The 2018 Roux scholar Martin Carabott has just returned from New York, where he spent a three-month stage at the three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park as part of his prize. He tells Vincent Wood why the experience was such an amazing challenge
When the winner of one of the UK’s toughest culinary tests steps into one of the world’s top kitchens with the guidance of a legendary culinary dynasty, it is fair to assume that great things can happen. After the hard graft needed to take the 2018 title, it was Roux scholar Martin Carabott’s chance to step up.
The prestige of the title aside, the prize of a three-month stage at any three-Michelin-starred restaurant in the world (so far none have declined the offer) is the goal for many taking part in the Roux Scholarship. Some look to grow and learn in a kitchen similar to their own style, others look for a challenge outside of their comfort zone. All are guided by the advice and experience of the Roux family. “I looked at all the restaurants that interested me, but I always knew in the back of my head that Eleven Madison Park was the one to aim for,” Carabott told The Caterer.
Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park in the heart of New York City and its starkly minimal cuisine have won plaudits beyond the top rating from Michelin. The restaurant came first in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2017 – the first in the US to hold the accolade since Thomas Keller’s the French Laundry in 2004. It’s a style of cooking very much in the vein Carabott, senior sous chef at Ollie Dabbous’ Hide, has worked to develop over the last two years.
“It’s very simple, so you might see a disc of something or maybe like a pattern, and that’s all you see. There are no flowers or herbs or complications that aren’t necessary – those things look very pretty but don’t necessarily add much when you’re eating. Instead it looks very simple, very smart, very clean, but what you eat there is amazingly delicious.”
On entering the kitchen however, it was the operation of Humm’s well-oiled machine that stood out to him. Eleven Madison Park boasts a brigade of more than 50 to cater to around 150 covers a day at a three-Michelin-starred level – making unity and uniformity a must. When an edict was handed down, every chef enforced it. When a check was read out, the entire kitchen roared back. “It works like clockwork,” explains Carabott.
The kitchen operates with a more streamlined version of the hierarchy commonly seen in the UK. The only roles below the senior team and sous chefs are line cooks – who work the live sections as an equivalent to a chef de partie – and then commis, who all occupy the same area of the kitchen.
After a fortnight on this back bench, getting an overview of the kitchen from his vantage point while prepping mushrooms and scrubbing oysters, Carabott was moved onto the line. “I was put on the garde manger, and that’s when I felt the pressure of getting set on time. Because the way they’re structured over there, they are paid hourly. It’s not like here in the UK, where you do as many hours as it takes to get the job done; there, if you come in early, they’ll send you out of the kitchen – even though I wasn’t paid. I would come in and everyone was saying, ‘why is he there prepping?’. So I had to wait outside of the kitchen. When they let us in, everyone is rushing to get everything done because everything – literally, all the mise en place – is done fresh daily.”
The site’s commitment to freshness and strict work hours mean there is no way to find extra time in the day – providing both a challenge and an education in the policies that have made Eleven Madison Park stand out in both New York and the world. “You get used to the system, but until you do, with the hours you have and the amount you have to do, you literally make one small mistake and you’re down – you’re not going to enjoy the day. There’s no time to get ahead and everything gets thrown out. So if I spent an extra half an hour doing Jerusalem artichokes, then tucked them away and had them in the walk-in, I’d be cleaning down and see the sous chef dumping them in the bin. It keeps everyone on their toes and it gets you thinking a different way.”
After adapting to the demands of the garde manger, Carabott was moved onto the hot line to work on fish, before finishing his stage on pastry. Alongside all of this, the kitchen also offered him another challenge.
It was a competition that brought Carabott to the line at Eleven Madison Park – and in a twist of fate, it was another competition that gave him a chance to shine there. Every quarter the kitchen engages in a cook battle, with the entire brigade submitting recipes for judgement. The top six are tested by the sous chefs and the best is submitted to Humm, who will then consider if it can be placed on the menu.
Carabott, while also wrapping his head around two new sections in an alien kitchen, came second out of 50 chefs with a dish of lamb cooked over embers with artichoke and garlic – something chef de cuisine Brian Lockwood later says should be held as a “huge honour” for the young chef. Carabott explains: “I wasn’t expecting it because I was on a stage. And to be honest, I’ve had enough of competitions – enough excitement for one year – but I know if I hadn’t done it, I would have regretted missing the experience. Really, from when I got there, they embraced me as one of their own, which was great.”
Of course, it wasn’t just the chefs in the room Carabott was impressing – back on this side of the Atlantic, Alain Roux says he was “so proud” but “not surprised” to hear about the scholar’s success. After all, it was a testament to the skill celebrated by the scholarship and those of the chef himself. He told The Caterer: “I think the beauty is that now the scholarship and the scholars have got such a name to themselves, people in the trade know what it’s all about. I’m not surprised when Martin says he had responsibilities that even people there as a full-timer don’t get, because they are chefs who are extremely talented.
“They might be going for a stage, but they have a level of cooking which is really up there already. They are not beginners, they are really very talented chefs, and when they go into a kitchen like Eleven Madison Park, they open their doors. They are obviously confident and they can see that. Those young chefs can play the game and not only see and learn, but also help as well.”
Carabott left Madison Park as the first stagiaire to have been moved out of the commis section and onto the line – with Lockwood celebrating the Roux scholar’s skill at a full meeting of the chef brigade on Carabott’s last day.
“For me, it’s the biggest thing I could get out of there,” says Carabott, “to go to a restaurant that I really like and respect – one of the best in the world – and for the guy in charge to say that I’d smashed it means I’ve done a good job. I’m super-satisfied with that, even though it was tiring and challenging. Looking back it was amazing.”
Choosing a stage
Alain Roux “It all depends on the winner’s expectations and what they like. Some chefs really want to have something very new, something very different. They want to have the opportunity of discovery, sometimes they want a challenge, and sometimes they want to add something to what they do or what they know. It needs to be sensible, and that’s what we in the family try to make sure of – that they pick the right stage, the right place with the right chefs, because it needs to be valuable.”
Martin Carabott “I would say think about what you want to do in a couple of years’ time, see where is relevant, where the food style is relevant to what you want to do, but also how they work, how they’re organised. Do your research and then make your choice from there. You can listen to what people might recommend and take that on board – but at the end of the day, you work hard for the Roux Scholarship, it’s once in a lifetime, so you have to make sure that it is you who has picked the place you want to go.”
Selecting the 2019 Roux scholar
There is still time to enter the 2019 Roux Scholarship. Hopeful applicants should submit a recipe for four people, using a saddle of hogget and four hogget kidneys, by 31 January.
For further details, go to: www.rouxscholarship.co.uk