Having recently moved from the Rocpool Reserve in Inverness to the Grove pub in Ealing, head chef Ian Simpson has announced his arrival in the capital by winning the Tilda Chef of the Year title at Hotelympia 2014. He tells James Stagg why he relishes the challenge of competition.
What encouraged you to enter? I've entered competitions before, but the travelling means it takes it out of you before you've started. I'd just moved to London, so it meant I didn't have to lug my kit too far. It's good to test yourself, too. Sometimes you can find yourself in a comfort bubble and it's worth challenging yourself now and again.
What did you prepare that impressed the judges? A main course of Dublin Bay prawns and shellfish risotto, cockle beignets and tarragon pangritata, followed by a dessert of coconut and jasmine rice pudding soufflé, salted honeycomb and pineapple granita. When I spoke to the judges afterwards, they said they liked the way I'd used the rice in the dessert.
Have you won any other awards?
I also won Best Senior for food hygiene at Hotelympia. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health was there for all four days, assessing all the competitions. The presentation for that is next week at the House of Commons. That's arguably a bigger award, considering the strength of the chefs in other competitions. At the competition I made sure everything was clean and that I was using the right knives, the right boards, and that everything was covered. The sort of thing you would do in your own kitchen, but people forget in competition conditions.
Are the dishes you prepared on the menu at the Grove in Ealing?
Yes. It's difficult to make the soufflé from scratch, but I make the rice pudding base and crème pâtissière, honeycomb and pineapple granita in advance. Then it's just mixing them together and whipping the egg whites. Making both dishes in an hour in the competition was tough.
How did you manage your time and turn around both dishes?
I only just made it. It was practice and more practice. On the day I was running about like a lunatic, but it was organised chaos.
How has the Grove developed?
The pub has only been open a year and it's really taken off. Since we took it on from Greene King we've revamped the open kitchen and got some great kit in there. It's a large site with a small restaurant of 80 covers with space for a further 250 seats in the pub and more outside, so it's a monster when it's busy. The pub is part of the Metropolitan Pub Company, and I wouldn't normally have gravitated to a group, but its pubs are all very individual. I do my own menus, they change every four weeks and I use my own suppliers.
How do you cope with so many covers?
The brigade is five-strong and the food we do is classic, but not too fussy. Right now we've got dishes on like confit duck leg, white bean and Morteaux sausage cassoulet, or thyme and tarragon chicken ballotine, potato purée, Vichy carrots and Madeira sauce. Many of the dishes we prepare are simple but well produced. The desserts are nursery, but we elevate them. If it's a lemon tart, it has to be the best.