When the Roux Scholarship reached a tense conclusion earlier this year, Paul O'Neill became not only the 30th chef to win the prestigious competition, but the first to do so in its new guise as a sparkling television show. Tom Vaughan met up with the senior sous chef to talk competitions, cameras and classical cooking
You know the drill: unbearable TV pause, six contorted faces and then the bombshell. Cue hugs, tears and personal incredulity. Except this wasn't MasterChef, The Great British Bake Off, Food Glorious Food or any other of the countless created-for-TV cooking competitions. It was the Roux Scholarship. All of a sudden, after 30 years as an industry institution, the Scholarship has burst on to our screens as must-watch TV; part of a growing appetite among the public for a behind-the-curtains glimpse at the restaurant world.
However, for 28-year-old winner Paul O'Neill, it's unlikely that he's been analysing just why there was a camera in his face for the duration of the contest. Instead, he's still coming to terms with how someone who, as he puts it, only made it into the six-chef final "for comedy value" walked off with the prestigious prize.
His journey began some months before, when he entered a paper recipe into the first round of the Scholarship for the second time. "Last year I sent one off but heard nothing so to get through to cook was a shock," he explains while sitting outside in the sunshine at Ashdown Park Hotel and Country Club in Wych Cross, East Sussex, where he works as senior sous chef.
"I'd never done any competitions before, but the reason the Roux Scholarship is so renowned is because you are being judged by your peers and the Roux family, and not food critics. That's why it was the only competition I wanted to go for."
This time around, his dish of fillet of stone bass with bouillabaisse broth, seared squid, saffron-glazed potatoes, baby spinach and aïoli goujon was enough to convince the Scholarship's esteemed judges to grant him a place with 17 other chefs in the semi-final. There was just one catch: "It was only then that they told us about the TV series and that it would all be filmed. It wasn't ever going to change my mind, but it was a bit of a surprise."
"It was all a bit surreal," he recalls. "One minute we'd be drinking wine with Michel Roux Sr in his house in Switzerland and the next we're at Le Gavroche dusting off menus from 1967."
Throw in some masterclasses with the judges - O'Neill went to luxury New Forest hotel Lime Wood, where Angela Hartnett and James Martin gave the contestants a crash course on pasta and choux pastry - and the Scholarship had become so much more than a relatively straightforward two-round cooking competition.
While, as anyone who has watched the show will bear testament, O'Neill and company got their arses kicked for not taking their Lime Wood jaunt seriously enough, the semi-final was a different matter entirely. Each chef was given the same mystery basket of ingredients with which to make four versions of a dish of their choosing. But it wasn't as easy as it might sound, says O'Neill.
"One dish cries out at you when you see the basket, but there's not quite enough of each ingredient to make it properly. I ended up making a praline crème brulee with a praline Breton biscuit and orange confit. But there was only 150g with which to make the custard, glaze the brulees, make the confit and make the biscuit," he explains.
Sugar or no sugar, the dish did enough to convince the judges - Michel Sr, Albert, Michel Jr and Alain Roux, Angela Hartnett, Andrew Fairlie, Brian Turner, David Nicholls, James Martin and Rick Stein - that O'Neill deserved a place in the final.
"It was another massive shock as I was up against some great cooks," reflects O'Neill, whose CV includes a few four-star Sussex hotels and a year as a head chef at a gastropub. "I said at the time that they'd only put me through to add comedy value."
With the 18 chefs whittled down to six finalists, the TV-friendly excursions became all the more impressive. They were flown out to Michel Sr's house in Switzerland and cooked at the Waterside Inn.
"At a lot of the places they took us to we cooked classical dishes, to prepare us for the final, which would be a classical dish - none of us cook food like that these days. We went to Cliveden, where Albert first started cooking, and some of the dishes were proper old-school, but still great."
However, few can have predicted quite how demanding of a classical training the final dish would be. When it was announced that the six had to cook a whole salmon, stuffed with hake forcemeat and mushroom duxelle, poached in red wine sauce and fish stock and with a Genovese sauce, spinach soubise and a potato garnish of their choice - all with only a basic recipe, plus the assistance of books Larousse and Escoffier - most of them visibly went to pieces.
Had O'Neill, who describes his cooking as modern European with international influences, ever cooked anything like that? "Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Never done anything like that. I've poached a whole fish before but never taken the rib cage out of one, then kept it whole, stuffed it, sown it up and poached it. I've never done a spinach soubise either. We all looked through Larousse and Escoffier and the only thing in there was the spinach soubise, but even that wasn't how they wanted it, so I just winged that as well," he says.
To make matters worse, there was the little matter of those TV cameras. "It definitely made it harder, especially once you've made your dish and they are taking ages getting shots of it before it goes to the judges, with you knowing it's not going to be as hot when it gets there. But it's just another thing you have to deal with and not let get on top of you."
Did he ever feel like the producers were ramping up the jeopardy to make better TV? "Yeah, loads of times! At Lime Wood one of the chef's ovens caught fire. We were there trying to put it out and they were in the way filming. As soon as you made the tiniest mistake the first thing they want to know is what went wrong. You'd prefer they concentrate on what went right but what can you do?"
However, none of it ever made him wish he'd entered in a previous year, before the TV cameras rolled in: "We didn't expect the cameras to be there but the opportunities we got as a result were incredible." And he was anxious to make the most of his time with the two senior Roux, before they hand over the organisation of the Scholarship to Alain and Michel Jr as of next year.
"You know, not many generations of chefs will get to spend an entire day with Michel Sr and an entire day with Albert. You can't buy that. You don't want to miss a word - you want to listen to everything they say."
With the final dish cooked - or "winged" as O'Neill puts it - the winner's announcement seemed to go in a blur.
"They told four of them what they'd done wrong and right and I thought they'd do that for all of us, then they said that that just left me and one other. I was still taking that in when they read out my name. It was just a shock; I'll admit I even had a bit of a manly tear." For the judges, however, it was less of a shock (see panel).
The prize list is lengthy, and includes £5,000, a Jeroboam of Gosset Grande Réserve NV, a trip for two to visit the wine cellars of Gosset at Epernay, a global knives collection, and of course the famous three-month stage at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant of the winner's choosing. From a wish list that included Thomas Keller's Per Se and the French Laundry, and Alinea in Chicago, O'Neill has settled on Pierre Gagnaire in Paris.
"It's a dream come true and hopefully I can get my head down there and learn as much as possible as quickly as possible," â¨he says.
Meanwhile, the Scholarship hasn't radically altered his career game plan, although it will undoubtedly open a few doors when he comes to take his next step.
"I promised our general manager that I'd stay here for 12 more months as they are paying me during my stage. That'll give me the chance to settle down and see what opportunities arise. I'd like a head chef job next. I'm ready to go to that level and make a nameâ¦ well, make more of a name for myself."
NATIONAL FINALISTS 2013
Edward Attwell, L'Enclume, Cartmel, Cumbria
Tom Barnes, L'Enclume, Cartmel, Cumbria
Oliver Farrar, The Savoy Grill, London
Kyle Jenkins, La Trompette, Chiswick
Dion Wyn Jones, Nelson's at Grosvenor Pulford Hotel & Spa, Cheshire
Paul O'Neill, Ashdown Park Hotel, East Sussex
The judges on Paul O'Neill
"All the main elements we were looking for in the final of the Roux Scholarship were there in Paul's performance. The perfect and exact cooking of the fish, the correct seasoning, the garnish, plating and presentation were all flawless. The sauce was as it should be, full flavoured without being overpowering and in perfect harmony with the fish."
Michel Roux Sr
"He worked methodically; fast but without rushing. The dish was simply presented, with no unnecessary or irrelevant garnishes or skills, and both the main fish and all the other components were cooked to perfection. It was nicely seasoned, which made the dish overall very pleasant to eat - exactly what the winner should try to achieve. He was a humble winner; genuinely surprised and not expecting to win."
"From the minute he got the recipe I could see he understood the dish. His approach, his organisation and his method of work showed me he would be a worthy winner. The cooking was perfect, the fish moist and correctly seasoned - here was a man who had understood the principle of the dish."
The future of the Roux Scholarship
Michel Roux Sr
How did the involvement with the TV company come about? Did you have to think hard about it?
The TV company came to us with a proposal; we didn't go searching for this commission. Amanda Ross, managing director of Cactus TV, suggested screening the Roux Scholarship and the wide appeal it would have. She was quick to reassure me that the Scholarship would be shown in a reverential light. My main concern was to avoid diminishing the Scholarship in any way or to create yet another cheap, shallow reality show.
I feel it is important to point out that the entire fee from the TV series will be directly channelled to benefit charities in our industry; the Roux family will not profit financially from the show.
Is TV an appropriate course of action to bring the Scholarship into the 21st century?
I think TV is a marvellous tool to help take the Scholarship through the 21st century, but as with everything in the media, it has been a question of balancing control to ensure we protect the unique integrity and core principles of the Scholarship to maintain its pre-eminence yet still achieving an entertaining, compelling TV show. It is also essential that the filming does not infringe the running or progress of the competition. So it has been a fine balancing act between the needs of UKTV, who have kindly commissioned the series, and the freedom required to run the competition unfettered.
How do you see the Scholarship evolving in the future? What will handing control over to Michel Jr and Alain mean for the Scholarship?
As the years pass, it is natural and right that the younger generation should gradually take over the daily operation and control of the Scholarship. The time eventually came for my brother, Albert to hand over Le Gavroche to my nephew, Michel Jr. Similarly, I eventually decided it was time to hand the Waterside Inn to my son, Alain. The running of the Scholarship is already largely in the hands of Alain and Michel Jr and things will gradually change as the years progress, with more scholars becoming involved. It has been a healthy, gradual evolution and I am confident the future of the Scholarship will remain secure in their gifted hands.
Putting the scholarship on television
Amanda Ross, joint managing director, Cactus TV
What made you think the Roux Scholarship would work well on television?
The quality of the Roux family and the excellence they portray make the Scholarship unique. There are lots of cooking competitions out there but none have the command of the Roux Scholarship. It is not a beauty contest - it is done entirely on skill.
We started filming it corporately for their website a few years back and I said to them then that it would make amazing TV. Last year we made a one-hour special on it for UKTV and the only criticism was that there was too much to fit in an hour. This year it has grown into 10 one-hour shows. And it has been a huge success - the ratings for the first episode were four times more than the normal for that slot.
Was it difficult wanting to make compelling TV but still ensuring the competition wasn't affected?
Michel Sr didn't want anything to affect the competition - the TV should only enhance it. Michel Jr has the experience of working on MasterChef and told the contestants what to expect. He explained that having to wait for the cameras to get shots of their dishes before they gave them to the judges wouldn't affect anything. If it ever got too much in the kitchen and was too much for them, we stepped back. We agreed right at the beginning that we wouldn't ever jeopardise the competition.
Why do you think the viewers are now so eager to watch the Scholarship on screen?
We've become a nation of foodies. We make Saturday Kitchen, which gets 3.5 million viewers. Everyone is so much more aware of what is going on in restaurants and with food than they were 10 years ago.
Can we expect to see the Scholarship on television for years to come?
We really hope it will be recommissioned. It not only benefits us but the industry as a whole. We were able to profile the restaurants the chefs worked at and because of the coverage last year, it massively increased the number of entries this year - hopefully next year that will go up even more.