Success has certainly bred success for this year's winner of the Roux Scholarship. Sous chef Armand Sablon, 26, carried off the prestigious title just five years after André Garrett, his head chef at Galvin at Windows restaurant at London's Hilton on Park Lane, won the award.
It is the second time that a former Roux scholar has provided a young chef with the platform to excel in the scholarship that was launched by Albert and Michel Roux in 1984. Two years ago Matthew Tomkinson, who was then working at Ockenden Manor, followed in the footsteps of Martin Hadden, who won the scholarship in 1989 and is now the group executive chef of Historic Sussex Hotels, the company that owns Ockenden Manor.
"André was definitely the best mentor I could have had," said an ecstatic Sablon, the day after his win. "We couldn't practise the dish that we had to prepare in the finals as we weren't given the recipe until just before we started cooking, but André advised me to stay calm and then hit the track running, especially during the first hour. So that's what I did, I got my head down and didn't allow myself to be distracted by anything."
Now the only thing distracting Sablon is the thought of where he will work during his all-expenses-paid three-month-scholarship - the chief prize in winning the Roux title. He can choose any three-Michelin-starred restaurant and is currently deciding between Le Meurice in Paris, where Yannick Alléno heads the kitchen, Régis Marcon's Le Close des Cimes in St Bonnet-le-Froid, and the famed Le Louis XV restaurant run by Alain Ducasse in the Hôtel du Paris, Monaco. "It is something I will talk through with the Roux brothers - I shall certainly be taking their advice," says Sablon, who is already contemplating a crash course in French before taking up the scholarship.
Following on from their success in the regional finals, when the competitors had to cook a dish using veal kidneys as well as prepare a dessert from a mystery box of ingredients, the six finalists gathered at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London, to hear what tasks had to be tackled to win the 24th Roux Scholarship.
Michel Roux announced the dishes: an Escoffier classic - tournedos Rachel served with artichoke and asparagus - accompanied by his own version of bordelaise sauce and the chefs' own interpretation of a macaroni soufflé. "They are all dishes that will help you to develop your skills as a chef," he said.
The contestants then had 45 minutes to read through the recipes, consult a selection of cookery books and take notes, before being given two hours to produce the set dishes.
"My immediate concern on being told what we had to do concerned the soufflé," Sablon says. "I thought it was going to be tough as we weren't given the recipe and I hadn't made a cheese soufflé for a couple of years. But once I'd got started on it, the details came flooding back. I was very happy, though, with the rest of the task as we were given some lovely ingredients, particularly the beef fillet."
Sablon certainly had no problems in dealing with certain elements of the dish that some of the other finalists found difficult, particularly preparing the artichoke bottoms and handling the beef marrow. "We use these ingredients at Windows, so they didn't worry me," he says.
For the judges, the key to the success of the dish was careful timing in order to ensure that perfectly cooked individual soufflés were served at the same time as four portions of beef.
"The individual elements of the dish are not difficult, but each chef has got to treat this like a mini service - dealing with many different tasks, but without the help of other staff, and bringing it all together at the same time," said Michel Roux Jnr, one of the judges.
"All the chefs should be able to cook the beef as asked - rare - but they might be thrown by the beef marrow," said Brian Turner, another judge. "It is important to cook the marrow enough so that it is not raw, but cook it too much and it will melt. They should be aiming to retain some texture."
As the young chefs diced, sliced, stirred and tasted their way through the final, judge Gary Rhodes explained the importance of the Roux Scholarship. "I truly believe that it is the competition for young chefs as it promotes quality and maintains important cookery skills that help create great depths of flavour," he said.
And it was certainly Sablon's achievement in creating the best-flavoured dish that most impressed the judges. "All too often today, chefs focus on presentation to the detriment of flavour," Michel Roux said. "Armand's flavours were superb - from the sauce, through to the soufflé, the beef and including the garnish."
Born and brought up in Brighton, Sablon's introduction to the professional kitchen was at City College Brighton and Hove, where he studied for two years. He then moved to London to work under Paul Gayler at the Lanesborough for four years, progressing from commis to chef de partie.
Sablon first met his mentor, Garrett, when he moved to the Orrery four years ago. He then followed Garrett to Windows in May 2006. "I'm enormously grateful to both André Garrett and Chris Galvin (chef-proprietor of Galvin at Windows) for the encouragement they have given me. "This is the most fantastic point in my career. I'm just so thrilled and I look forward to every aspect of the year ahead."
The judges decide… From left: Alain Roux, Andrew Fairlie, Michel Roux Jnr, Albert Roux and Michel Roux
Left: Armand Sablon, the new Roux Scholar, in action
Top, clockwise from left: Judges Brian Turner, Gary Rhodes and David Nicholls discuss the final tasks Henry Vigar, Andrew Wilson, Christopher Golding and Matthew Wilkinson get stuck into the challenge. Opposite: Lisa Allen prepares her tournedos. Above: Armand Sablon celebrates with parents Armand and Jackie Sablon
Chairmen: Albert Roux and Michel Roux
Vice-chair: Brian Turner, Brian Turner Mayfair, Millennium Hotel, London
Panel: Michel Roux Jnr, chef-proprietor, Le Gavroche, London Alain Roux, chef-proprietor, the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire David Nicholls, executive chef and food and beverage director, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, London Gary Rhodes, chef-proprietor, Rhodes 24 and Rhodes W1 Brasserie Andrew Fairlie, chef-proprietor, Andrew Fairlie@Gleneagles (and first winner of the Roux Scholarship in 1984) Charles Campion, food writer
Lisa Allen (25), Northcote Manor, Langho, Lancashire
Christopher Golding (26), Nobu Berkeley, London
Armand Sablon (26), Galvin at Windows, Hilton on Park Lane, London
Henry Vigar (26), La Noisette, London
Matthew Wilkinson (23), Rudding Park Hotel, Harrogate, North Yorkshire
Andrew Wilson (28), the Capital hotel, London
In addition to an all-expenses-paid three-month scholarship at any three-Michelin-starred restaurant of his choice, Sablon will also have scheduled into his diary three other trips that he has won, courtesy of the Roux Scholarship. They include a week's work experience in New York, with Restaurant Associates, a visit to the wine cellars of Champagne Gosset in Aÿ, and a tour of the Caffé Musetti roasting factory in Milan, sponsored by L'Unico.
Sablon's other prizes included a cheque for £3,000, a set of Global knives, worth £1,000, an engraved three-quart saucier from All-Clad, a magnum of both Champagne Gosset Grand Rosé and Grande Reserve, and a one-year subscription to Caterer and Hotelkeeper.
The five remaining finalists were each presented with £750 to help further their career development, a engraved one-quart saucier from All-Clad, two personalised Bragard chef's jackets, a bottle of Champagne Gosset Grande Reserve, a one-day course at the Fairfax Meadow Butchery School, one year's complimentary membership of the Institute of Hospitality (formerly the HCIMA) and a seven-piece set of Global knives worth £250.
The competition was also supported by British Airways Inflight Service, Castello Monte Vibiano Vecchio Olive Oil and the Savoy Educational Trust.
Tournedos Rachel (from Auguste Escoffier, Ma Cuisine)
Ingredients (Serves four)
4 tournedos, about 220g each
4 slices beef marrow
Bordelaise sauce (see below)
4 artichoke bottoms
Season and sauté the tournedos and cook rare. Arrange on a serving dish, with two of them served on top of a crouton, which has been cooked in clarified butter. Put a slice of beef marrow on each and cover with sauce.
Garnish with braised artichoke bottom topped with asparagus tips.
Potatoes Duchesse will have to be made and piped around the dish, to your liking.
Bordelaise Sauce (from Sauces by Michel Roux)
Ingredients 40g shallots, finely chopped
8 white peppercorns, crushed
300ml veal stock
1 small bouquet garni
100g beef marrow, soaked in iced water
30g butter, chilled and diced
Method Put the shallot, crushed peppercorns and claret in a saucepan, set over high heat and reduce the wine by one-third. Add the veal stock and bouquet garni and bubble gently for about 20 minutes, or until the sauce will lightly coat the back of a spoon. Pass it through a wire-mesh conical sieve into another saucepan.
Drain the beef marrow and cut it into small pieces. Place in a small saucepan, cover with a little cold water and salt lightly. Set over medium heat and bring to about 80°C. Immediately turn off the heat, leave the marrow for 30 seconds, then drain it carefully.
Season the sauce with salt and pepper to taste, whisk in the butter, add the well-drained beef marrow and serve immediately in a sauce boat (a small amount).
Ingredients - macaroni, milk, flour, eggs, butter, grated Gruyère cheese and nutmeg - were supplied for this dish, but no recipe. The soufflé had to be served at the same time as the tournedos.
Orders are ticked off on a sheet of paper at a wood bar where Japanese style curtains conceal the chefs and a red bell summons a pair of hands through the norin to fetch the order.
Subsequent fillings of the bowl are achieved by placing the bowl in a corner where radio waves detect its presence.
Another pair of hands will then appear to whisk away the empty bowl and replace it with a fresh one.