Profile: Hrishikesh Desai, National Chef of the Year

17 November 2010 by
Profile: Hrishikesh Desai, National Chef of the Year

Hrishikesh Desai has won two of the most prestigious culinary titles in the industry, the Roux Scholarship and, last month, National Chef of the Year. He tells Kerstin Kühn what it takes to be a winner and of his future plans

When Hrishikesh Desai finished cleaning up his competition kitchen after the final of National Chef of the Year, he wasn't too pleased with his performance. "I'm afraid I will have to come back again next year to try to win this," he said slightly deflated. Luckily for him his doubts proved completely unfounded when just a few hours later he was crowned the winner of the competition by organisers the Craft Guild of Chefs.

Winning the National Chef of the Year title is a fantastic achievement for Desai, head chef at the Brasserie Restaurant at Lucknam Park in Wiltshire. Not only because it was his first shot at the trophy, but also because it comes after he won that other prestigious culinary competition, the Roux Scholarship, last year.

The double whammy puts him in an elite group of competition chefs. He is now one of just three chefs in Britain to have won both these coveted awards - the others are Steve Love and Simon Hulstone - and the first to have done so back to back. "It is phenomenal. Winning these competitions and being called one of the top chefs in the country is an amazing achievement for me, especially coming from India," he says.

Born in Pune, the so-called Oxford of India, Desai started his life as a chef when, while studying a diploma in hotel management, he won a trip to France to study at the Institute Paul Bocuse in Lyon, where he fell in love with French cooking. A move to England seven years ago saw him spend 12 months in a two-AA-rosette kitchen before seeking to enhance his career at a higher-calibre establishment.

So he joined the Michelin-starred Lucknam Park, where he came under the guidance of executive head chef Hywel Jones, whom he credits with his success. "My success in these competitions has had everything to do with the support I have had from Lucknam Park, especially Hywel," Desai admits. "Chef is the backbone of my career, he has given me so much and is a real father figure to me."

Indeed Jones's commitment to his young chefs at Lucknam Park is plain to see. In addition to Desai there has been another major success story at the hotel: chef de partie Mark Stinchcombe, who recently won a hat trick of culinary titles including Young National Chef of the Year, Young Chef of the Year and the Award of Excellence at the Academy of Culinary Arts' annual awards. And let's not forget senior sous chef Richard Edwards and chef de partie Michael Tweedie, who made it through to the finals of National Chef of the Year and Yong Chef Young Waiter respectively. In addition, Lucknam Park this year picked up the Catey Independent Hotel of the Year and AA Hotel of the Year awards.

But while Jones has clearly played a major part in driving the success of his chefs, Desai's talent and ability to excel under the pressure of a competition environment is not to be underestimated. During the gruelling two-hour final he encountered a number of major challenges and his planned menu, which he had created together with Jones, didn't go entirely according to plan.

"By the time I'd finished my basics - pasta dough, pastry - I only had one hour 15 minutes left to finish three courses and I knew it wasn't enough time," recalls Desai. So he had to change and adapt the menu to cope with the time constraints, for instance, turning aubergine caviar and tomato fondue into an aubergine bhaji. "The consistency and flavour is exactly the same as the aubergine caviar and tomato fondue but it's much quicker to make," he explains.

But the clock wasn't the only problem. "At one point I realised that the fuse for my Robot Coupe was missing and I didn't know what to do. But then I took the fuse from my water bath and it was all OK." It's this ability to think on his feet and excel under pressure that clearly set Desai apart from the rest of the competition. "Weirdly I think it's that kind of pressure which I really enjoy," he says. "As a competitor you don't know what the judges are thinking so you have to be able to trust yourself and your own instincts."

However, Desai admits that confidence comes with experience and that he gained a lot of strength, not just from winning the Roux Scholarship, but also from the three months he spent as a stagier at Thomas Keller's three-Michelin-starred French Laundry in California. "The biggest thing I learned at the French Laundry was organisation. When you are well organised 70% of the battle is won and I took that and the experience of the Roux Scholarship into the final with me," he says.

So will he be competing more in the future? "I've given myself some time now to build on my cooking and develop my cuisine," he says. "The next step will definitely be a Master of Culinary Arts and I would love to represent Great Britain in the Bocuse d'Or. It would be the biggest honour in my life to represent this country. Britain has given me so much, it has taken me in as a citizen and has allowed me to develop my career. It would be amazing to be able to give something back."

But what's next for Desai? After six years at Lucknam Park, does he not itch to move on and start cooking his own food? "I do and I know I will move on eventually but right now I'm not quite ready," he admits. "I've got so much support from Hywel, from Michel Roux and the other Roux Scholars, I know I will be able to succeed in the future. All I need is that day where I know in my heart that I'm ready for it."

National Chef of the Year: Hrishikesh Desai
â- Young National Chef of the Year: Mark Stinchcombe
â- Young Chef of the Year: Mark Stinchcombe
â- Academy of Culinary Arts Award of Excellence: Mark Stinchcombe
â- Catey Independent Hotel of the Year
â- AA Hotel of the Year

Be honest
Don't cheat and be honest with your food, put yourself on the plate.
Be organised Make sure you have 100% of what you will need in the competition. Check everything at least twice.
Be neat and tidy Always keep your work station clean, no matter how much pressure you are under.
Taste Constantly taste, season and retaste.
Don't worry about the other competitors Concentrate on what you are doing, stick to your plan and leave the rest to everyone else.
Trust your heart Go with your instincts and trust your abilities.
Enjoy it Of course you will be nervous but take pride in taking part in the competition and enjoy it. Smile at the judges.

The National Chef of the Year competition, run by the Craft Guild of Chefs, is one of the most prestigious culinary challenges in the industry today. Past winners include Gordon Ramsay, Eyck Zimmer and Mark Sargeant.

Desai was named the winner of the now annual contest after a live cook-off at the Restaurant Show at London's Earls Court last month. He beat nine other finalists, with Adam Bennett, head chef at Simpsons Restaurant in Birmingham; and Frederick Forster, head chef at 44 Restaurant and Lounge in Hornchurch, Essex; coming in second and third place respectively.

The 10 finalists were asked to cook three courses in two hours after being presented with a mystery basket of ingredients. Desai's winning menu comprised a starter of fillet of bream with tomato, aubergine and mussel salad, and crispy calamari; followed by a main course of breast and tortellini of duck with celeriac cream and apple chutney; and a dessert of extra bitter dark chocolate tart with raspberry and cardamom salad and yogurt sorbet.

The judging panel was made up of a number of high-calibre chefs including John Campbell, director of cuisine, food and beverage at Coworth Park; Chris Galvin, chef-patron of Galvin Restaurants; Atul Kochhar, chef-patron of Benares; and Gary Jones, executive chef at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons.

As the winner of the National Chef of the Year title, Desai has won a number of prizes including £1,500 cash; £1,250-worth of vouchers and study trips to France and Dubai; as well as the contents of the competition kitchen, courtesy of Electrolux Professional, worth up to £5,000.

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