The opportunities afforded to chefs that win the Roux Scholarship are priceless. But, as this year's winner Harry Guy discovered, it involves excelling at the UK's most fiendish culinary challenge, says Fiona Sims
The Roux Scholarship is arguably the toughest chef competition in the UK - and it is most definitely highly respected. Now in its 33rd year, the final demands considerable technical ability and a working knowledge of the recipes and styles of Escoffier - plus a level head to stay calm and focused despite being faced with what is largely unfamiliar territory.
The final entails cooking a dish that most of the judges probably haven't prepared in decades, let alone the six finalists, who are all aged between 22 and 30. Add to that a line-up of the country's best chefs peering over your shoulder when the fat hits the pan and you've got one stressful day.
Not that the judges are waiting to trip them up. "They aren't here to catch the finalists out. It's about stretching them," explains one of the organisers, Suzanne Weekes, executive director of the Academy of Food & Wine Service, who is here today to keep an eye on timings. In fact, there's a surprising sense of calm in the kitchen as the finalists and their commis chefs (they are assigned one each, picked randomly from the students at the college) go about their business methodically, completely focused on the task in hand. The dish they've been asked to cook? Norfolk Black chicken cooked en croÁ»te with a cardoon gratin and a tarragon sauce. Yup - it's chicken pie.
"Although it may sound simple, we chose this dish because it's technically challenging due to all the component parts," says Alain Roux, who, with his cousin Michel Roux Jr, debuted as chairman of the judges this year. "We are looking for suet dough with the perfect bite, chicken with the maximum flavour, two well-made sauces and correctly prepared, soft cardoon. Once assembled, the dish has to be cooked properly, without becoming dry.
"And it's not just a recipe," he told the finalists in the briefing, "it's a dish that we expect you to bring your own personal inspiration to."
A 30-minute study period followed, during which time the finalists drew up their work plans, poring over reference books that they were allowed to bring in just for this task.
All have copies of Larousse and Escoffier, a couple have also brought Roux publications (one, rather wisely, brought Michel Roux Sr's book on pastry) - and all this under the beady eyes of the judges, who sit, rather imperiously, in a line in front of them.
As honorary president of the judges for this year only, legendary French chef Pierre Gagnaire admits that he's not used to doing this kind of thing, and he can't resist stepping in to shake a pan when a contestant's chicken is threatening to catch.
"In fact, I'm not even sure I'll make a very good judge," he confesses. "A dish for me is not just about the quality of the ingredients and the execution, it's about the atmosphere and the company - food is about pleasure. But I agreed to do it because I have huge respect for the Roux family and it's a huge honour to be asked. Plus, I've already had two Roux scholars in my Paris kitchen," he adds, with a grin. He's referring to Paul O'Neill in 2013 and Frederick Forster in 2000.
Michel Roux Jr scrutinises the finalists' work plans laid out near the pass. "I thought a few of them might do a forcemeat, but no one has," he ponders. "I've just spotted a couple of duxelles though. We did encourage finalists to approach this recipe quite freestyle."
"Everyone is cutting their chicken differently," observes guest judge Simon Hulstone. He admits that he didn't realise the dish was only served with a small bit of pastry, and that it is used to cook the dish, sealing in the flavours. "I've just seen one guy put tarragon through his pastry, which is interesting," he adds.
Hulstone was a Roux Scholar in 2003 and, along with André Garrett, this is his first year as a judge. "I think there's too much pressure on them at the briefing, with all of the judges lined up in front of the finalists. The Roux family and Gagnaire are legends. I don't think they realise how scary they are - especially to people who've never met them before - they are heroes for many of them. So I think it's nice for the finalists to have André and me there because they can speak to us at a different level - we've been there and done it. I think we've broken down a few barriers today," he nods.
Garrett, meanwhile, is scrutinising a contestant's pastry. "I think it's looking a bit too thin," worries the 2002 Roux Scholar out of earshot, while TV chef James Martin hovers as another finalist peels a mushroom, his hands shaking slightly.
"There are a lot of potential banana skins with this one," says Michel Jr. "Though it's not the most complicated dish we've ever done - that was probably the turbot stuffed with an oyster and sole mousse that we did one year."
Garrett gazes on as a commis chef peels the cardoons. "It looks like ropey old celery, doesn't it?" he says, with a snort. "I cooked it once when I was at Orrery, but it's not something that you see very often."
"This method of cooking the cardoon is interesting, non?" says Gagnaire, pointing at a finalist's workstation, where the vegetable is braising slowly in chicken stock. He moves on to the next contestant, who is wrestling his pastry into the mould. "This dough is awkward - they've got to make sure it's evenly rolled, the right texture and thickness," says Gagnaire.
Breaking the mould
We're half way through the three-hour cook-off, and nobody can spot a winner yet, or if they can, they're not sharing. "It's difficult to tell at the moment," whispers Turner.
"At this stage we are judging their approach to the problems they face. A couple of them are more determined, which is good. It's only when they start putting the fillings in that we can really start to see how the pies might come out. I wouldn't have put raw veg in there, as one of them did, but let's see," he says.
Soon it's time to de-mould the first of the pies. "It's squeaky bum time now," quips Turner, as Tim Peirson is up first (the finish times are staggered to allow the judges time to assess each dish). He gallantly ignores the TV camera zooming in on his fumbling, and a hush descends as he gently releases the mould. Peirson then plates it up, with a jug of tarragon sauce alongside, and then the cardoon gratin, lightly browned and still bubbling.
Says Peirson, a little later: "This is the first competition I've ever entered and as I am 29 years old, this is the last time I can enter this one. Why do it? To build as a chef, you need to get out of your comfort zone - and this is right out there. But I've learned so much doing this and met some incredible people."
So what did he think of the recipe? "On the first read, it seemed like an easy brief. But it was tough. There were so many skills that went into it. And you couldn't just dig into it midway through cooking and check the seasoning; you just had to hope for the best. And I've never seen a cardoon before, let alone tasted one. But the worst bit was lifting the mould off - it was all hanging on that pastry. I haven't done a lot of suet before, and I've certainly never baked it, but I guess that's the whole idea with this competition."
This was the third time in the final for Scott Dineen. "I took the job at BaxterStorey on the basis that I could try out for the Roux Scholarship. I've got the bug now, and I can't stop coming back - I want to prove something to myself. I've spent the last two years worrying more about how the dish will look, rather than how it will taste, so this year I've spent a lot of time getting flavour into every part of the dish. I wanted that roast chicken, Sunday-lunch taste, so I got as much sticky, caramelised meat flavour into it as I could. The hardest part was lining the tin with the suet and de-moulding it.
"What has the last two years as a finalist taught me? To read the brief properly and don't try and do anything more than that - keeping it simple is the way to go," he declares.
There's no doubting the impact that the competition has had on its winners. Hulstone says: "This competition has done more for my career than anything else. You're not forgotten about once the competition is over. Every year I've been involved in something to do with the scholarship - it's a family. It's opened so many doors for me. Today we are looking for an all-rounder. We want the scholar to be an ambassador for the industry."
James Martin is equally enthralled, and has been a judge here for the past few years. "There really is no other competition like it. It's a benchmark for chefs. And it's amazing to see how the Roux family has held on to that - the scholarship is held in such high regard. It really is the best of the best.
"As competitions go, this one is extremely nerve-racking - though it helps that you've got previous winners as judges, because the contestants know that they've been through it too. I also love the fact Albert and Michel Sr are now passing it on to the younger generation. It's a life-changing opportunity. Today could change their lives forever." Harry Guy's life, as it turns out.
In a starry awards ceremony at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London last week, attended by the great and good in hospitality and live-streamed via the competition website for the first time in its history, Guy stepped up to take the top prize. "To have that close contact with the Roux family is something money can't buy. It's great to be a part of that," beams Guy.
- Pierre Gagnaire, chef-patron, Pierre Gagnaire Restaurant, Paris, and honorary president of the judges
- Alain Roux, chef-patron, the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire, and chairman of the judges
- Michel Roux Jr, chef-patron, Le Gavroche, London, and chairman of the judges
- Brian Turner, president of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts
- Andrew Fairlie, chef-patron, Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, Gleneagles
- James Martin, chef-patron, James Martin Manchester
- André Garrett, executive head chef, Cliveden House, Taplow, Berkshire
- Simon Hulstone, chef-patron, the Elephant, Torquay, Devon
The prize The winner receives £6,000 to support their career development and an invitation to cook and train under the supervision of a leading chef at a prestigious three-Michelin-starred restaurant anywhere in the world for up to three months. In addition, the 2016 Roux scholar will receive:
- From Bridor, an invitation for two to Rick Stein's in Padstow Cornwall including two nights' accommodation at either the Seafood Restaurant or St Petroc's Hotel, a three-course dinner with a bottle of wine at the Seafood Restaurant and two places on a one-day cookery course at Padstow Seafood School. Plus two award-winning books: Dough and Crust, signed by the author, baker Richard Bertinet
- A year's subscription to print and digital editions of The Caterer for one year, plus two tickets to The Caterer's annual awards, the Cateys.
- A collection of 20 assorted Global Knives together with sharpeners, whetstones and a chef's case.
- Four box tickets to a show of your choice at the Royal Albert Hall (subject to availability), courtesy of Hildon Natural Mineral Water.
- Complimentary membership of the Institute of Hospitality for one year.
- An exclusive Magnum of Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut, signed by all the judges.
- An all expenses paid trip for two to visit the wine cellars of Laurent-Perrier at Tours-sur-Marne, including a tour of the cellars and a tasting of the Laurent-Perrier range. Travel by Eurostar and overnight accommodation with dinner, bed and breakfast.
- A coffee machine, plus a trip for two to visit the award-winning Caffé Musetti roasting factory with flights, transfers and a night's accommodation in Milan, courtesy of L'Unico.
- A tour of Rungis market in Paris with Mash Purveyors' team of buyers, including travel and overnight accommodation.
- A foraging day with the rest of the national finalists on the south coast, guided by Mash Purveyors' wild food expert, Mushroom Mike. Lunch and transfer to/from London included.
- A day's work experience with Steve Groves, MasterChef: The Professionals winner, at Roux at Parliament Square followed by dinner for two in the restaurant with wines chosen by the sommelier, courtesy of Restaurant Associates.
- A ThermomixÂ® - the all-in-one kitchen appliance.
- A day of game shooting with one night's accommodation including dinner, bed and breakfast, courtesy of Udale Speciality Foods.
- Two personalised Roux Scholarship chef's jackets, courtesy of Bragard UK.
- The winner's establishment will also receive: 30 cases of Hildon Natural Mineral Water; 10kg of coffee from L'Unico (Caffé Musetti); and a sirloin of aged beef from Udale Speciality Foods' Himalayan Salt Chamber.
Harry Guy finishes his pie with a garnish of turned mushrooms and carrots. There's nothing more he can do now, as the silver platter is taken away from the pass and into the judging room. Before training for the competition, Guy had never turned a mushroom. "It's not something I've ever needed to do before, but I thought I should practice a few new techniques before the competition," admits Guy. Well, this, and other little touches that he incorporated into his dish finally paid off - meet the 2016 Roux Scholar.
Guy, 27, is support and development chef for the Eden Hotel Collection, based in Stratford-upon-Avon. He beat five other finalists in a tense cook-off held at Westminster Kingsway College, London, on 4 April. Their task? To prepare and serve Norfolk Black chicken cooked en croÁ»te, cardoon gratin and tarragon sauce.
Among the jaw-dropping line-up of judges was this year's honorary president, multi-Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire, who had this to say about Guy: "The winner was obviously stressed, but in a positive way, and he channelled this into his cooking. He had the intelligence to perfectly combine and balance all the elements of his dish. His semi-final dishes also stood out, so this made it three out of three for Harry. He will make an excellent Roux Scholar." Praise indeed.
"It hasn't really sunk in yet," admits Guy, who celebrated after the event with a quiet drink with his family and girlfriend. "I was apprehensive at the start, but figured it out OK. As soon as I started cooking all my nerves went away and I felt comfortable in there. I was hoping for meat, so that was good, and I was happy with what I produced."
There was a bit of a drama though. "It was a challenge working in a kitchen I'd never been in before, and even though my oven thermometer said 250Â°C, it still felt a little cool. When I started blind baking my suet pastry it started to sink a bit after 20 minutes, so I remodelled it slightly, then moved it into a combi oven to finish it off. Panic over," shrugs Guy.
Guy might sound like a seasoned competitor, yet he has only ever entered one other competition, many years ago. So why now? "Because this is the most prestigious competition of them all, and I'm not a big fan of going on telly, on shows such as MasterChef: The Professionals. I'd rather stay in the kitchen and make a name for myself in the industry this way," he says.
He previously spent a couple of years working at L'Enclume in Cumbria and credits head chef Tom Barnes (a 2014 Roux Scholar) as one of his mentors, along with previous L'Enclume head chef and 2011 Roux Scholar Mark Birchall, now at soon-to-open Moor Hall in Aughton, Lancashire. Guy left the Cumbrian two-Michelin-starred restaurant to work at the Eden Hotel Collection last October, and he tapped the latter for tips and techniques to prepare for the final.
So why the move? "I wanted to learn the business side of things and my job at Eden gives me that as I work across all the kitchens in the group under executive chef Simon Haigh; from menu development to working out costings and making sure all the kitchens are up to the same level. One day, I want to open my own restaurant," he says.
He's not giving much away about which restaurant he would like to work in as part of his prize - only that he would prefer it to be in America. "I want to talk to the Roux family first, and get their advice on things. I don't want to be a number in a large team; instead I want to work somewhere I can really get stuck in. To be a part of this elite, prestigious club, and to be on the same page as these people is something else," he nods. It seems to be sinking in now.
Norfolk Black chicken cooked en croÁ»te, cardoon gratin and tarragon sauce, from the Roux family, inspired by Escoffier
This recipe involves lining a fluted oval pÁ¢té en croÁ»te mould with a layer of suet dough, which is then baked blind. Into this, coloured, partly roasted, pieces of chicken are placed along with some of the sauce and it is baked further with its lid. It is garnished with button mushrooms, carrots and button onions.
Competitors were asked to serve a gratin of cardoons, separately, in a porcelain dish, and a tarragon chicken sauce. The dish (for four people) and its component parts had to be prepared and served in three hours.
The judges on the recipe
André Garrett "It's a real cheffy dish. It's vitally important to get that texture right in the pastry. It's not as classically challenging as the other dishes they've had in the finals, but it's not an easy dish at all. I'll be looking at what flavours they'll get into the dish, the de-glazing of the sauce and what little inspirations they will work into the dish."
Simon Hulstone "At first glance it's the kind of dish I like to cook and eat, but look more closely and I can see lots of things that can go wrong - pastry that's too thick, a sauce that splits, undercooked chicken leg. They'll have all made suet pastry before, but probably not in a long time. And who cooks cardoons?"
James Martin "The major pitfalls? Not reading the recipe through properly and not thinking about what the end product should be. Most of these chefs have probably never used one of these moulds before - certainly not with suet. It's got to be strong enough to hold all that filling, but not too thick. I would take the crown off and cook it separately, but it's their interpretation of the dish that's important. I can see some of them doing a duxelles, but a lot of water will come out of it, so that must be factored in - there are pitfalls all the way through this recipe."
Brian Turner "Every year it's a variation on a theme, but this year it's quite different. That doesn't mean it's wrong. It's important to choose a dish that is a good test, and we can't do the same dish every year, otherwise finalists will get wise to it. This year's happens to be the kind of dish that I'd like to sit down and eat. I bet they're thinking, 'this is quite simple, what can go wrong?' But the dish is up there with all the others that have been a good test. We'll be looking at how they make their pastry and how they fill it. And if it's not quite what we expected, but it eats good, that's how we will end up with our winner."
The judges on the winner
Andrew Fairlie "It was pretty unanimous. Though all the contestants did better than expected. I think the cardoons confused most of them, though. That said, Harry did well on all the elements of his dish. His seasoning was great, and his interpretation of the recipe was spot on, so it was a relatively easy decision for us."
Michel Roux Jr "Harry won because his seasoning was perfect, the pie crust flaky and just the right thickness, with the chicken pieces juicy and succulent. But this is to be expected when you reach the final of the Roux Scholarship and, to be fair, most of the finalists did very well. So what tipped the balance in his favour was his work method and our belief that he has the right temperament to be a Roux Scholar, and that he in turn will be a teacher and an inspiration to the next generation."
Brian Turner "I think Harry got it spot on. He understood the dish and he was meticulous. The proof of the pudding is in his pie, so to speak. And those cardoons? He got them as right as anyone else did. To be honest, I would have struggled too - it's one of those ingredients I rarely choose to cook, but Harry coped well."
Simon Hulstone "I asked Harry whether he was OK with the recipe, and he replied, 'Yeah, chef, it's just a pie, isn't it - it's staff food. It's just that the staff today include Pierre Gagnaire and the Rouxs'. I loved that. For me, Harry's dish stood out on taste first. We kept going back to it, which is always a good sign. He worked well that day, very methodical. He fits into the scholar mould, too, which is important to us. We're going to be breaking bread with this guy for many years to come."
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