● A guest chef appearance at Le Cordon Bleu in London

The Judges
Clare Smyth, Paul Ainsworth, Sat Bains, Benoit Blin, Claude Bosi, Matt Christmas, Daniel Clifford, Jonas Dahlbom, Dan Doherty, Andrew Fairlie, Daniel Galmiche, Brett Graham, Graham Hornigold, Philip Howard, Simon
Hulstone, Gary Jones, Jonny Lake, Andrew Pern, Julie Sharp, Stephen Terry, Lee Westcott.

Past winners
2016 Larry Jayasekara
2014 Russell Bateman
2013 Hayden Groves
2012 Alyn Williams
2011 Frederick Forster
2010 Hrishikesh Desai
2008 Simon Hulstone
2006 Eyck Zimmer
2004 Steve Love
2002 Mark Sargeant
2000 Bruce Sangster
1998 Kevin Viner
1996 David Everitt-Matthias
1994 Lou Jones
1992 Gordon Ramsay
1990 Roger Narbett
1988 Mark Gregory
1986 David Pitchford
1984 Robert Mabey
1982 William Stafford
1980 Ken Whibley
1978 Paul Brady
1976 Eddie van Meille
1974 Bryan Price
1972 Pierre Jacquemin

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