Taking part in competitions can bring a wide range of benefits, but you would be better off targeting carefully chosen events, as spreading your efforts too thinly is a recipe for disaster. James Stagg reports
Entering chef competitions can broaden your culinary horizons and provides a chance to test yourself against your peers. But to be in with a chance of winning the top prizes, you must be on top of your game in every way.
As well as gaining valuable feedback on your dishes, awards provide the opportunity to network and meet top industry names. Phil Howard, chef-patron of Elystan Street in London and former chair of judges for the National Chef of the Year (NCOTY) says: "National Chef of the Year requires truly talented chefs to enter, to do it justice. For those who do, the rewards are immense, with chefs being pushed into the spotlight. Not only does it develop cooking skills, but chefs are forced to deal with a different type of pressure, which includes speaking to the media and networking with chefs of the highest level. It opens new doors and opportunities."
But it's wise to pick which competition suits you best. To do yourself justice, any chef must concentrate on one or two, and focus on succeeding in them, rather than spreading their efforts too thinly. Frederick Forster, head chef at the Don in London and a former NCOTY winner, says: "There are lots of competitions, but you need to be careful not to saturate yourself. Be selective about which are right for your career and target the competitions that will give you real impetus. National Chef of the Year is one of those, which is why I kept pushing myself."
Gordon Ramsay Group development chef James Petrie adds that competitions improve a chef's culinary skills, as they put the competitors in different scenarios. "It's not every day your cooking is scrutinised by your peers in a different kitchen environment," he says.
Russell Bateman, head chef from Colette's at the Grove, believes that competitions develop skills and confidence, but has some words of caution: "Owning a competition title isn't enough on its own. To be successful, you must perform to your best every day of your working life."
How to be successful in culinary competitions
"Some people think that you have to be a seasoned competition chef to enter National Chef of the Year, but it's open to anyone. There are many great chefs around the country who would do so well. They just need the confidence to put in an entry. Whatever stage you get to, it is the perfect platform for any chef to raise their profile."
Clare Smyth, chef-patron, Core
"Having come up short in the Sheffield heat, I wasn't sure if I would get to the finals. But Kenny Atkinson told me: ‘You don't lose, you learn.' Losing the heat was the best thing, as I spent a lot of time thinking, rethinking and perfecting my menu in preparation for the final."
James Devine, NCOTY 2016 winner
"After my previous attempts, I realised I was holding on too tight. Although I'd been in the top three before, I needed to try and take the stress out of it and cook my own food, which was simpler in style, but flavour-driven."
Hayden Groves, executive chef, BaxterStorey
"Getting feedback from the judges is the reason I enter, as without it, you miss the chance to better yourself. The judges have years of experience, and receiving their opinions about your food helps you grow."
Adam Thomason, head chef, Deloitte
"Don't let yourself fail because you didn't put the work in."
Luke Selby, Hide head chef and last year's NCOTY winner
"Keep it brilliantly simple, on point, on time and true to your own culinary flair."
Gary Jones, executive head chef, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
Online entries for the NCOTY 2018 competition close on 12 April.
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