It's nearing noon and the clock is ticking away. Backstage, behind the cook-off kitchens, the finalists in the 2006 Gordon Ramsay Scholar competition are concentrating hard getting to grips with prep, cooking and presentation timings, making sure they have the ingredients they need from mystery boxes to hand at their stations. There are frowns aplenty on the eight young chefs' faces as they focus on the task ahead.
It's all a sharp contrast to the relaxed demeanour of the various judges. Not that these heavyweights (led by chairman Steven Doherty) are taking their duties lightly. It's just that they're not the ones having to prove themselves in front of their industry role models or, even more stressfully, in front of an audience of hundreds of interested spectators cramming the small viewing area at the culinary theatre. To cap it all, once cooking is under way, there are cameras - TV and stills - galore being stuck in their faces and a Q and A session with the judging panel and competition founder Gordon Ramsay going on right under their noses.
In short, there are lots of distractions. So it's a testament to the professionalism of these young men (one of them still at college) that they are still managing to focus on the task in hand.
That task - which the chefs learnt about only today - is to deliver a four-cover, three-course meal in three hours. Two dishes are set (a crab ravioli with ginger, chive and chervil velouté and a classic vanilla crème brûlée) and come with specific recipes. The third is a free-interpretation dish centred on a loin of venison - but with an extensive mystery box of ingredients to create from this will test their powers of restraint as much as their flair and inventiveness. (The 25-strong selection, by the way, includes various seasonal root veg, mushrooms, cream, red cabbage, sultanas, chocolate, oranges, rice, tomatoes, beetroot and bacon).
"There's a lot of technique with the pasta. You can't make it too thin or it will split - but you don't want it too thick either because that's not nice," comments Australian chef Matt Moran, one of the final's nine judges." Getting the right amount of crab into the ravioli is important, too - you don't want to be eating just pasta."
Chef-proprietor of Sydney's renowned ARIA restaurant, Moran brings an international presence to the panel. He and Ramsay have known each other for 12 years - ever since Ramsay hit the big time during his tenure heading up Aubergine in London - and part of the winner's prize will be a stage at his restaurant.
"It'll be interesting to see how they finish the venison," he continues. "That dish will show who's naturally creative with food and who's not. There are no big red herrings in the ingredients they've been given, though I suppose the chocolate could trip someone up if they use it and don't get it right. And I guarantee there will be some disasters on the brûlée because it is so classically simple that it's easy to get wrong when you're under pressure."
Moran is judging starters and desserts alongside Richard Corrigan but is keeping an interested eye on the main-course offerings as well. Wandering round the cook-off stations about an hour into the competition, he spots one or two potentially disastrous situations developing.
"That guy's sauces for his meat won't have any depth of flavour because he's not reducing down enough," he whispers to me out of earshot of the competitor. Another finalist's pasta looks a bit on the thick side, while yet another's has some dangerous air-pockets ready-and-waiting to burst the parcel open when cooked.
Of course, how important a technical imperfection is in the scheme of things won't emerge until judges actually taste dishes, but messing up one dish while being brilliant on two others won't wash. "We want a consistent meal rather than one outstanding dish. If a guy does the best venison and the best ravioli then goes and puts salt on the brûlée he won't win," Moran says.
Soon the first starters are coming through for judging and Moran shoots off to begin marking his score sheets. The standards are very high, but it's soon apparent that no one has quite cracked all the elements in one dish. The marking is already close.
That nip-and-tuck point scoring continues through the main dishes but one competitor is beginning to edge ahead. And that chef is the competitor from station number eight. He has impressed the main course judges with a tasty and technically accomplished roast venison served with fondant potato, braised red cabbage and roasted chestnuts (seasonal, classic ingredient matches). And his brûlée has really placed him among the men rather than the boys. "It's fantastic, beautifully cooked with a great flavour and lovely texture," Moran remarks.
"Number eight" turns out to be Aled Williams a chef de partie from Midsummer House in Cambridge, but he has to wait another four hours - until the evening's presentation ceremony - before learning of his triumph. "I was very happy with what I put out in the competition, but the waiting around afterwards was tough and when they called my name out I just thought I hadn't heard it right," he admits. There's a broad grin across his face: not a frown in sight.
The Winner's Viewpoint… from Aled Williams
When I saw that crème brûlée was one of the dishes, I thought "nice one". I've made it quite often in my career. I knew I had to get that on first. I was half expecting ravioli because I know Gordon likes that, so that wasn't a big surprise. I've done a bit of pasta work in the past, so I didn't panic about that. But the venison was a bit of a shock because we got red meat to work with in the semis and I thought they might give us fish.
There were so many ingredients in the mystery box I just pushed some aside. You have to stop and think about how the dish is going to work. I wanted to do things I'd done before, I didn't want to go and try cooking new things and fall flat on my face. I roasted the venison and did a fondant potato, braised red cabbage and sautéd sprout leaves, roasted chestnuts, light venison jus. The dish was new on the day, but I'd cooked the elements before and knew that the ingredient matches were classical.
Overall I was very happy with what I put out, although I thought my pasta was a little bit too thick even though the crab farce was OK. I tried not to watch what the others were doing during the cook-off, but it's quite difficult not to: I got my brûlée done quickly and saw that other people were still beating their eggs as I was putting it in the fridge, so that gave me confidence - but at the end of day it was about my food and my timing.
There were hundreds of people watching. I knew that my mum and girlfriend were literally in front of me and a couple of people came up and started shouting things in Welsh at me, but I just knew I had to blinker myself and not look up.
When they called my name out at the awards ceremony I was gobsmacked. I still get goose pimples now thinking about winning the final. And until Matt Moran came up and said "see you next year in Sydney" I hadn't really thought about the prizes winning the title was all that mattered to me. I did drive back to Cambridge in the car (a Volkswagen Polo), though, the day after the final.
The media attention has been a bit surreal. I had to do a demo the day after the final at the BBC Good Food Show in front of hundreds of people and I had to go on GMTV with Gordon the day after that. We went to Pétrus for lunch on the same day and I was even doing radio interviews in Marcus Wareing's office. Winning the competition is the biggest thing that's ever happened to me.
- Colin Fleming, previously of Cosmo, Edinburgh
- Jeffery Trotter, Heathcote's, Longridge
- Nicholas Ghinn, Chapter One, Locksbottom, near Orpington (runner up)
- Nick Deverell-Smith, Mallory Court, Leamington Spa
- Ricky martin, Read's Faversham
- Simon Haynes, Leicester College (college winner)
- Thomas Egerton, Rhodes Twenty-Four, London
- Steven Doherty, executive chef, First Floor Café - Lakeland, Windermere (chairman)
- Marcus Wareing, chef-proprietor Pétrus/Savoy Grill/Banquette, London.
- Angela Harnett, chef-proprietor, Angela Hartnett at the Connaught, London
- Matt Moran, chef-proprietor ARIA, Sydney
- Richard Corrigan, chef-proprietor Lindsay House/Bentley's Oyster Bar Grill, London
- Andreas Antona, chef-proprietor, Simpson's Birmingham, Edgbaston/Simply Simpson's, Kenilworth
- Glynn Purnell, chef-proprietor, Jessica's, Edgbaston
- Mark Sargeant, head chef, Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's, London
- Brian Turner, restaurateur and chef-proprietor, Turner's, Millennium Mayfair
Gordon Ramsay Scholar
In the six years since its birth, the Gordon Ramsay Scholar has established itself as one of the premier titles on the competition circuit, with standards going up year on year. "I started this thing in order to propel talent forward, and the standard this year has been extraordinary," declared Ramsay at this year's awards presentation.
At the heart of the competition are a phenomenal series of prizes courtesy of the event's various sponsors. This year's haul includes a two-week trip to Australia (comprising a stage at Matt Moran's ARIA restaurant in Sydney and a visit to the Nepenthe Winery in the Adelaide Hills), a stage at the new Gordon Ramsay at the London in New York, a Volkswagen Polo car, a set of chef's gourmet knives and pans, a cash prize of £2,000 and a year's free subscription to Caterer and Hotelkeeper.
There is also a sister competition, the Gordon Ramsay College Scholar, the winner of which automatically gets a place in the grand final. This also has an enviable clutch of prizes. This year's college scholar, Simon Haynes, has a stage lined-up at one of Ramsay's UK restaurants and also wins knives, pans and a cheque for £2,000.
Next year's competition will be launched in spring 2007. Further information on www.gordonramsay.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org