Ruth Hansom is the first female Young National Chef of the Year, as well as demi chef de partie at the Ritz London. She tells Katie Pathiaki about her bursting trophy cabinet and how she was third time lucky in winning the title
It's the first week of 2017 and the impressive 25ft Christmas tree is being removed from the lobby at the Ritz. Ruth Hansom has just finished a busy lunch service, and while the removal of decorations marks the end of the festive period at the hotel, it also represents the end of a landmark year for the demi chef de partie.
During 2016 the Darlington-born chef achieved the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts Annual Awards of Excellence, was part of the EuroSkills Team UK in Gothenburg and was crowned the Craft Guild of Chefs Young National Chef of the Year (YNCOTY). It was also the year when she celebrated her 21st birthday and the Ritz was awarded its first Michelin star in its 110-year history.
"That was the best birthday present ever," Hansom grins. "Every year, when the book is published, we all get excited. When chef [John Williams, who also hails from the North East] went to the live event, we knew we were in with a chance. About 10 of us were crammed round a mobile phone, watching the live feed. It was amazing. Chef actually cried!"
If there is such a thing as a competition bug, Hansom has it. On top of the accolades she achieved last year, she won the title of Master Chefs of Great Britain Young Master Chef of the Year in 2013 and 2014, took home gold at the World Skills UK final 2013, was named Craft Guild of Chefs Apprentice of the Year in 2013 and Craft Guild of Chefs Rising Star in 2014.
After finishing her GCSEs, Hansom decided to drop everything and pursue her ambition. "I told my mum that I had applied to Westminster Kingsway and was moving to London. I don't think she believed me at first."
So Hansom packed her bags in County Durham and moved into a London flat she found on Gumtree. "I had just turned 16 and I had never been on the tube. My first time was on the first day of college!" she recalls.
She called Frederick Forster, one of the judges from FutureChef, to ask for a job. Forster invited her to help in the kitchen at the Boundary restaurant in Shoreditch the next Saturday.
"I worked with Freddy at the Boundary in the evenings and weekends for a year until he moved on [he is now at La Pont de la Tour], which is when I started the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts apprenticeship. I went to college one day a week and worked at the Ritz the rest."
Hansom now works permanently at the Ritz within a brigade of 55 chefs under Williams, which she admits was pretty daunting at first. "I used to lack confidence," she says. "It's such a big kitchen. But as time went on, I became more comfortable in my environment and with my abilities. There is so much to learn. Every six months you get moved to a different section, so I'll be on bakery and pastry for afternoon tea one day and then the fish section another day. Working with John is tough, but he is very fair and he tries to get the best out of people. He's taught me to always accept that, if you've done something wrong, you should ask for help and see how you can improve."
Competition challenges It's certain that Hansom didn't get to where she is today without determination and she has a wealth of experience, gained both abroad and at home. "I've done quite a lot of training abroad. Last October I went to Erfurt in Germany to do the Culinary Olympics. That was a bit of a learning curve for me as I had to learn some tips on presentation.
"My biggest challenge came during a competition. I was given a black box with a quarter of a lamb inside it - it was almost as big as me. I hadn't learned what to do with it, but you have to use your instincts and trust yourself. It turned out alright! That's why I love competitions: if you do something incorrectly, you get to go back and see exactly where you went wrong, and then you can learn from it."
When she entered the YNCOTY competition last year, it was third time lucky: "I first did the competition when I was 18 and I came second. I didn't realise how much of a big thing it was and I was quite naÁ¯ve. The year after that, I entered again and came third, so it was a bit of a knockback. That was horrible, but it made me determined to come back and win it."
Hansom received a lot of support from Williams and the team. "It's great here because we have a banqueting kitchen, and when we don't have functions going on, I can use that to practise in. In the run-up to the competition I was coming in on my days off and staying after work to perfect the dishes. If you want to win, that's what you have to do."
Although Hansom is still developing her cooking style, she has been classically French trained and enjoys using British produce. When coming up with her dishes, she says it was important to think of her own creations, rather than cook something straight off the menu. "You have to be careful you haven't subconsciously seen the dish somewhere else. When you do a competition, you must follow your heart and do what you want to do. You've got so many people trying to give you their ideas, but you have to do what you believe in."
Star of the stage Winning YNCOTY has opened doors for Hansom. She received a £4,000 grant to go toward a stage anywhere in the world, which she has yet to decide on.
Hansom offers to show me the kitchen at the Ritz and leads me down sets of stairs and along corridors. The kitchen is unlike any I have seen before - completely open, spacious and vast. Hansom sees my amazement. "The first time you walk in here, you think, 'wow'. But when you come here every day, you get used to it. Often, when you visit other kitchens, you realise how lucky we are at the Ritz to have everything we've got."
She shows me the Evogro plant-growing system, which she takes responsibility for with another chef. Her animated explanation of it shows how proud she is to look after the microherbs and she picks some for me to taste.
It's refreshing to see a young chef who is so passionate about the industry, especially as the pressure of the chef shortage threatens restaurants nationwide. "It is a big problem," Hansom acknowledges. "It's so hard to get staff at the minute. We felt the strain on the kitchen here at the Ritz before Christmas.
"I think for young chefs it's a shock coming into a kitchen straight from college when you're not used to that environment, so it would be beneficial to do an apprenticeship first, and then you're prepared for what's going to come. I know you're very confident by the time you get to the third year of college, but as soon as you get into a kitchen, you are quickly knocked down.
"Being a chef is not something you can do half-seriously. You've got to work long hours, and if that's not something you're willing to do, then you're probably not going to succeed. You don't have to be amazing when you start - just ask questions and try hard.
"Never stop learning - that's key," she concludes. "You can never know everything about food."
Ruth Hansom's CV
- January 2017 Demi chef de partie, Ritz London
- August 2013 Apprentice, Ritz London
- January 2013 Student worker, Coutts, London
- September 2012 Commis chef, Boundary Restaurant, Rooms & Rooftop, London
- July 2012 Agency chef, Ascot Racecourse, Berkshire
- 2012-2016 Royal Academy of Culinary Arts Diploma, Westminster Kingsway College, London
What Ruth's mentors think
John Williams, executive chef, Ritz London, and chairman of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts
Ruth started here as an apprentice. She has worked in all areas of the kitchen and has developed herself along the way.
She works very hard, is very dedicated and she listens. Anyone who listens learns. She's built herself up in so many different ways. She's not the finished article, but she's very well-polished for her age.
She's extremely capable - one of the best of her age group. She succeeds in a lot of competitions, but competition work is so different to daily work. I always say the real competition is in the kitchen.
Ruth is very calm and always strives for the very best that she can do. She's a real joy to work with - a special young apprentice! She's won all kinds of awards and she's still not finished; as we speak she's being nominated for things.
What she has done so far is very impressive, and now we are looking forward to her getting a gold medal at WorldSkills in Abu Dhabi this October. She was promoted to demi chef de partie this year, and I don't promote people unless they deserve it.
Anne Pierce, chief executive, the Springboard Charity and Springboard UK
Ruth Hansom is an exceptional talent and an exceptional young woman. She is one of the Springboard family and we are so proud of her achievements.
Her journey started as a direct result of participating in FutureChef when she was still at school and she is now an outstanding alumni. When she was working with Freddy Forster [who was 2011 National Chef of the Year], Ruth attended what turned out to be a fortuitous Springboard dinner, where she spoke to our guests about how FutureChef had benefited her. It was at that dinner that she met John Williams, executive chef of the Ritz, had a tour of the hotel kitchens and the rest, as they say, is history!
We have watched her career take off with wonder as she has won awards, competitions and distinctions and now Young National Chef of the Year, as well as representing TeamGB at WorldSkills.
Ruth has also given her services to help raise significant funds for Springboard by cooking private dinners as prizes offered at events. She is only 21 and has already achieved such a lot. She is very special - we need more Ruths!