A three-month stint in a three-Michelin-starred restaurant anywhere in the world awaits the winner of the 2018 Roux Scholarship. Fiona Sims joins the judges as they select the 35th scholar
Six desks, six chefs, and a copy of Auguste Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire (the Cracknell and Kaufmann translation) on each. It's there to help the finalists prepare for the Roux Scholarship, now in its 35th year and held at London's Westminster Kingsway College.
The finalists also have well-thumbed copies of Michel Roux's Pastry, and most have a copy of Larousse Gastronomique. Their battery of cookery classics are needed today if they are to make the most of the short time allowed to prep for the Escoffier-inspired recipe.
The chefs, who are all under 30 years old, will have just three hours to cook in front of 10 judges. The chefs are Ben Champkin from L'Enclume in Cumbria, competing in the final for the second time, and his colleague, Sam Nash, plus Oliver Marlow from Roganic, Fergus Wilford from Cliveden, Ryan Porter from Northcote and third-time finalist Martin Carabott from soon-to-open London venture Hide.
ding up the judging panel is legendary three-Michelin-starred French chef Michel Guérard, this year's honorary president, alongside joint chairmen Alain and Michel Roux Jr. They are joined by Brian Turner, head scholar Andrew Fairlie, who won the inaugural competition in 1984, as well as previous winners Simon Hulstone (2003 scholar) and Sat Bains (1999 scholar). This year sees the return of Angela Hartnett to the judging panel, plus two new judges: Clare Smyth and Le Gavroche head chef Rachel Humphrey (regular judge and scholar André Garrett is sitting it out because a member of his Cliveden brigade, Wilford, is competing). The winner is to be announced later that day at a swanky awards ceremony at the Langham London.
You can hear a pin drop as Michel Roux Jr pauses before announcing the dish they are about to cook: pigeonneaux Valenciennes style, vin jaune sauce. Translation: whole roasted pigeons stuffed with a forcemeat and sweetbreads, garnished with spinach and carrots, served with glazed polenta and morel timbales, accompanied with a vin jaune sauce.
Not only have the chefs got to contend with the frankly terrifying panel of judges, but there are three TV crews in the room this year, including ITV News and a documentary maker.
Finally, they're off. Most finalists get their polenta on first and then begin preparing the ingredients for their farce, before beginning the lengthy, fiddly task of de-boning the small birds.
"I want to see those pigeon bones in that stock," whispers Bains as he looks on. "I'm also interested to see how many will hold a little bit of the wine back to refresh the sauce at the end, to give it that distinctive vin jaune flavour," he explains.
Vin jaune is the vinous pride of the Jura region of France. It's waxy and palate-coating, with powerful flavours that saturate your senses, thanks to the Savagnin grape variety, special terroir and distinctive winemaking method.
"Vin jaune sauce is great with poultry," says Turner, who has been judging the competition for an impressive 31 years. Has he seen an elevation or a decline in skills over this period? "That's a good question, and I would say that 30 years ago, these guys, at the ages they are, and the level they are, would not have been able to do these tasks. Chefs these days are learning these skills at a much younger age -it's satisfying to watch. They are under immense pressure - just look at the people in this room, from the judges to the TV cameras - yet they are remaining calm."
Hartnett agrees. "There's a very good skill level here today. That's what is brilliant about this competition - it showcases these skills," she says. This is the fourth year Hartnett has judged the scholarship and she says she is always impressed with the kit that each competitor chooses to bring. "There's nothing fancy. It's just simple tools for proper cooking." She reveals that she makes a similar dish every Christmas with a capon, stuffing it with forcemeat laced with black truffles.
"It's brilliant to see chefs challenged in classical cooking techniques," observes Smyth, a first-time judge. "The standard at the semi-final was excellent - some of them really stood out - but the final is a whole different thing. They most probably have never tasted this dish before, let alone seen what it looks like - in fact, I'd quite like to have a go!" grins Smyth.
"The brief is to de-bone, stuff and reform the pigeon, but some are taking all the bones off and the legs," observes Humphrey, who is also making her first appearance as a judge. "I would leave as much on as possible, as if you don't, you run the risk of the farce spilling out when it's cooked. Most of them won't have tasted vin jaune either - it's not just any old white wine. But ultimately, they need to make a good sauce with it and enough of it to serve four generously," she advises.
"Entering this competition is a massive opportunity for everyone and reaching the final is another level - it opens so many doors. When you see the winners, the past scholars, it just inspires you to do better. If I didn't work for Michel, I would definitely have entered when I was younger," admits Humphrey, who has worked at Le Gavroche for 22 years.
Hulstone, who is relishing his third year as a judge, is continually pacing the room, scrutinising the finalists' de-boning techniques. "Some have cut right down the back bone, and a couple have cut through the skin - if you do that there's nothing to hold in that farce," observes Hulstone. "But we've got six very good finalists here with fantastic backgrounds. It's one of the strongest finals I've been to in a long time."
Head scholar and judge Andrew Fairlie agrees: "I think it's the strongest final we've had yet. Every single one of them is capable of winning this - and they know it. One of them will be elated and five will be gutted, but they're all meant to be here."
When Fairlie won the competition, he chose Guérard's three-Michelin-starred Les Prés d'Eugénie in Aquitaine as his three-month placement and went on to work there for an additional three months. "They were very kind to me. In fact, if I had to choose my last meal on earth, it would be at Les Prés d'Eugénie. It's very important for the scholars to choose the right place to go," he says.
Guérard, meanwhile, is prowling around the kitchen, peering into stockpots and sniffing. So what's his view of the prestigious competition? "I love it because it brings people that I hold in such high esteem together. There's so much enthusiasm and plenty of professionalism. It always irritates me when I hear people say that manual work is worthless. A pianist is a manual worker; so is a surgeon," he shrugs.
Michel Roux Jr points out that the finalists are dealing with added scrutiny this year. "We're looking a lot more at how they are working, from their method through to their wastage. We're even going through their bins."
So just how long does it take Alain and Michel to decide on the dish for the final? "Quite a few months, actually. We decide on the kind of ingredients we want the competitors to work with and then we take it from there. We want to make it interesting for them - not impossible, but a challenge - and we want them to learn something," says Alain, before disappearing to judge the first completed dish.
And that evening at the Langham London, at a ceremony attended by the great and good in hospitality, it was a visibly exhausted Carabott who stepped forward to take the prize.
In addition to the three-month scholarship at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant anywhere in the world, Martin Carabott also wins a bounty of prizes, including £6,000 to support his career development, a trip for two to the wine cellars of Laurent-Perrier in France, two nights and dinner at the Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall, and a collection of Global knives.
The judges' verdict on the pigeon dish
"This dish is the kind of cooking you just don't see today. But I love stuffing pigeons and I love polenta too - the real stuff. The flavour is so different, so superior, but I wonder how many of them will have used it before? It's a slow cook, so they'll need to get on it straight away. It'll also be interesting to see how many cook the sweetbreads before putting them in the farce. And I hope they use the pigeon bones in the stock - the judges are really hot on wastage this year. I'll be looking at how they cook the pigeon - I would pot roast it with a bit of liquid. And I'd be surprised if any of them are familiar with vin jaune."
"It might be a simple-looking dish, but there are lots of processes that could go wrong. That said, if I was competing, this is a dish I'd like to be given. All the judges are talking about it, about how we've all got different ideas on how to approach it and how to serve it. I haven't eaten it before, but I've had something pretty similar. The big thing is the preparation of the pigeon - one knife slip and you're screwed. And that farce should be cooked through first if you want the pigeon to remain pink. The acidity in that vin jaune sauce is the most important element - too much and you'll overpower the dish."
"I watched the finalists' faces when the dish was announced and I could practically see their hearts sinking. But I love this dish - it's a classic, but it isn't out of date. A lot of work goes into it, from boning out the pigeon to stuffing it, but it offers great rewards."
Michel Roux Jr
"It's a very difficult to dish to get your head around. All your skills are needed to get it right, and there's a lot of scope for interpretation. The biggest stumbling block in my view is the stuffing of the pigeon and getting the consistency right for the polenta timbales."
The judges' verdict on the winner
"What we liked about Martin was not only his skills, but his control and organisation in the kitchen. He worked well with his commis and was meticulous in his methods. His perseverance in competing in the scholarship finally paid off with his third attempt in what I would say was one of the strongest finals in a long time."
"From the word go Martin was ready this year. I could tell that even before we gave him the recipe - nothing was going to faze him. His set-up, his method of work, his organisation, his instruction to his commis and his calmness under pressure - he was match-fit this year. He wanted this prize more than anyone else. He is a very humble character with a tremendous work ethic, and in my opinion he is the perfect Roux scholar. It's great to have him join the already strong list of the UK's finest chefs."
"Martin stood out because of his mental attitude in the regional and the final. Great skills, prep work, cooking ability, cleanliness and discipline. He is someone I would employ at Restaurant Sat Bains."
"Martin worked so well. He's so professional, so clean, so tidy and so organised, but most importantly, he created a great dish - a delicious sauce, with the pigeons cooked well and a good farce."
"Martin's approach to the day was extremely professional. He was at all times clean, tidy and organised. He was a treat to watch and his dish reflected his obvious respect for the product and his advanced skill levels."
Martin Carabott, Roux Scholarship 2018 winner
Lucky old Ollie Dabbous. The top London chef hasn't just got one Roux scholar working for him, he now has two.
As well as last year's winner, Luke Selby, who heads up the fine-dining restaurant at Dabbous's new Piccadilly venture, Hide, he has Malta-born Martin Carabott, one of two senior sous chefs at the 64-seater Below, the bar in Dabbous's smart new venture opening later this month in partnership with Hedonism Wines.
Having succeeded in the final at his third attempt, Carabott, 29, says: "This time I was ready to expect the unexpected. There's always something you've never done before or not done very often. I had practiced de-boning, but only on one bird, never four pigeons at once. But I held it together and just got on with it."
Carabott admits that the win hasn't sunk in yet. "It's probably because I had to go straight back to work. But I am very aware of the effect it will have on my career, and of the exposure it will give me. But now I have the responsibility of representing the Roux family, and of giving it my best to be a good ambassador. They have put a lot of faith in me, so it's up to me now to uphold that," he says.
Carabott always knew he wanted to be a chef, choosing a cooking diploma at his Maltese college at 16 years old. "My parents, who are both in medicine, always encouraged us to do what we wanted - they built me into what I am today," he credits, cutely.
As part of his college course he could spend an internship abroad - he chose Gleneagles in Scotland, returning to work at Restaurant Andrew Fairlie after he graduated. "It opened my eyes to what a Michelin-starred restaurant is all about, and the attention to detail needed in the food," he remembers.
Later, he moved to London to work for three-Michelin-starred, Rome-based chef Heinz Beck at his then Lanesborough hotel restaurant, and then on to the Royal Automobile Club, where he stayed for four years in its fine-dining restaurant, working his way up to senior sous chef. Next, he joined the Clove Club's Isaac McHale on the opening of Luca, and a year later he was approached by Dabbous.
"I'd like to own my own restaurant one day, or something close to it," he reveals of his future plans. Is returning to Malta an option? "At the moment, no, but that might change. The food scene there keeps on getting better every time I go back."
Carabott does not yet know which three-Michelin-starred restaurant he will undertake his scholarship, but he has a few ideas, ranging from Saison in San Francisco to Gaggan in Bangkok. Watch out world, Carabott is coming.
Photography by Jodi Hinds
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