In addition to carrying off the title of 2016 National Chef of the Year, Larry Jayasekara won an array of prizes and educational trips. The competition’s organiser, David Mulcahy, culinary director at Sodexo, joined him on his winner’s excursion to Denmark
Winning National Chef of the Year (NCOTY) is an experience that lasts a lifetime, from the memories of waiting for the winner’s name to be read out, to regularly being in the media spotlight and enjoying the many experiences the competition offers, year on year.
While the 2017 winner, James Devine, was crowned in October, the 2016 winner, Lahiru (Larry) Jayasekara is still enjoying some of his NCOTY prizes, including a recent winner’s trip to Denmark, hosted by competition sponsors Lockhart and Gram UK. Joining Jayasekara on the trip was NCOTY judge Graham Hornigold, group executive pastry chef for Hakkasan Group, along with representatives from catering equipment supplier Lockhart and refrigeration manufacturer Gram UK.
The team of travellers gathered at Heathrow’s Fortnum & Mason before taking off for the Scandi culinary tour. A day of discovery began on the minibus trip from Billund Airport to Jutland, the home of Gram. This rural area sits just 50 miles from the German border and is surrounded by the Baltic and the North Sea. You need plenty of layers for a trip like this as it’s extremely cold!
During the Gram factory visit, Jayasekara and the group learned about refrigeration from one of the world leaders in the field. Denmark is an expensive place to manufacture, as labour and parts costs are the most expensive in Europe, so the Gram business strategy is focused on efficiency and quality.
Nothing is compromised in the manufacture of over 32,000 units every year. Now owned by Japanese firm Hoshizaki, the next phase in the company’s development is about investment and innovation, and this is clear with its stateof-the-art production techniques.
The first culinary experience was in Aarhus, at Michelin-starred restaurant Substans. It’s usually closed on Mondays, but opened specially for the NCOTY guests, chef-patron Nicolas Min Jørgensen welcomed everyone to the chef’s table. He shared his passion for organic food, which was beautifully prepared and celebrated local and seasonal produce.
Day two involved a visit to the ARoS Museum of Art before making the ferry journey to Copenhagen for the main event: Restaurant Alchemist. Chef Rasmus Munk is a rising culinary star who is talented, highly creative and experimental. Although the menu is modernist and full of surprises, twists and turns, Munk has a true understanding of the foundations of classic cuisine. While this gave us the confidence to put our total trust in him, we were challenged mentally, physically and morally. His dishes are designed to shock and awaken the senses, covering anything from childhood memories to first-world challenges.
One of the signature dishes is called ‘ashtray’ and, to all appearances, it is a dish of cigarette ash and embers, served with a worrying introduction. Munk announced: “This is my signature dish and, by the way, my grandmother died of lung cancer. Enjoy.” It certainly quietened the group. The dish itself was actually made of Norwegian king crab, espuma of baked potato, dried puffed potato pearls, hay and leek ‘ash’ and freeze-dried tomato ‘embers’.
Beautiful ingredients, including langoustines, oysters and scallops with caviar, were all treated with respect, yet the shocks kept coming throughout the 46-course menu. Horsemeat tartare with chicken foot and tarragon mayonnaise was a tame, harmless dish compared to the lamb’s heart tartare, which consisted of delicate, jelly-like cubes of raw heart served in an actual heart, finished with a blood and cherry sauce released from a blood transfusion bag.
Unsurprisingly, insects were welcome guests on the menu and appeared in at least four courses. A ‘rotting sheep’s brain’ with an assortment of crispy mealworms and ants was actually quite tasty. The bowl of live woodlice, stopped in their tracks by a hot consommé, became a crisp garnish to the soup. A pressed cow’s udder, drenched in autumn truffle, was an unlikely favourite, but the real winners were the desserts. Childhood memories were rekindled with a miniature street food truck delivering ice-cream cones and mini donuts; and an edible artist’s palette allowed the diners to paint a picture and eat it. These felt more familiar and playful, bar the odd earthworm or surprise ant. The experience will stay with everyone for a long time.
The final day saw a visit to Torvehallerne, a highly efficient, well-organised and modern food market, hosting an Aladdin’s cave of stylish and fashionable treats you would only expect from the Danes. Paper Island is a street food market with a festival feel, and the range of great food on offer confirms that Copenhagen is leading the field in so many ways.
Jayasekara said: “It was the experience of a lifetime – I was fascinated by the style of food, how the chefs source ingredients and the techniques they use. It was my first time in Denmark and I certainly will visit again.” This was a fantastic trip which will be remembered for its diversity and edginess for food and the direction it’s heading in. Copenhagen is justifiably becoming the leading European city for progressive chefs and restaurants.