Aaron Jay McLaughlin is a chef at Lincoln’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court in London. He talks to Katie Pathiaki about competition wins and Michelin-starred training in Hong Kong
What’s your background?
I have worked in hospitality from the age of 14 and I have always been extremely ambitious. I worked in kitchens while I was studying for my GCSEs – mainly supporting the team with prep, learning on the job. When I left school, I studied at Harlow College for three years for an NVQ level 2 and a VRQ level 3 in cookery.
What was your first job in the hospitality industry?
It was at the Blue Boar in Abridge, Essex. I was still studying at college, but I was keen to broaden my knowledge and learn as much as I could from my peers. I was there for two years and worked my way up to demi chef de partie.
What did you learn there?
It was my first real insight into the hospitality sector. I found that I thrive when working in a fast-paced environment and I met people who really influenced my career path.
Where did you go next?
Hanbury Manor in Hertfordshire. That was my first real experience of working in fine dining and catering for large-scale events, from weddings to banquets. After two years, I worked at the London Marriott Hotel Park Lane for two-and-a-half years. That took me to where I am now, Lincoln’s Inn.
Have you had a mentor?
David Powell, sous chef at Lincoln’s Inn, has really guided me and supported me. I can always turn to him for advice, especially with new recipe ideas. It was David who suggested that I enter the Wing Yip Oriental Cookery Young Chef of the Year competition, so I have a lot to thank him for. I’ve always had a keen interest in the diversity of Oriental cuisine, so this was a great challenge and an opportunity to learn. To be given the chance to cook for such a highly respected panel of judges was particularly nerve-wracking, but very exciting too.
What did you cook?
A starter of octopus rice roll, moilee sauce, and sesame and seaweed crisp, followed by a main of Creedy Carver duck leg terrine, Asian greens, blood orange gel, duck breast skin and heart crisp, with duck broth.
Did you encounter any problems?
Timings are always my biggest challenge, because the smallest hiccup can have massive implications on the quality of the food, as well as ensuring everything is plated and delivered to the judges on time. I’m a firm believer that practice makes perfect and I left nothing to chance. My dishes were well rehearsed, which helped me deal with the little problems that always crop up, like misplacing a piece of equipment.
How did it feel when you won?
I felt so overwhelmed. I was the runner-up last year, so this year I gave it everything I had to prove to myself that I could do it. It has truly been an amazing experience and I’m so grateful to everyone who has supported me, not to mention the opportunities that the competition has given me.
What skills have you gained from winning?
The main thing I would say is don’t give up and that determination will see you through the tough times.
What prizes did you win?
A trip to Hong Kong, which I recently returned from – it really was incredible. I had culinary experience in some of the most well-known restaurants there, such as the three-Michelin-starred Bo Innovation. It really inspired me in my cooking and it was definitely an experience I will never forget. My mentor also received a Wing Yip voucher, which I know he’s using to stock up on kitchen equipment and specialist ingredients!
Would you recommend entering competitions to others?
I would encourage others to enter the Wing Yip Oriental Cookery Young Chef of the Year competition as, for me, it opened the door to a wealth of opportunities. The prize is described as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it really is!
What do you hope to achieve in your career in the future?
I plan to continue developing my skill-set at Lincoln’s Inn and also perhaps even share some of my knowledge, whether that’s in workshops or masterclasses. I’ve always had a passion for fine dining, but I’d also love to enter more competitions. MasterChef would be the ultimate goal, so I’ll definitely have that in mind in the next few years.
Sep 2014-present Senior chef de partie, Lincoln’s Inn Honourable Law Society, London
2012-2014 Chef de partie, London Marriott Hotel Park Lane
2011-2012 Demi chef de partie, Hanbury Manor, Ware, Hertfordshire
2010-2011 Demi chef de partie, the Blue Boar, Abridge, Essex
2008-2011 Harlow College