There are chefs the guidebooks don't tell you about, hidden away in company kitchens, striving to create food that rivals that of their more public colleagues. Janie Manzoori-Stamford meets two of the best: the winner and runner-up of contract caterer Sodexo's Chef of the Year competition
Foodservice can often be overlooked by aspiring young chefs as a credible career option. Glory can be hard to come by when cooking for a closed audience, and the refined plates of food served in City boardrooms for the clients of clients are not available to Joe Public. These are the dining tables that don't get talked about in the guidebooks.
They're not critiqued by restaurant reviewers, and they stand no chance of trending in the fickle world of social media. Michelin will never come knocking.
So for top talent in the contracted world of catering, competitions are a perfect opportunity to shine. Just look at last week's National Chef of the Year competition, which saw a foodservice one-two finish with BaxterStorey's Hayden Groves taking the title and CH&Co's Simon Webb coming a close second.
Mulcahy, Sodexo's craft and food development director, also spearheads Sodexo's Chef of the Year competition, sponsored by Unilever Food Solutions, Churchill and Leathams. One of the benefits of taking part, for winners and runners-up alike, is the exposure to a far wider network of contacts than they might ordinarily meet, and the opening of professional doors as a result. And that's certainly been the experience of this year's winner and runnerup: Tony Stuart and Dennis Carroll.
After joining the foodservice giant in June 2011, Stuart went on to be a runner-up in the 2012 competition before taking the title 12 months later. Since then, he's changed roles within the company too, moving from Shearman & Sterling to a greater challenge heading the hospitality at Santander's London offices.
"It's nice that my name is now known within the company," he says. "Winning has opened up opportunities for me. When the Santander job came up, there was a bit more substance to my application."
Carroll, executive head chef at pharmaceutical firm Almac in Northern Ireland and winner of the Irish heat, agrees: "The sector in Ireland is obviously not as big as in England, meaning there aren't as many good job opportunities. For instance, getting involved in Chef of the Year meant I got to cook for Prince Charles.
"I always knew I could do it, but sometimes you need to win something to make a statement to others that you're here. It raises your profile."
But according to Mulcahy, who uses competitions as a subtle training tool, it's not just about career progression. Of around 120 entries to the 2013 competition, 10 finalists were brought together ahead of the cook-off for a "mentor day", where they were asked to reproduce their dishes under judging conditions. Mulcahy and his team then set about highlighting any areas that needed development.
"We give them the feedback and support they need to refine their dishes so that for the final at Hotelympia they do themselves proud," explains Mulcahy.
"In a lot of competitions, people compete and then feel they should have done something differently in hindsight, so I'm trying to get over that by using the mentor day to prepare and train them."
Any chef who has ever competed will tell you that the experience is a stressful one. Seasoned culinary contestant Carroll admits that he has a month of sleepless nights in the run-up to a competition due to worry. He wakes up in the middle of the night to make notes before he forgets his ideas by morning.
However, Mulcahy and his team work hard to ensure that, despite the pressure, the chefs come away happy. "We want to make sure the experience they have is a positive one, so their colleagues see that and want to have a go as well, because they know they'll feel looked after and supported.
"The chefs will have a number of different experiences, even if they don't get to the final. The structure of the competition is clear and defined and, in theory, anybody can do well."
The confidence that competition success can inspire is a central aim for Mulcahy, and for that reason Sodexo Chef of the Year is run in a way that stands up alongside any professional competition. He wants his winners to take their experience and apply it on a grander stage, which is exactly what Stuart did after taking the title.
"The next step is to go for national competitions. I entered National Chef of the Year after winning and made it to the semi-finals. I wouldn't have considered entering before," says Stuart. "I submitted my paper entry and sat around for about four weeks wondering if it was going to go any further and, when it did,
it was a massive shock. To get through to the semis on my first attempt was amazing."
The italian way of cooking
As well as the kudos that comes with success at Sodexo's Chef of the Year competition, the winner and runner-up were treated to a three-day food trip to the Bay of Naples, courtesy of prize sponsor Leathams. The speciality food supplier's head of food, Alessandro Cristiano, used his local knowledge and connections, via his partner Manuela Lubrano, to create a packed itinerary aimed at inspiring the chefs with the passion and produce of his native Italy.
Cristiano explains: "What I first wanted to show them - because I'm Italian - is how proud I am of the country I come from. I also wanted to show them that with some ingredients, the less you touch them the better they are - as long as the ingredients you use in the first place are the best of the best."
That was certainly something that the chefs on the trip, which included winner Tony Stuart, runner-up Dennis Carroll, David Mulcahy, Sodexo's craft and food
development director, and Sodexo executive development chef Keith Burton, could appreciate.
Commenting on his food experiences in Italy, Stuart said he would take back to his kitchen an understanding and appreciation for simplicity.
"The tuna tartare we had at Ristorante La Caracalle was incredible. I automatically expected there to be lots of ingredients, but it was just olive oil, parsley, lemon and tuna."
This simple approach was evident in everything that was presented to the chefs, no matter what level of cooking was involved.
"From the restaurant on the corner of the harbour that works with the fish they find in the sea to a high-end restaurant in the likes of Capri, they all use pretty much the same ingredients. Some will have more of a wow factor through presentation, but it is still simple cooking," says Cristiano.
However, there was a third element to the passion behind the produce, which was evident at every dining occasion. The cooking was rich with tradition, but
everyone has their own preferred way of doing it and they're prepared to argue their point.
"We saw that at the dinner with the Lubrano family," says Stuart. "There is so much conversation about food. There's no way that these things can't progress and improve because everyone has their own opinion. It's not really a case of people being snotty about it - they just want to make clear that they really do think theirs is the best way to do it."
The Limoncello di Procida is a great case in point. According to Manuela Lubrano, the recipe calls for a kilo of sugar, but while her grandmother was insistent that 500g is plenty, others opt for a happy medium of 750g. The traditional recipes of Italy change, very, very slowly, like a glacier forging mountains and valleys in its wake. Every generation will inherit the ingrained culinary culture that dominates the lives of most, if not all Italians, while their passion for perfection will only see a little tweak here, a little tweak there.
Leathams foodservice sales director Alison Wilkinson said one of her aims, alongside Cristiano, was to show Italy as it really is. She says: "We wanted to get the chefs right into the heart of the Italian way of thinking and cooking, and hopefully give them some inspiration to take back home."
With that goal, it's pretty clear the trip was a resounding success.