Narrowed down from a pool of more than 80 applicants, eight chefs and eight waiters battled it out for the titles of Young Chef and Young Waiter 2006 at London's Kingsway College. Tom Vaughan reports on the action
Delicious food and personable service: those were the simple criteria that judges were looking for at this year's Young Chef Young Waiter finals, held at Westminster Kingsway College, London, last month.
The competition, which is in its 22nd year, saw Neil Borthwick, junior sous chef at the Connaught hotel, London, and Joseph Durrant, assistant manager at the Atrium restaurant in Edinburgh, walk off with winners' cheques for £2,000 each and a trip to Barbados.
Eight chefs and eight waiters under the age of 25 made their way through regional finals in Glasgow, Leeds and London to compete for the national accolades of best young chef and best young waiter, which were announced at an awards dinner at the House of Commons.
Durrant, who finished third in 2005, admits that he was shocked when his name was read out as winner of the waiter category. "For a large part of the competition I felt I wouldn't win," he says. "I made a few mistakes in seating people at the start and didn't have time to serve bread before the amuse-bouche so was unsure how I had done."
Young Chef winner Neil Borthwick, who also finished third in his category in 2005, was more confident of his chances this time around. "I've taken a lot more responsibility on in the last year since our previous head chef left," he says. "I knew I was in with a shout, but you taste other finalists' dishes and realise they are amazing, so you become less confident."
The pair's triumph came at the end of a long day for competitors. Starting at 7.45am with a briefing, chefs were given one surprise basket with which to make an amuse-bouche and a starter, and another with which to make a dessert. Main courses were at the chefs' discretion but had to include sweetbreads as a central ingredient. Having been given the list of ingredients, the chefs' morning was filled with three-and-a-half hours of planning, preparation and cooking, with the task of producing six covers, two for the judges and four for seated members of the hospitality industry specially invited for the occasion.
Chairman of the chef judges Phil Howard, who is chef-proprietor of the Square restaurant in London, explains what the judges were looking for in the food. "The main emphasis was on the deliciousness of the food. For me, food has to be two things: it has to be familiar and comforting in nature, but refined so it is as luxurious as possible."
Some chefs did partly disqualify themselves by straying over the minute-and-a-half grace allowed on dishes. "In a real restaurant you can't leave a customer waiting for a dish more than a minute or two, so it isn't permitted in the finals," says Howard.
Speaking on the ingredients available, Howard wanted to make sure the surprise basket was sizeable. "I want to see the young chefs cook, not cook with their hands tied." And when asked why sweetbreads were chosen, Howard asserts that the choice wasn't overly important. "We wanted something versatile. We didn't want to hedge the chefs in to what they created," he says.
For the amuse-bouche, Borthwick made celeriac with apple and horseradish cream and a beetroot dressing. His starter was a quail with endive and orange zest marmalade and Black Forest ham, which Howard describes as "a seriously delicious plate of food". His dessert was a prune and almond tart served with ice-cream.
Unsurprisingly, Borthwick says the main course was by far the hardest test, citing the wide array of elements to his dish, veal sweetbreads with new-season turnips, potato gnocchi and cèpe gratin. "Cèpes are bang in season at the moment, and the potato gnocchi was a chance to show my technical skill," he says.
Howard agrees that Borthwick's main course wasn't his strongest point, citing the fact that the sweetbreads were slightly undercooked. However, he reserves nothing but the highest praise for Borthwick as a chef. "He is an outstanding young cook in an all-round sense," says Howard. "Technically brilliant and methodical. A prerequisite for a great cook is being able to work in parallel, not in sequence."
When it came to evaluating the waiters, chairman of the waiter judges Jeremy Rata had the same praise for winner Joseph Durrant. He says: "Technically he was spot-on, and he had an extremely engaging personality that came across the whole way through the competition."
However, the lunch service counted for only half the marks for the waiters. They also had tests on wine, cheese and Champagne during the morning. "By the time lunch came," says Rata, "we had a pretty good idea of the personality and knowledge of each waiter. We were ultimately looking for someone personable who made their table feel at ease."
Despite "winning by some clear margin", in the words of Rata, Durrant's day did not get off to the best start. "I'd been planning how I intended to set up my table for quite a while and brought a few items along. However, a good while into my set-up I was informed I couldn't use them and had to start from scratch. It set me back a bit and meant I was slightly flustered from the off."
Rata explains, though, that it is not necessarily the mistakes the waiters made that drew the judges' attention, but how well they recovered. Accordingly, Durrant recouped well and received praise for his unobtrusive nature when serving. Leah Fellstead, winner of the waiter category in the 2005 finals and a judge this year, was impressed with how calm Durrant seemed. "He was very relaxed and very confident."
Asked about what the secret is to being a good waiter, Durrant is philosophical. "The qualities behind being a good waiter are more intangible than being a good chef. It's not product driven. It is about recognising things about your table." For example, Durrant says that at the finals, to avoid being intrusive, it was necessary to identify the customers keen to talk about the food and wine and those who were less interested.
Rata is pleased that people are starting to recognise waiters' skills. "Waiters are going through an identity crisis in the industry at the moment as chefs are so dominant," he says. "Rather than placing emphasis on things like how to lay a silver service table, we are instead making the competition more about personality and product knowledge."
Showcasing waiters' skills is, Durrant agrees, an important role of the competition. He admits that winning does not represent a "golden ticket into the hospitality industry", instead stressing that the greatest reward is confidence. "Firstly, the competition offers a lot of free training in product areas, with tutorials on cheese, wine and coffee," he says. "But it is great to be recognised as a good waiter. It gives you a lot of self-esteem."
What does the future hold for the competition and competitors? Both Durrant and Borthwick refuse to get carried away with their success. Borthwick has his eyes set on working in France some time soon, but stresses that he is still learning. "Winning the competition does not mean I've succeeded as a chef by any stretch of the imagination," he says.
The competition itself is still growing. Bruce Poole, of Chez Bruce in south-west London, is taking over as chair of the chef judges and, according to Howard, will be of great benefit to the competition. Rata, meanwhile, places a lot of faith in the current year's contestants for improving Young Chef Young Waiter. He says: "It is our belief that it is the competitor's responsibility to make the competition harder for next year. This competition is the premier waiting competition, and it is up to them to make sure we can keep the accolade as a badge of honour on the winner's CV."
Young chef Young waiter 2006 finalists
Winner Joseph Durrant, Atrium restaurant, Edinburgh
Second place Arnaud Menoret, Reads restaurant, Kent
Third place Sandrine Guerillon, Four Seasons Hotel London
Trudy Mallin, Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles
Luigi Cagnin, the Ritz, London
Daniel Norman, Gidleigh Park, Devon
Jeremy Powell, Malmaison hotel, Manchester
Daniel Stasiewicz, Jesmond Dene House, Newcastle
Winner Neil Borthwick, the Connaught
Second place Stephen Williams, the Ledbury, London
Third place Lisa Allen, Northcote Manor, Lancashire
William Wood Boyter, Restaurant Number One, Edinburgh
Sinead Finnigan, the Square, London
Christopher Eagle, Jesmond Dene House, Newcastle
Jason Eaves, Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham
Tom Scade, the Ritz, London