Charlie Stockwell emerged as the victor of the Nestlé Professional Toque d’Or Apprentice 2017 competition. Among the tricky tasks the finalists faced was a day at Billingsgate Seafood School, where Lisa Jenkins joined them for fish identification and their first cookery test
On a good day, you can find about 150 species of seafood from around the UK coast at Billingsgate fish market, so working out which witch is which can be a daunting task. Luckily, the finalists of the Nestlé Professional Toque d’Or Apprentice 2017 competition, eventually won by Charlie Stockwell, had the perfect guides to help them through the process.
The Nestlé Professional Toque d’Or competition, considered to be one of the industry’s most challenging catering competitions, celebrates its 30th anniversary next year. This year, The Caterer supported Nestlé Professional in launching a complementary apprentice competition, which aims to help apprentices enhance their culinary skills, as well as their personal development.
The initial call for entries for the apprentice competition was made in late 2016. Each entrant was sent a box of Nestlé Professional fresh ingredients and asked to create a recipe with the theme, ‘Great food, great life’, and to submit a video describing the reason for their application. All the entrants were invited to Hospitality House in London in February, where they recreated their signature dish for the judges.
They were whittled down to six finalists, who were asked to take part in a three-day challenge, developed in conjunction with HIT Training and chair of judges Simon Hulstone, chef-patron of the Elephant in Torquay. The three challenges were a cooking competition at Billingsgate market, a masterclass with Hulstone, and finally to cook at a gala dinner, at Le Cordon Bleu in London, where the apprentices would work alongside the Nestlé Professional Toque d’Or competitors.
Beginning at Billingsgate
On the first day, five apprentices (minus Hollie Parry, who had pulled out because of a motorcycle accident) headed to Billingsgate Seafood School in east London. They were accompanied by members of the Nestlé Professional team: Hulstone, Paul Mannering, academy principal of HIT Training’s Chef Academy; and Mick Burke, fellow of the Master Chefs of Great Britain and previously a hospitality lecturer at Sheffield College.
The apprentices received an introduction to the market from Billingsgate Seafood School chief executive CJ Jackson, who explained that the school organises escorted visits to the market for the industry, covering subjects such as buying, filleting, sustainability and responsible sourcing.
This was followed by a tutored tour of the market in full swing. There has been a fish market on this spot for nearly 1,000 years, and the sense of history is tangible. On a good day, the market can supply more than 150 species of seafood from around the UK coast, but it also imports catch from across the globe. The produce is available fresh (often alive in the case of shellfish), whole, filleted, cooked, preserved (smoked, salted or brined) or frozen. The market receives an average of 250 tonnes of seafood and shellfish every week.
After the tour, and a breakfast of kedgeree, the apprentices were tested on their knowledge and asked to identify 12 species of fish. This was followed by a filleting demonstration by Billingsgate’s master blockman (someone who cuts and prepares fish for a living) Ronnie Peacham.
The apprentices were then thrown in at the deep end for their first cooking challenge of reproducing one of three fish dishes from Jackson’s recipe books: the Billingsgate Merchants fish stew with rouille, which required the fish to be pin-boned and skinned; a witch dish with gremolata and gruyère, and roasted vegetables; or roast hake with caponata, dressed tagliatelle and seaweed.
The apprentices’ final dishes were judged on their working practices in the kitchen, the healthy slant of the dish, their timekeeping and delivery, and finally presentation.
- All of the fish for the competition was supplied by Direct Seafoods
Simon Hulstone: how to win competitions
- Stay composed, even if you’re stressed – don’t slam oven doors.
- Be honest.
- If you screw up on one course, you can make it up on another.
- Think about waste. What are you going to do with the offcuts?
- More on the plate equals more to be judged on – sometimes, less is more.
- Always choose a suitable plate or bowl to serve your dish on.
- In most competitions, you will start with 100 points – the points are there to lose!
- Do your dessert first, then prep the main.
- Concentrate on one component at a time.
- Always have a lighter and a plaster in your pocket.
- You’re not going to win them all.
- Find out what equipment you will be cooking on.
- Be the first to serve if you can. It sends everyone else into a panic and the judges will taste your dish with a fresh palate.
- Taste your food – and let the judges see you tasting it.
- You are there to take the glory, so don’t take any prisoners!
- Gabriel Florea, Sofitel London Gatwick
- John Howarth, the Mansion House (CH&Co), London
- Luke Moloney, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (Compass), Berkshire
- Hollie Parry, the Kentish Hare,
- Royal Tunbridge Wells
- Charlotte Silvester, Ettington Park Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon
- Charlie Stockwell, Galvin La Chapelle, London
Charlie Stockwell: winner of the Nestlé Professional Toque d’Or Apprentice 2017
Stockwell came into hospitality via a part-time job while still at school, assisting as a butcher in a farm shop, which was followed by a position at Saracens rugby club in Twickenham, catering for about 200 people in a corporate members’ club.
As a high-achieving student at Westminster Kingsway College, Stockwell was selected for the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts programme in 2015 – a more advanced and faster course for young chefs who are ready to go into the industry.
“Charlie shone from day one,” says Simon Hulstone. “He listened to the professionals and supported the other apprentices and student competitors when we brought them together at Le Cordon Bleu, and remained calm throughout the three days of the competition. He stood out as an excellent team member, but he also has excellent knife skills, brilliant taste buds and a quiet confidence.”
George Vezza, managing director of Nestlé Professional, says: “For the past 29 years, we have been supporting young talent on the cusp of their career in hospitality. During this time, our industry has changed dramatically, meaning the skills required to succeed have changed too.
“Equipping the next generation of chefs and managers with the knowledge and experience they need to shine is precisely what Nestlé Professional Toque d’Or is all about.
For his prize, Stockwell will receive a week’s work experience at a high-end restaurant, followed by dinner for himself and a guest. He will also get a voucher to spend on catering equipment at Russums.
“Charlie is definitely someone who will become an industry leader in a few years, especially with his induction into the industry within the Galvin brothers’ portfolio at Galvin La Chapelle,” says Hulstone.
What the judges said
What was it like to be the chair of judges?
It was an honour to be part of the apprentice competition – it’s in its infancy, but it’s part of something so established. It promotes the Toque d’Or as a competition for young professionals, as well as student cooks. It’s a fantastic opportunity for young chefs.
What was the standard of the apprentice chefs this year?
For some of them, it was their first competition – and the standard was high. But they all got along and demonstrated great teamwork. They knew we were looking for our one apprentice ambassador, a team player, someone who shows a real interest in the industry and someone to move us forward.
Was their fish knowledge at Billingsgate at a level you would have expected?
The species test at Billingsgate was good. Fish identification will be greatly beneficial to them as they continue their careers. When the apprentices cooked their first recipe challenge, we saw different results from people cooking the same recipes. Everybody added their own individual twists.
How impressed were you with the apprentice’s skill levels?
Each competitor demonstrated good professional practice within the kitchen, and a good attention and awareness of flavour combinations.
Did anything stand out during the masterclass day with Simon Hulstone?
It was his little tips for competitions that stood out for me, and the relaxed and fluent way in which he gave the demonstration.
Do you think the apprentices had a good level of fish knowledge and cutting skills?
Billingsgate was a phenomenal experience and the apprentices were blown away by thir visit. The fish identification was a little hit and miss, but the craft skills were good – I saw some good filleting and preparation. However, I think commis chefs need to familiarise themselves with whole fish. If they use only prepared fish, they’re missing a vital connection with the product.
How did the apprentices and student chefs work together in the kitchen at Le Cordon Bleu for the gala dinner?
I think it was a good experience for the level-two apprentices to work with the level-three college students. They all brought something different to the table and worked as an effective team.
What does the competition bring in terms of benefits to the HIT Academy and the HIT Chef Academy?
It’s the perfect platform to promote a career and apprentice schemes in catering. People young and old need to see the opportunities and exciting training that exists in this industry, and what it offers.