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2011 Roux Scholarship: Mark Birchall on winning the prestigious prize

03 May 2011 by
2011 Roux Scholarship: Mark Birchall on winning the prestigious prize

Last week Mark Birchall, head chef at the Michelin-starred L'Enclume in Cartmel, Cumbria, became this year's Roux Scholar, after his fourth attempt at the title. Kerstin Kühn finds out what set him apart from the others

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. This seems to be the mantra of this year's Roux Scholar, Mark Birchall, who last week won the prestigious cookery competition in his fourth attempt at the title.

The head chef at Simon Rogan's Michelin-starred L'Enclume restaurant in Cartmel, Cumbria, says it was a matter of now or never. "Having done it before just made me want it even more this time, especially since it was my last shot because I'll be too old next year. I'm so chuffed my hard work paid off," he says.

Birchall impressed the judges with his technical ability and the flavours of his final dish, which stood out above those of his five competing chefs after a two-and-a-half hour cook-off in the kitchens of Westminster Kingsway College. On the menu was veal Orloff, an unusual and complex dish of French and Russian origin from Larousse Gastronomique.

Birchall's 2011 Roux Scholarship journey began when he submitted his monkfish recipe for four people, accompanied by a rice dish and a green vegetable - monkfish with crispy chicken, mussel and wild garlic risotto, Howbarrow leeks and celeriac. It impressed the judges enough to put him through to the regional finals, where he battled it out with five other hopefuls in the Birmingham heat (12 chefs competed in the London regional final).

"When we were told about the ingredients for the regional finals I worked really hard at my dish and practised it about four or five times to make sure I had it absolutely right," says Birchall. The hard work paid off. "Mark's monkfish dish was absolutely fantastic," enthuses judge James Martin, restaurateur and presenter of the BBC's Saturday Kitchen. "His seasoning was bang on, there was real depth of flavour and you simply couldn't fault his dish; it was perfect."

Back at the national final and the six chefs are tasked with cooking veal Orloff served with kidney on skewers, stuffed vegetables and truffle jus. "We always choose a dish that celebrates the glory of the past," explains judge Michel Roux. "Everything runs in cycles and it's very important that chefs know the great dishes of yesteryear because it's thanks to their creators that we are where we are today."

Dating back to the 1850s, veal Orloff certainly epitomises classic French haute cuisine. In its most elaborate form, a saddle of veal is roasted, with its two cylindrical pieces of meat then carefully removed from the bones and evenly sliced. The slices are then placed back into the bones with a mixture of truffle, soubise and duxelles of mushrooms in between them. All the meat is then covered with a soubise and béchamel mixture, sprinkled with cheese and breadcrumbs, reheated in the oven and browned under the grill before being served. For the Roux Scholarship final, competitors are presented with a best end of veal, which they have to trim before roasting.

Judge David Nicholls, director of food and beverage at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, says the recipe is a really difficult one to understand. "If you hadn't done it before, it's a very tough dish to cook," he admits. "But it's not impossible if you read and comprehend the recipe and that was the problem - most of the finalists didn't truly comprehend it."

Birchall agrees: "I had never seen the dish before. I read the recipe but only really understood it once I started cooking it."

As far the actual cooking of the dish is concerned, Roux explains there are numerous obstacles. "The biggest challenge with this dish is the butchery work. If this isn't done properly the meat will not cook well," he says. "These days lot of meat and fish comes already portioned and filleted but chefs need to have these skills. The Roux Scholarship is a master competition and with this dish we are asking the finalists to be real cooks."

Over the next two-and-a-half hours the kitchens are abuzz with chefs frantically trying to get the dish right and towards the end it becomes evident few of the finalists have really understood the dish. "The biggest challenge is that this is a dish they don't know," says Nicholls. "They had to make sure that they read and re-read the recipe so that they fully understand it and follow it. It seems to me that quite a few of them have not done this."

Eventually the final plates of food are presented to the judges. In the judging room the chefs roam between the platters, forks primed; tasting and deliberating before the more serious debate begins. Just 15 minutes later a decision is reached. "Mark was the clear winner. It was a quick and unanimous decision, which made it fairly easy for us," says Michel Roux Jnr.

Birchall's prizes are numerous, amounting to more than £10,000. He will receive £5,000 from the Savoy Educational Trust to further his education; a week's paid work experience in New York courtesy of Restaurant Associates; an expenses-paid trip to Champagne Gosset in Ay; and a trip to the Caffe Musetti roasting factory in Milan. He will also be admitted into the elite club of Roux Scholars including the likes of Michelin-starred industry heavyweights Andrew Fairlie, Sat Bains, André Garrett and Simon Hulstone.

Birchall is over the moon. "It feels really great to have won at last and like a massive achievement," he says. "It was a hard day so to come out top in the end is amazing."

One question remains: as the judges decided so quickly, what set Birchall so clearly apart from the other competitors?

"Mark won on flavour," says Nicholls. "Everything he cooked was well balanced and well seasoned. He presented the judges with a dish that was delicious - we all wanted to go back and eat a little bit more."

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THE JUDGES

Michel Roux, owner, the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire
Alain Roux, chef-patron, the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire
Michel Roux Jnr, chef-patron, Le Gavroche, London
James Martin, restaurateur and TV presenter
David Nicholls, director of food and beverage, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group
Brian Turner, president, Academy of Culinary Arts
Gary Rhodes, chef-restaurateur

THE FINALISTS

Mark Birchall, L'Enclume, Cartmel, Cumbria (winner)
Richard Edwards, Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa, Wiltshire
Pramod Ghadge, Restaurant Associates, London
Nick Whatmough, Restaurant Associates, Barclays Wealth, London
Neven Vanderzee, Galvin At Windows, London
Quinton Bennett, Haymarket Hotel, London

MARK BIRCHALL'S CAREER TO DATE

Born in Chorley, Lancashire, Mark Birchall studied catering and hospitality at Runshaw College while working part-time at a local hotel.

In 1999, he had the opportunity of working with legendary chef Franco Taruschio at the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny as a demi chef de partie. Working under Roger Brook (who works alongside Shaun Hill as head chef of the Walnut Tree today), Birchall says the experience was a formative one.

"It was a really nice place to work. It was busy, the food was rustic and the flavours were amazing. Despite his age, Franco was in the kitchen every day and I learnt so much from him and Roger. They opened my mind to different foods, how to season correctly, for example," he explains.

Birchall worked there for 18 months before moving to Nigel Haworth and Craig Bancroft's Northcote where he started as demi chef and worked his way up to sous chef under the then head chef, 1999 Young Chef winner Warwick Dodds.

"It was a great place to work - I really learnt how to cook meat, fish and sauce," says Birchall.

In July 2004 he moved to Haighton Manor in Preston, where he took on his first head chef's position, a role he held for one year. In October 2005, he returned to Northcote, working briefly with 2010 Great British Menu winner Lisa Allen as sous chef before joining Simon Rogan's L'Enclume as sous chef. He was made head chef of the restaurant, which boasts one Michelin star, five AA rosettes and 8/10 in The Good Food Guide, three years ago.

"L'Enclume introduced me to something totally new," he explains.

"When I first came here the food was quite avant-garde - we were using syringes, spherifications. It wasn't around so much then, but we've gone full circle now; we're more regional, it's not as wacky as it was. We spent a lot of time looking at technique then, now it's all about ingredients, buying food from just down the road, creating a great farm-to-plate sort of feeling."

Although Birchall hasn't decided where he will be spending his stage, he is aware that wherever he goes will have a massive influence on him and the food he is likely to be serving in his future career.

"A few people have advised me to go to the USA but I'm not sure yet," he says.

"There are a few places I'd be interested in, like El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain; or Alain Ducasse or Pierre Gagnaire in Paris. I will need to think about which restaurant would benefit me and my career the most and then make a decision. But Can Roca stands out.

"It's been a dream of mine to win this award and its influence will be significant. I've been at L'Enclume for five years now, so I know that the next major step will be to cook my own food."

Roasted best end of veal Orloff style, kidney on skewered and stuffed vegetables, truffle jus

Recipe from Larousse Gastronomique

Veal Orloff - also called veal Prince Orloff, veal Orlov or veal Prince Orlov - is a 19th century French-Russian dish of unclear origin but, in its original form, still a lasting symbol of classic French haute cuisine.

In its most elaborate form, a saddle of veal (also called a double loin of veal) is roasted. Its two cylindrical pieces of meat are then carefully removed from the bones and cut into uniform slices. The slices are then placed back into the bones with a mixture of soubise and duxelles of mushrooms in between each slice and a few truffle slices.

All the meat is then covered with a soubise and béchamel mixture. It is then sprinkled with cheese and breadcrumbs, reheated in the oven and browned under the grill before being served.

Ingredients

(Serves four; preparation time two-and-a-half hours). Quantities need to be adapted to your liking.

e_SFlbFor the veal
1 best end of veal, approx 4kg (5 bones)
Butter
2 carrots
1 celery stick
700g button mushrooms
800g onions (preferably Roscoff)
1 lemon
1 bunch of curly parsley
100g flour
500ml milk
6 eggs
1 small truffle (40g)
80g Parmesan, grated
200g brioche crumbs

For the kidney
(Makes 2 skewers)
1 veal kidney in suet (approx 1kg)
400g unsmoked streaky slab bacon

For the stuffed vegetables
Only 3 varieties are needed; 4 pieces of each (some ingredients are optional)
12 artichokes "poivrade"
8 onions (preferably "Roscoff")
2 cucumbers
6 courgettes
4 shallots
200g long-grain rice
4 eggs
1/2 bunch of curly parsley
Thyme/bay leaves

For the jus
200ml dry white wine
600ml veal stock

For the potato Duchesse, for the presentation tray (optional)
5 large Desiree potatoes
Rock salt
4 eggs
2 bunches of watercress

Q&A with last year's Roux Scholar, kenneth culhane

Kenneth Culhane, a sous chef at contract caterer BaxterStorey, was the 2010 Roux Scholar who decided to spend his winning stage at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's three-Michelin-starred Jean-Georges restaurant in New York. Kerstin Kühn caught up with him

Has winning the Roux Scholarship last year changed your career?

It definitely opens doors, and gives you a great opportunity to push your work forward. It's an enormous advantage in New York and I'm finding a greater eagerness from chefs to share information and techniques. It's also helped me set up stages in some of the other great restaurants here in New York on my days off.

What has been the biggest highlight since winning it?

There have been numerous highlights, but it's the realisation that it's not just about winning a competition on the day, and it's a prize that keeps giving. The Roux Scholar Club is a great forum for education, and the biannual food trips are immense - the next one is planned for Japan.

Why did you choose Jean-Georges for your stage?

I wanted to do my stage in New York and Jean-Georges was the restaurant that stood out for me, with his intelligent use of French and Asian techniques. My experience of the restaurant has been very positive, the chefs and staff are very willing to share creative thoughts and inspirations.

What have been your responsibilities?

The chef Mark Lapico has been very constructive and wants me to become part of the team during my stage. This means that I'm involved in the full processes in the kitchen, including preparation, cooking and plating, which is great for a three-star Michelin environment.

Have you come across any new techniques or ingredients?

The cooking is very fresh and pure; there is almost no use of jus or meat stocks and instead there's a preference for herbal teas, broths, vinaigrettes and infusions. The careful balance and respect of Asian techniques in the cooking is outstanding.

What do you think makes a three-star Michelin establishment?

It's really about the synergy of the team that helps continuously create this level of hospitality. I'm learning that the food is only a small part of this performance.

What has been the highlight of your time in New York?

Living in New York is really superb; it's a great city for food and culture. I've spent the past few weeks tracking down the best pizza in the city and John's pizzeria, Grimaldi's in Brooklyn and Lombardi's have been the best. We've also had some really great sushi at Sushi of Gari on 46th Street. But the standout meal so far has to be the tasting lunch that I had with Michel Roux at Jean-Georges; it was incredible.

How is the restaurant scene different in New York compared with London?

The real difference is the number of customers in this city. For example, I'm working at Spice Market this weekend on my day off, where they can do up to 1,000 covers a day - it's a massive logistical operation. New York restaurants also stay open later than London ones, with people ordering tasting menus well past midnight.

Why do you think competitions like the Roux Scholarship are important?

It's a unique prize as it gives the winner a chance to work in any three-star Michelin restaurant in the world, an experience that can shape your perspective on cooking and teaching as a chef. Competitions are a great development process; you always learn something new.

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