Nick Evans has taken part in only three culinary competitions, and yet he has a track record that many of his peers would kill for - namely, a 100% success rate. Yep, he has won all of them. Granted, the first two - a couple of junior culinaire events at Hotelympia - were many moons ago (13 years to be precise) when he was almost a babe-in-arms at the Royal Crescent hotel in Bath, and probably don't have too much contemporary currency. But the third title, won earlier this year, was an altogether weightier affair: the National Chef of Wales.
Organised by the Welsh Culinary Association, the biennial competition was something that had been on Evans's radar for a long time. Ever since his days at Crosskeys College just outside Newport, in fact. "I did a work placement at Celtic Manor when I was at college and the head chef then, Trevor Jones, won the competition while I was there, so I'd always fancied having a crack at it," he says.
Not unreasonably, you have to work or live in Wales to be eligible for the competition, and in a neat twist the opportunity to enter the event finally came his way when Evans found himself heading up the kitchen at Celtic Manor's fine-dining restaurant, Owens, for two years. He joined the hotel in 2004 and has only recently moved on to his current position as head chef at York's Middlethorpe Hall. (Strangely, that has a neatness about it, too, as Evans's first job after completing his City and Guild 706 parts I and II exams was at Middlethorpe.)
Let's get back to the National Chef of Wales. Having got through to the competition's final staged at Coleg Llandrillo Cymru, Rhos-on-Sea, in February during the Welsh Culinary Championships, Evans found himself faced with the task of coming up with a four-course menu using ingredients from a surprise basket given to finalists on the day of the competition. The basket was rich in, though not exclusively made up of, award-winning Welsh produce. It contained the likes of Welsh salt marsh lamb, some of the principality's best cheeses, sausages, honey, bacon and yogurt.
"It was a huge box of ingredients which Graham Tinsley, the Welsh National Culinary Team manager, had put together, so there were a lot of options," Evans recalls. In fact, as any judge will tell you, the danger when presented with a wide variety of mystery box ingredients in a competition is in going overboard and using everything just because you can. Spotting and dodging red herrings in terms of flavour-matching is an art - and the winner of any culinary contest is usually the chef who is able to employ a certain amount of restraint while meeting the competition criteria. Sensibly, Evans's plan for the National Chef of Wales final had always been to use and adapt dishes in his everyday repertoire in the cook-off.
"It doesn't pay to get too clever - you have to stick to what you know you can do competently. Realistically, the only person who can lose or win a competition is yourself - if you put unnecessary stress on yourself there's more chance of everything going pear-shaped," he says. "And anyway," he sheepishly admits, "I didn't practice at all before the final - I just went in blind, so I had to stick with what I knew!"
Luckily, 33-year-old Evans's culinary training and experience has equipped him to deal with the rigours of competition. With a career that has taken in stints working with Ramon Farthing - first in Bristol at Harvey's, then helping the Farthing to open his own Michelin-starred restaurant, 36 on the Quay in Emsworth, Hampshire in 1996 - and Martin Blunos at the former two-Michelin-starred Lettonie restaurant in Bath, he has a rock-solid classical technique at his fingertips.
So what did he cook in the competition? Pan-fried fillet of John Dory served with roasted lobster tail, smoked trout, glazed salsify and peas and a light shellfish cream; cream of celeriac and apple velouté, which came with whipped Pan-Ysgawn goats' cheese and chives; braised shoulder of Welsh lamb, accompanied by lentils and shallot purée, roasted Jerusalem artichokes, confit of garlic and balsamic vinaigrette jus; and, for pud, hot rhubarb with an orange soufflé - a dessert in three hits, this came as an orange soufflé, a shot glass of yogurt foam and a little dish of rhubarb crumble (see below).
Interestingly, Evans worked backwards when constructing his menu, deciding on the dessert first. Not a trained pastry chef, he nevertheless had no qualms about risking soufflé disaster, having perfected the art of this particular pudding under the eagle-eye of Farthing. "The Harvey's and 36 On the Quay brigades were small, so you ended up doing every station at some time and in my third week at Harvey's Ray put me on pastry and I just had to get on with it. We always had a soufflé on Ray's menus - anything from banana to caramel, to strawberry, to rhubarb depending on the season. It's actually the easiest thing to do in the world."
Obviously, all those hours turning out soufflés on automatic pilot paid off for Evans. Not that he was confident that he had carried off the title until his name was actually read out. "My commis was watching everyone else during the competition and kept saying ‘you've won this, you've won this' but I actually felt that I hadn't even though I knew the food was OK. Then they called out the names of the three runners-up and I didn't hear my name, so I turned to him and said ‘does this mean we've won?' just before they called me up. I was over the moon."
Of course, Evans was crowned Welsh Chef of the Year back in February and since then he has crossed the Welsh border into England, to take up the head chef role at Middlethorpe Hall in Yorkshire. "I was looking to move to a slightly smaller operation and this became an option so I jumped at the chance," he says candidly. It's early days yet, but he's busying himself ferreting out regional suppliers - "I'd like to get as much local produce in as possible" - and has set himself realistic aims for the Middlethorpe's food offering.
"I'd like to maintain the three AA rosettes that we have here, get consistency in the dishes. I'm not going to say I'm going to turn the world around because that's not what I do; gradual improvement is the way forward. Anything that comes along with that would be an extra."
In recent weeks Evans has been turning his mind to this week's Knorr National Chef of the Year title, to which he won automatic entry as the holder of the Welsh national title. There's no doubt he's got the right temperament for competitions: and as this issue hits the newsagents' shelves we'll know whether or not he's been successful in his fourth competition.
- If I could… I'd like to be Father Christmas, "cos I've got the figure for it and I'd have an endless supply of presents."
- The kitchen radio is stuck on… Radio One.
- The last CDs I bought were… The Jam's Extras and Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life (don't say it…)
- I drive… a very rare oak green Mark II Golf GTi (1991)
- I couldn't do without… sleep - and my Thermomix.
- My favourite Yorkshire supplier is… Fowlers of York (01904 421360), my fish suppliers. The cod is exceptional (and Richard had better give me some good prices now!)
- My favourite Welsh supplier is… Welsh Brothers butchers in Newport (01633 273344) for their lamb.
- The last book I read was… Chocolate Fusion by Frédéric Bau.
- My very last meal on earth would be… the 10-course gourmet menu at the French Laundry, or failing that a Domino's pepperoni passion pizza with copious amounts of alcohol.
The Welsh Culinary Association Wales's national culinary association was formed in 1993. Its remit is to raise the profile of Welsh professional cooking and produce. Under that umbrella comes its organisation of the biennial National Chef of Wales title and the Welsh Culinary Championships. The association is also responsible for putting together the Welsh National Culinary Team, which represents the country at international competitions such as the Culinary World Cup (being staged, this year, in November in Luxembourg) and for cooking at official Welsh functions such as gala dinners for visiting dignitaries to the principality.
For further information about the Welsh Culinary Association, contact Graham Tinsely, the association's culinary team manager, on 07765 404950.
Recipes from Nick EvansPan-fried John Dory, roasted lobster tail and smoked trout
Celeriac and apple soup, whipped goats' cheese and chives
Rhubarb and blood orange soufflé, rhubarb crumble, blood orange yogurt espuma