Richard McComb takes a look behind the scenes as Team UK prepares for the world's biggest cooking competition
Photos: Jodi Hinds
Second by second, Adam Bennett is watching the wall clock tick through to 11am. On the other side of the pass is Idris Caldora and a battery of stopwatches. "Toque on, chef," says Caldora. Bennett collects his white hat from the top of the oven and takes another look at the clock. "Fifteen seconds," he tells commis chef Josh Allen, whose veg knife is primed.
As the clock hits the appointed hour, the chefs exchange a high-five and a steely smile, but no words are spoken. They take a few quick steps to their stations and enter the zone: the Bocuse zone. They will stay here, their thoughts and workflow uninterrupted, for the next five hours and 35 minutes.
We are inside the Bocuse Kitchen at University College Birmingham (UCB). This place has become Bennett's second home, just like it did two years ago. Today is a formal practice run for the biennial Bocuse d'Or, which takes place in Lyon next week. Bennett is representing the UK for the second time in the world's biggest, craziest, most high-pressured cooking competition. Last time around, in 2013, the Coventry chef equalled the home nation's best ever result, finishing fourth overall and memorably scooping the individual prize for the best meat platter (Clive Fretwell also scored fourth places and individual gold medals in 1991 and 1993).
A podium finish is the dream in 2015, but thoughts of medal glory are a million miles away as Bennett deftly butchers several Label Rouge Landes guinea fowl, the main ingredient for the competition's meat course. Bennett is many things, including a brilliant chef and a generous teacher, but he could never be accused of cockiness or complacency.
The run-through, one of 11, is being attended by sponsors and supporters of Team UK. Several hours later, under a cloak of secrecy, invited guests get to taste Bennett's meat course and a fish course, served by university students. It is a sublime experience. I was lucky enough to taste Bennett's award-winning meat dish, incorporating Irish beef fillet, in 2013. If anything, 2015's guinea fowl dish is better. It's an absolute belter.
Twenty-four nations will be represented at the grand final of the Bocuse d'Or, which was launched in 1987 by the legendary French chef Paul Bocuse. The cooking takes place over two days on 27-28 January, 12 chefs competing each day in a special 2,500-spectator arena inside the gargantuan SIRHA hospitality show. The result will be announced in the early evening on day two.
"I am really looking forward to it," says Bennett, who will cook on Tuesday, the first day of the contest, the same as the holders, France.
"At this stage, you go through all sorts of emotion. One minute you are punching the air and the next you are thinking, ‘What are we going to do next?''' With a smile, Bennett adds: "The main thing is not to crack up."
The chef isn't doing things the easy way. During his previous tilt at glory, Bennett was head chef at Simpsons in Birmingham and his boss, Andreas Antona, was able to put him on sabbatical for the five months before Lyon to concentrate on dish development, research and preparation.
Bennett is now chef-director at Antona's destination-dining pub the Cross in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, where he picked up a Michelin star in 2014 within a year of opening. Bennett's name is above the door and his reputation is on the line every time a customer eats. He dare not take his eye off the ball at the Cross, yet his commitment to the Bocuse d'Or is unwavering.
"It has been tough," admits Bennett, aged 48. "Having got the Michelin star, there is a feeling of being under the spotlight and that distraction has been tricky to juggle with the demands of the Bocuse d'Or."
To complicate matters, the chefs have to select the fruits and vegetables for the fish course from a competition market on the eve of the first day. In a new development, there will be a mandatory vegetable all the chefs have to use. It could be fennel, leeks, celery or butternut squash, but the mystery veg will be drawn from a hat the night before the competition.
It will be tough for Bennett to match his 2013 feat, but the chef believes his guinea fowl dish is an even more elaborate and luxurious expression of his craft. "Every element of it is a notch up from last time," he says.
The chef says the sponsors' support has been crucial and praises UCB, which backed the construction of the Bocuse competition kitchen, costing more than £100,000. Bennett says: "We would not be anywhere near as comfortable as we are without this facility at UCB. It is everything. The alternative - borrowing a kitchen from someone and setting it up from scratch - horrifies me."
Similarly, UCB has backed Bennett's commis to the hilt. Allen, aged 22, is a culinary arts management student and has been given special dispensation to compete in the Bocuse d'Or. Allen undertook a lengthy stage at the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Régis et Jacques Marcon in Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid in France to become Bocuse battle-hardened, and will return to his university studies in February.
Bennett has also drawn on UCB's talent pool to appoint professional cookery student Matt Nicholls, aged 19, as Team UK's apprentice. Nicholls, who works at Simpsons, is responsible for the kitchen set-up for Bennett's practice sessions, saving the chef hours of time.
Team coach Caldora, who represented the UK in the Bocuse d'Or in 1996, believes the team are in a "strong place" and are focused on Lyon. "On the day, I will be Adam and Josh's eyes, keeping them on track and giving them encouragement," says Caldora. "The secret is to enjoy it. If you enjoy it, you will perform. There's the saying that happy chefs make happy food. Adam has got what it takes."
Antona, who has played a key role in organisation and fundraising, says lessons have been learned from 2013. "We have got a little bit wiser about the process, but the onus now is on Adam," he says. "We are just trying to support him and make sure all he requires is there for him."
Team UK president Brian Turner believes Bennett's success in 2013 has helped to boost the profile of the contest at home. He says: "At last, the British public are waking up to the fact that we are serious contenders in the Bocuse d'Or, the world's greatest cooking competition. Adam Bennett, Josh Allen and all the team have worked extremely hard. We are confident we will do well."