It's good to remind ourselves how vital competitions are to chefs, says Chantelle Nicholson.
On 1 October I was lucky enough to judge the Young National Chef of the Year competition. Prior to 2020, the day was very much a show. All 10 finalists cooked in front of a live audience at the Restaurant Show, under the gaze of both a swathe of judges and an interested public. All chefs had their own cooking suite provided, but could also bring along any fancy toys they were familiar with in the kitchens they worked in.
Last year's event, and this year's, looked a little different, with two sessions of five chefs, each needing to execute their three courses in just two hours, under the gaze of just six chef judges in the beautifully shiny kitchens at the new Le Cordon Bleu venue in Farringdon.
This year's brief was a starter based on a Scotch broth, but the twist was that it needed to be a vegetarian dish. So, no rich, hearty lamb bones to create that all-important unctuous broth. And the chefs needed to pay particular focus to including ingredients from the Future 50 Foods initiative – 50 foods that we need to eat more of to create a better balance of biodiversity and nutrition, and to improve on the fact that we, the human race, get 60% of our calories from just three plant species: rice, maize and wheat.
What I will say is that there were some really wonderful dishes, mostly using mushrooms as the base for the stock, with a lot of them hitting the spot in terms of heartiness.
The main course was fish and chips, interpreted through the eyes of the chef yet paying attention to the true essence of what fish and chips are all about. There were some stunning plates of food, with each chef putting a lot of time, effort and thought into creating something delicious. Pudding was a classic crumble, again created as the chefs saw fit while ensuring it contained the classic elements in some shape or form – fruit, crumble and custard. What a menu!
I cannot say much about the actual dishes, but what I can report is that it felt really positive to be in a kitchen with so much talent, passion and excitement for the craft of cooking. Especially at a time when it is particularly hard to see beyond the intense challenges of the staffing shortage, let alone be among so much of it.
Competitions can inspire, motivate and educate people, and they are a much needed tonic right now. And FutureChef – a Springboard-run event for 13- to 16-year-olds – is a wonderful, wonderful place to start as it truly celebrates cookery without all the bells and whistles.
Are competitions the answer to our woes? Of course not, but even I sometimes forget that the only reason I jumped on a plane to London all those years ago was because of one.
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