“I was so relieved when third place came and went and it wasn’t my name,” says Mark Sargeant. “I just remember standing on the stage, shutting my eyes and saying my name over and over again: ‘Mark Sargeant, Mark Sargeant, Mark Sargeant.’ I just didn’t want to go away with anything less than first place.”
The head chef of Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s, London, is reliving the moments when he was crowned 2002 Knorr National Chef of the Year at an awards ceremony at the Sheraton Park Lane, London, two weeks ago. It concluded a phenomenal week for the 29-year-old chef: the restaurant also went straight into the Good Food Guide with a rating of 7/10 and was marked 27/30 in the Zagat Guide.
In spite of his recent success, though, you won’t find Sargeant bouncing off the walls at Claridge’s. In fact, he would rather play things down. “The most important thing is the every day competition, running a successful restaurant, making sure you’re full lunch and dinner, that the customers are happy and they like coming back to you,” Sargeant says.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he adds, offering a little more enthusiasm, “it is incredible, to be honest, you couldn’t ask for anything better. But each time something good happens, you have to consolidate, come down to earth and push to make things better and better.”
As the interview unfolds, it becomes apparent that Sargeant was a reluctant entrant to the Craft Guild of Chefs-organised competition, which saw 10 finalists battle it out at a live cook-off at the Restaurant Show (see left). It’s not that he’s against competitions, per se, it’s just that he doesn’t feel he fits into the competition mould. When he took part in Young Chef of the Year, which he won in 1996, he was ribbed so much he vowed never to do a competition again.
“I had started working at Coast [London, under head chef Stephen Terry]. I had just won Young Chef of the Year, and everybody in the kitchen was saying ‘who’s this bighead strolling in here’. Everyone thought that I thought I was the bee’s knees.”
So why did he enter National Chef of the Year? Well, Sargeant’s boss, Ramsay, has been a keen advocate of the competition since he won it himself 10 years ago. “He thought it would be a nice bit of prestige and some good publicity for me. I believe that anything you can do in life that can further you in any way is always worth doing.”
For David Pitchford, chef-proprietor of Read’s restaurant in Faversham, Kent, and a mentor to Sargeant in his formative years, last month’s National Chef result comes as no surprise.
“He came to me straight from West Kent College,” explains Pitchford (himself a former National Chef of the Year winner). “From the start he was one of the most naturally gifted chefs I have ever worked with.”
Although Pitchford concedes that on Sargeant’s first day he had him clearing snow, when he did get him in the kitchen he quickly found what he was made of. “I would show him how to do something, and he would often say, ‘Why don’t we try it like this’. Invariably, his way would be better than the way I had just shown him.”
Sargeant says he cannot recall what made him want to become a chef. “I have no idea,” he says. “Apparently, from the age of eight I was telling my mother that I wanted to be a chef. Then, when I did my options at grammar school and told them what I wanted to be, they steered me towards biology and art.”
When Sargeant passed eight GCSEs, though, his head master encouraged him to stay on and study A levels. “He told me I was being ridiculous and he suggested that I carry my education through to university and then decide if I wanted to be a chef. But I didn’t want to roll out of university at 24 years of age, four or five grand in debt. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and now, standing here at 29 as head chef of Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s, I’m pleased I did what I did.”
Sargeant attended West Kent College where he graduated with a City & Guild’s general catering diploma with distinction. He remembers his lecturer, David Avery. “He was a real character, a short, portly guy with a loud voice. As lecturers are often faced with people who have just fallen out of school with no exam passes, when they get a student who is quite enthusiastic, they tend to cling to them. Because he could see I was enthusiastic, he got involved with me more than some of the other students. He encouraged me more. And if I bunked off college and went down the pub, he would phone my mum!”
Avery put Sargeant in touch with Pitchford, a local chef-restaurateur, and throughout college Sargeant worked at Read’s on day-release. When he graduated from college in 1992, though, there were no full-time positions at Read’s, so he applied for a position as commis chef at London gentleman’s club Boodles. “I received great training from head chef Keith Podmore – he’s a fantastic guy – and in fact I still see him now and then. I was with him for only about 10 months and yet when we opened at Claridge’s, he was one of only a few people to send me a good luck card.”
A year passed and a vacancy became available at Read’s, so Sargeant returned to Faversham as chef de partie. During his third and final year with Pitchford, he entered Young Chef of the Year. After Read’s he joined Peter Kromberg at the Le Soufflé restaurant at the Inter-Continental hotel, Hyde Park Corner. The following year, having just clinched the Young Chef of the Year title, he moved to Coast.
Eighteen months later, aged 24, he joined Gordon Ramsay’s Aubergine restaurant. “Gordon and I really met via the competition, although David Pitchford had arranged for me to do a stage with Gordon when I was 21. But it was far too hot in the kitchen for me then – and I’m more than happy to say that – I saw this wild man without even his first star, working in this basement kitchen with seven extremely talented, hard-working guys. I knew it wasn’t for me at the time. If I had come up to London at that specific time in my life, I don’t think I would be sitting where I am now.”
Sargeant clearly idolises Ramsay. He has had the sense to absorb Ramsay’s qualities but convert them into his own style. Does he shout? “All chefs shout, but Gordon’s the master. When I started at Aubergine, Gordon was very preoccupied, I kind of got off on a really good foot with him, so I didn’t really get that much shit from him to start with. That came much later on. The higher through the kitchen I went, the more he saw I could achieve, the harder he was on me.”
Sargeant says that if Ramsay sees potential in a young chef, he pushes them to the limit. A kind of test. For Sargeant this was illustrated when he featured so prominently in Boiling Point and Beyond Boiling Point. “Two episodes opened with me being completely bollocked. But I thank him for that because that’s built me up to what I am now.”
Today, Sargeant runs a seven-days-a-week operation with a team of 35 chefs. The dining room offers breakfast, lunch and dinner and as a result the kitchen is open 24 hours-a-day. Two night bakers start at midnight and work a 12- or 13-hour day preparing petits fours, crŠme br–l‚es, ice-cream, etc, while the day chefs start between 7am and 7.30am. Sargeant is normally in by 8.30am and leaves around midnight.
And then there’s the chef’s table. The introduction of the chef’s table at Claridge’s (soon to be imitated at Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road site) has been a spectacular success. “It has been fantastic, but because we were getting booked up eight or nine months in advance, we had to close the bookings. We’ve only just reopened bookings for January and February.”
Sargeant and his senior sous chef, Josh Emett, tend to oversee the table, but they spend time with the diners only when it is appropriate (many are closing business deals) and never at the expense of the guests in the dining room. “They’ve paid for the privilege of being in the kitchen, but I would not let the rest of the diners suffer just for that one table.”
Opening night at Claridge’s (October last year), Sargeant says, was like living on “an absolute razor’s edge”. “On the first night I was trying so hard to make everything perfect. I could see so many things potentially going wrong, but I couldn’t shout or scream at anyone all night because of the chef’s table. I didn’t think that’s what I should do. Anyway, after service, I went over to the table and asked them how they had enjoyed their evening. Although they said they had had a fabulous time, they said they expected more shouting and swearing. I’m actually thinking of hiring a stuntman so that I can whack him around the head with a pan.”
So what’s next? “Everybody asks that. The money’s in the bank, I have an accolade I can be proud of, but now it’s time to get back to the kitchen where I belong. I’m desperately hungry for a star in January to round off a fantastic 15 months, but for now we can’t afford to rest on our laurels .
“We’re building up our core team and core structure in the kitchen and Steven Allen, senior chef de partie, has just got through to the finals of Young Chef Young Waiter. So I’m keen to get him through that. Now if we could get National Chef of the Year, Young Chef of the Year and a Michelin star under our belt, wouldn’t that be fantastic?”
Mark Sargeant’s survival guide to chefs
So you want to work in the kitchen? Mark Sargeant lists his top five qualities for becoming a great chef.
- Stamina – be prepared to work the hours
- Thick skin – take on the essence of what is being said to you but don’t take things to heart
- Intelligence – you need to keep your wits about you
- Organisational skills – right from the word go, run your section as you would your own kitchen: clean, tidy, organised
- Focus – keep clear in your mind what you want to achieve
Knorr National Chef of the Year
Mark Sargeant was named Knorr National Chef of the Year at an awards ceremony at the Sheraton Park Lane hotel, London, two weeks ago.
The judges of the event, organised and run by the Craft Guild of Chefs, placed Wayne Asson, executive chef at the Belfry, Wishaw, Warwickshire, second and David Auchie, a lecturer from South Lanarkshire College, East Kilbride, third.
The finalists (listed below) were asked to create a three-course meal for four people from a mystery box of ingredients in three hours. They cooked in front of a live audience at Olympia’s Restaurant Show. The 10-strong judging panel included David Mulcahy, chairman of the Craft Guild of Chefs; Jean-Christophe Novelli, chef-proprietor of Maison Novelli, London; and past winners Kevin Viner and Bruce Sangster.
The mystery basket included one shoulder of lamb, one cannon of lamb, four lambs’ kidneys, one chicken suprˆme, one black pudding, two trout, four scallops (in shell), one lobster and 1kg of clams.
Sargeant’s winning menu comprised velout‚ of celery with a wild mushroom ravioli; pan-fried fillet of trout with a shellfish nage; and fromage frais mousse with a compote of lychees.
Presentations were also made for “best starter” to Sargeant for his velout‚ of celery with a wild mushroom ravioli, “best main course” to Asson for his cannon of lamb, kidney bon bon, shoulder epigram with a casserole of chickpeas and chorizo and “best dessert” to Simon Hulstone, head chef at Cotswold House hotel, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, for his warm lemon and semolina pudding with lychee and lime sorbet.
Wayne Asson**, executive chef, the Belfry hotel, Wishaw, Warwickshire
David Auchie***, lecturer, South Lanarkshire College, East Kilbride
Simon Hulstone, head chef, Cotswold House hotel, Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire
Stephen Love, chef-patron, Love’s restaurant, Leamington Spa
Robert Oberhoffer, chef-proprietor, Dove restaurant, Harleston
Mark Sargeant*, head chef, Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s, London
Gajraj Sharma, junior sous chef, Parade restaurant, London
Luke Tipping, head chef, Simpson’s, Kenilworth
Nick Vadis, executive head chef, British Airways, Eurest, London
Calum Watson, head chef, Ditto, London
(* first; ** second; *** third)