Formerly head chef at Dabbous in London and recently crowned National Chef of the Year 2018, Luke Selby 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’s starting to. I’ve just come back from my stage in Japan, which was part of the prize for winning the Roux Scholarship. Two days after I landed, it was the National Chef of the Year mentor day, when we received our mystery baskets. I’ve not really stopped since then.
Where did you practise for the competition, as Dabbous is now closed?
At first, in my kitchen at home. I was having to ask suppliers to deliver things to my house and started developing my dishes there. It was a nightmare. I was driving my girlfriend mad with all my equipment and ingredients clogging up the kitchen. As it got closer to the competition final I contacted Gary Jones [executive head chef at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons], who I previously worked for, and he kindly let me practise in the kitchen at Le Manoir. However, as he is a judge in the competition he took himself out of the overall marking and didn’t put any points in towards the final score.
You won Young National Chef of the Year in 2014, so you’re one of only a few chefs to have claimed both titles. How does that feel?
The only other person is Mark Sargeant, I think. It just felt like a natural progression for me. I’m very proud of that achievement, but don’t really have a big head about it.
What inspired you to enter Young National Chef of the Year in 2014?
Gary pushed me for it when I worked for him. It’s one of the top competitions when you’re a young chef, so I was driven to challenge myself and go for it. He encouraged me to do other competitions too, such as the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts annual awards of excellence in 2012 – I won the kitchen category – and the Craft Guild of Chefs’ graduate award in 2013.
Do you think your experience in Young National Chef of the Year helped prepare you?
You get a feel of the competition, but it is a completely different ball game. In Young National you have to create two plates of each – starter, main course and dessert – but in the National you have to create four of each course in two hours. One of the other main differences was in Young National you can bring pre-peeled ingredients and prepared things like basic stocks and sauces, whereas in the National you have to do it all on the day.
How did you come up with the various elements of your menu for National Chef of the Year?
I wasn’t trying to show off or anything, it was just simple, solid cooking. I wanted to incorporate all the things I had learned in my career, such as when I went to Japan – I was able to use Japanese techniques I’d learned in my stage. It was also structured in a way to ensure I could deliver it consistently within two hours.
How would you describe your cooking style?
I don’t know. It’s a question I’m unsure I’ll ever have a proper answer to. I’d like to think of my cooking as built-in classic foundations, technique-driven, with a natural touch. It’s difficult to understand your own style when you’re working under someone else, but I take a lot of inspiration from the chefs I worked for, especially Ollie Dabbous, as his cooking is very restrained and clean.
Did anything go wrong?
No, but I found it hard to use the induction hob and the oven. It’s just tough working in a unfamiliar environment, but we were all in the same boat. Luckily, I had my brother in the kitchen with me as my commis and we’d drilled a few run-throughs before.
Your brother is also a chef?
I’m the eldest of four, and two of my brothers are chefs. At one point we worked at Le Manoir together. I was their sous chef and was probably harder on them because they were my brothers. Nathaniel recently worked at Simpsons in Birmingham and Theodore was on [Richard Branson’s] Necker Island.
Do you think they’re going to do competitions?
I think so. Theo competed in the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts annual awards of excellence in 2015 and was one of the five winners in the kitchen category.
Do your parents have a hospitality background?
No, not at all. Both work in the NHS. I wanted to be a chef from an early age, but my parents tried to talk me out of it. My mum still calls me up and says, ‘It’s not too late to start university!’ So how did you start? When I was 16 I was entered into the Rotary Young Chef competition, and I got to the regional final. Raymond Blanc came to judge and I couldn’t believe it when he turned up. I didn’t win, but I told my dad that I wanted to be a chef, and he said if I wanted to do it then I had to learn from the best. So I wrote a letter to Raymond asking if I could do a week’s work experience in his kitchen. I loved it. I then had to go back to school to finish
my A-levels, but they held a role for me in the kitchen for a year. I started straight after love London, so I’m torn. I’m a country boy at heart and would need to have close ties to farmers and producers. I would love to serve British cuisine championing great British produce.
You’re the only chef to have won the Roux Scholarship and National Chef of the Year in the same year – how do you feel?
I don’t want people to think of me as a competition kid. I enter competitions because they help you to gain experiences in different ways, let you network and meet new people, and also the prizes are so instrumental to your personal development as a chef. There’s no way I would have gone to work in Japan if it wasn’t for the Roux Scholarship, but I learned so much during my time there. Then I had two weeks to turn it around for the National finals.
Within the last two weeks I’ve been to Padstow, Barcelona, Champagne and Milan for some of the prize trips of the Roux Scholarship. All amazing learning experiences and unique opportunities. Even if you don’t win, competitions can open so many doors for you.
Luke Selby’s career started at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Oxfordshire, when he was 18. He was under Raymond Blanc for six years while he worked his way up from commis to sous chef. Selby says: “I learned everything from Gary
Jones [executive head chef] and Raymond. I started as a kid and it helped me to set my foundations in classic techniques and cuisine. I learned how to break down whole animals, how to make stocks, even management skills.”
In 2014, he left Le Manoir for the role of chef de partie at Gordon Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road under Clare Smyth. He says: “It’s hard to take a step back with your job title; however, it was a massive jump going to a three-star. Plus, it
was always a restaurant I wanted to work in.” After a year, he was promoted to junior sous.
After Royal Hospital Road, he went on to join Ollie Dabbous at his self-titled, Michelin-starred restaurant in Fitzrovia. “He was one of the first chefs that opened his own restaurant off his own back, with his own name on the door, and
that interested me,” Selby says.
He started at Dabbous as senior sous, but after six months was promoted to head chef. “Ollie is a great boss. He’s different to a lot of chefs in the industry. He has a unique style and I can see myself doing something in the future that’s similar to his style,” he adds.
Just before Dabbous closed in July, Selby won the Roux Scholarship. On 22 June he undertook a stage at the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Nihonryori Ryugin in Japan, part of his prize for winning
The winner’s prizes
• A medal, and a year’s membership to the Craft Guild of Chefs
• Media training session worth £7,500 and a recipe book provided by Knorr
• An all-expenses-paid trip to Mexico from Lockhart
• A trip to Switzerland to take part in the Nespresso Chef Academy training programme from Nespresso
• A coffee machine from Nespresso
• A framing plate and £500 worth of vouchers from Churchill
• The chance to guest-chef at Le Cordon Bleu London
• A bespoke chocolate design from Cacao Barry and 500kg of chocolate
• A meal for two at Pétrus followed by a one-week work placement
Sea vegetable minestrone, mussels and farfalle pasta, served with a poached scallop, British caviar and a lemongrass-scented buttermilk sauce
Roasted fallow deer, blackberry, celeriac, sprouts and bacon, served with a venison sauce and finished with chocolate
Warm walnut almondine, ginger-infused Bramley purée, and caramelised Cox apple filled with apple compote, cinnamon and ginger ice-cream.
The judges and finalists
• Ben Champkin, sous chef, L’Enclume
• David Davey-Smith, chef, Royal Air Force Worthy Down
• Will Holland, head chef, Coast Restaurant
• Karl O’Dell, senior sous chef, Pétrus
• Adam Thomason, head chef, Restaurant Associates at Deloitte
• Simon Webb, head chef, Restaurant Associates
• Dean Westcar, head chef, Restaurant Hywel Jones by Lucknam Park
• Thomas Westerland, sous chef, Lucknam Park
• Kuba Winkowski, head chef, the Feathered Nest Inn
• Sat Bains
• Benoit Blin
• Claude Bosi
• Matt Christmas
• Ollie Dabbous
• Mark Flanagan
• Frederick Forster
• André Garrett
• Nigel Haworth
• Graham Hornigold
• Philip Howard
• Simon Hulstone
• Gary Jones (chair)
• Stefan Karlsson
• Tom Kerridge
• Andrew Pern
• Simon Rogan
• Julie Sharp
• Clare Smyth
• Stephen Terry