Last month, Tom Barnes, sous chef at L'Enclume, won the 2014 Roux Scholarship. Neil Gerrard was there to watch the competition unfold, while Amanda Afiya catches up with the winner
It's a dish most of the chefs here - all of them under the age of 30 - have probably never seen before. Even the judges themselves admit they haven't prepared the dish in decades, while Alain Roux concedes, with the flicker of a smile, that the timing is "pushing it" although he also insists it is still "do-able".
It's not for nothing that Michel Roux Sr later likens the contest, now in its 31st year, to the Grand National of culinary competitions.
It demands so much of the competitors -not just a considerable technical ability, but also a working knowledge of the recipes and style of Escoffier, as well as the level head required to stay calm and focused despite being faced with an unfamiliar dish the like of which they have probably never prepared before. And all the while, they have some of the best chefs this country has ever produced peering over their shoulders, clipboards in hand.
And yet if it is like the Grand National, the Roux family still doesn't want to see anyone falling at the fences. "We don't ant them to fail. We want them to dish up a dish that is worthy and good," explains Michel Roux Jr.
"The last thing we want is for someone to produce something that is a complete and utter failure - we put them in this situation and we want them to do well."
For the most part, the finalists seem to cope remarkably well. Each of them is assisted ably by their own commis chef (provided by Westminster Kingsway College, which hosts the finals), their nervous energy is channelled into rapid movements and gestures, stiffly bowed heads and facial expressions of intense concentration.
It is a much quieter kitchen than you might expect too, with instructions almost whispered to their commis, and the judges near silent while they go around inspecting each finalist - it is only when they return to the pass that they permit themselves a few goodnatured comments with their fellow judges.
If the judges spend quite a bit of time prowling around the kitchen, it is because they are looking for far more than what ends up on the platter at the end of the competition, as Alain Roux explains: "We check their notes, their workflow, the method of how they are going to produce the dish and what they are trying to achieve at the end," he explains. "We want
to see if it is feasible, well-organised, and if they maybe change their mind during the recipe - although that is no big issue if they make sure they do the things properly."
What Gary Rhodes finds interesting about the process is the different ways the finalists perceive a dish that they have never encountered before - often arriving at the final result from very different directions.
"Although they are taken from the same classic recipe, six different styles emerge, not only in the way they work, but also how they visualise the dish," he says. "You can see that one or two are automatically working in a more classic manner and understanding the recipe, while others haven't quite taken it in yet."
And there's an awful lot to take in - as is highlighted later on when, during the evening reception and awards presentation at London's Mandarin Oriental hotel, a video of Alain Roux and Michel Roux Jr demonstrating the intricacies of the dish draws gasps from the audience - an audience made up of quite a few Michelin-starred chefs.
There are a number of potential pitfalls: making sure that its preparation is timed correctly and that not too many precious
minutes are spent over the presentation of the outside of the chartreuse to the detriment of the flavours; making sure the key elements of the dish - the cabbage and quail - stand out and are cooked properly and in the right quantity; creating the right consistency for the mousse to ensure that the chartreuse doesn't collapse.
Eventually, the moment of truth draws closer, heralded by the increasingly insistent beep of digital timers across the kitchen, and a few flushed faces. One of the most nervewracking moments is reserved for the plating up, which occurs at 10-minute intervals.
If turning out the chartreuse from the mould were not cause enough for tension, watching finalists lift it and transfer it to the platter - in some cases with just a couple of steel spatulas separating their painstaking creations from the waiting floor and culinary oblivion - is almost unbearable. At one point Alain Roux begins to watch one of the finalists undertake
the process but eventually spins on his heels, blows out his cheeks and declares to one of the organisers that he "can't watch".
Thankfully, any obvious disasters are averted and all the plates are dispatched to their destination - the roomful of judges. It later emerges that L'Enclume's Tom Barnes is crowned the winner. The standard of competitors was high, but
Michel Roux Sr later explains that some of them struggled getting the balance of the dish right.
"A couple of them could have used more of the cabbage and cooked the cabbage longer - that was the main problem. Chartreuse is a cabbage dish, anything else is garnish," he explains.
Andrew Fairlie said he was surprised that all the finalists coped well with the most difficult parts of the dish - such as lining the mould with the quail mousse - but then struggled with some of the seemingly simpler tasks.
"It was some of the more straightforward cooking techniques that let them down - some undercooked the sweetbreads or the quail."
The judges were full of praise for Barnes - and it was perhaps his additional experience that ultimately helped him secure the title of Roux Scholar 2014.
Hopefully 2015 will see those finalists who didn't quite make it come back for another attempt and demonstrate their considerable skill in this - one of the UK's most prestigious and toughest culinary competitions.
After all, as Fairlie puts it: "It was a really, really difficult task. I know that all the judges said they were glad they didn't have to do it!"
•Albert Roux, chair of judges and founder of the Roux Scholarship
•Michel Roux Sr, chair of judges and founder of the Roux Scholarship
•Michel Roux Jr, chef-patron, Le Gavroche, London
•Alain Roux, chef-patron, the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire
•Andrew Fairlie, chef-patron, Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, Auchterarder, and Roux Scholar 1984
•Brian Turner, chef-restaurateur Gary Rhodes, chef-restaurateur
•David Nicholls, director of food and beverage, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group
•James Martin, chef-restaurateur and TV presenter
•Angela Hartnett, chef-restaurateur
ROUX SCHOLARSHIP PRIZES
•A day's work experience with Steve Groves, MasterChef: The Professionals winner, at Roux at Parliament Square, followed by dinner for two, courtesy of Restaurant Associates.
•An exclusive magnum of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, signed by all the judges.
•An all-expenses-paid trip for two to the wine cellars of Laurent-Perrier at Tours-sur-Marne, including a guided tour and a tasting of the Laurent-Perrier range. Travel by Eurostar and overnight accommodation.
•An invitation for two to Rick Stein's in Padstow including two nights' accommodation at either the Seafood Restaurant or St Petroc's hotel, dinner with wine at the Seafood Restaurant and two places on a one-day cookery course at Padstow Seafood School, courtesy of Bridor.
•A trip for two to visit the Caffé Musetti roasting factory in Milan with flights, transfers and one night's accommodation, courtesy of L'Unico.
•A subscription to Caterer and Hotelkeeper's print and digital editions for one year, plus two tickets to the Cateys 2014.
•A Global Knives collection of 10-12 knives, plus whetstone and various accessories.
•A voucher for three cases of Hildon Natural Mineral Water plus a set of six Hildon glasses.
•A day's work experience and dinner for two in Kikkoman's partner restaurant the Matsuri in London's Mayfair, courtesy of Kikkoman.
•A copy of both editions of the Bridor Meilleur Ouvrier de France recipe books.
•A meal for two including wine at one of butcher Fairfax Meadow's top customers.
•Registration on the Best Practice Forum's Professional Hospitality Management Development Programme in conjunctionwith the University of West London.
•One year's complimentary membership of the Institute of Hospitality.
•A Thermomix TM31, courtesy of Thermomix.
•Two personalised Roux Scholarship chef's jackets, courtesy of Bragard, distributed by Simon Jersey.
David White Barclays Wealth (ISS), London
David Salt BNY Mellon (Restaurant Associates), London
Sabrina Gidda AIG Group London (Restaurant Associates), London
Tom Barnes L'Enclume, Cumbria (winner)
Scott Dineen Goldman Sachs (BaxterStorey), London
Richard Pascoe Oulton Hall, West Yorkshire
TOM BARNES' CAREER TO DATE
Cumbrian born and bred, Tom Barnes is savouring his role as sous chef at one of the most successful restaurants in Britain, owned and run by Simon Rogan and Penny Tapsell.
However, Barnes hasn't always worked in Cumbria, choosing to travel and work throughout the country before re-establishing
his roots in his native county.
Having studied at Lancaster and Morecambe College and worked as an apprentice at the Lakeside hotel in Newby Bridge, also in
Cumbria, Barnes journeyed south to the two-Michelin-starred kitchens of John Campbell and head chef Peter Eaton at the Vineyard at Stockcross. He joined as commis chef and within two years was promoted to chef de partie.
In April 2009 Barnes headed to the capital to take on the role of chef de partie at the Square in Mayfair, giving him the opportunity to work with an equally talented brigade, that of Philip Howard and Robert Weston. However, when his father was taken ill, just a year into his tenure at the Square, Barnes returned home to Cumbria and in January 2011 he was fortunate to secure the role of chef de partie at L'Enclume. With great experience under his belt, he quickly climbed the ranks, first becoming junior sous chef and then sous chef six months ago.
"It's great to have been working as part of Simon's team during the period in which it won two Michelin stars and the perfect 10 in The Good Food Guide," says Barnes.
"It's been brilliant, and with Simon away a bit more [overseeing the running of the French and Mr Cooper's at the Midland in Manchester, as well as Fera at Claridge's in London, which opened this week], I have had the opportunity to run the kitchen a lot more than I did at first."
Working at L'Enclume meant Barnes was surrounded by incredible talent to help him succeed in the Roux Scholarship. Not only was head chef Mark Birchall the 2011 winner, but the company also includes 2008 winner Dan Cox, who joined L'Enclume as director of Rogan's development kitchen Aulis in 2011 and who has now taken the role of head chef of Fera.
And let's not forget that Freddy Forster, head chef of the Boundary in London, took the title in 2000 while working as sous chef to Rogan.
"It was Mark who told me to enter last year," says Barnes, "and having got to the final last year, I thought I might have a chance." While Barnes feels he may have had a "little advantage" competing for the second year running ("I knew how intense it was going to be"), he was relieved that the TV cameras weren't filming (as was the case last year) when the daunting recipe was unveiled at the final.
"I'd never seen it before - I was pretty nervous. But I told myself to stay calm, I read the recipe a few times and then compared it to the entry in Larousse - then I had a rough idea of what I should be doing.
"I was worried about the timing. I had to get everything prepped before I built the chartreuse up. I knew I had to get the work order right, and I knew that layering the vegetables to line the Charlotte mould would take time."
But when he had finished - having only seen the complete work of one other competitor as he was drawn to present fifth - all he could think about was what he had done wrong.
So how did he feel when his name was read out that night? "I was ecstatic, really shocked and really happy!"
For his prize three-month stage, Barnes is still unsure where he will go, but he has expressed an interest in Peter Goossens' restaurant Hof Van Cleve in Kruishoutem, Belgium, which has a score of 19.5/20 in Gault & Millau in addition
to its three Michelin stars, or Sven Elverfeld's Aqua at the Ritz-Carlton in Wolfsburg, Germany, currently ranked 28 in the World's 50 Best Restaurants and also the holder of three stars.
"I would like to work in a relatively small brigade so I have a better chance of getting involved," says Barnes. "I remember reading about Hof Van Cleve years ago and thought I would love to go there one day - so I would love to spend three months there."
COMMENTS FROM THE JUDGES
On winner Tom Barnes
"I think Tom was the definite winner, there is no doubt about that. He stood out above all the rest, but then again I know of very few people who win this competition at their first attempt. I think the fact that he had entered before stood him in good stead - he managed to hold his nerve and he kept calm. The first half hour and the last half hour are crucial in
a competition, and I could see he was very methodical in how he went about things. That area was what let him down in the past, but he has moved up a level in terms of the competition and has certainly learned."
"It is great to see a repeat finalist and it is great to see he had enough guts to enter, and not only to enter, but he won hands down. It was a clean, wonderful piece of work, and I am very proud of him. When you have been to the final before, it can work for you or against you. Either 8you think: 'What am I doing here again?' or you think: 'This time it is going to be mine.' He was working at the same speed all the way through, well organised, and he did what he knew in his mind he wanted to do."
Michel Roux Sr
"Undeniably, Tom stood out as the clear and deserving winner. The fact that he was a previous finalist showed in the ease and confidence he displayed but he still focused well on his preparation and cooking in the kitchen. He understood the recipe we asked him to prepare and he constructed an excellent chartreuse complete with outside decoration using various vegetables. His ingredients and garnish, including the choux buns stuffed with creamed spinach, were excellent, and his grape sauce was the best produced by the finalists. His win is well deserved and we welcome him as the 2014 Roux Scholar."
On the Chartreuse
"The two main things in this dish are the quail and of course the cabbage, so those are the main things you want to shine through. Everything else needs to enhance and add another dimension. Otherwise, the danger is that it becomes, for want of a better expression, a little bag of liquorice allsorts."
"This tested the competitors more than any other years. It was such a classical dish. It is 30 years since I have ever had to do one or seen one, and generally we had to do it for a cold buffet. I know that a lot of the finalists struggled with it. Luckily for them they all brought a Larousse so they all had some idea of how to construct it. I think a lot of them struggled just with the construction of the thing. What surprised me was that the difficult parts of it, I think they all got - lining the mould with the quail mousse - but it was some of the basic, more straightforward cooking techniques that let them down. Some undercooked the sweetbreads or the quail."
"When you take it out it looks stunning, doesn't collapse, the cabbage has got to be cooked fully, with just the right the amount of mousse to hold it all together. We gave them an extra 15 minutes because it needs about 15 minutes resting time once it has been poached. Otherwise if you turn it out too quickly, even if it is perfect, it does tend to collapse."
Michel Roux Jr
"I have been doing this for six years and this is definitely the toughest dish in that time. It is one of those things where if you actually understand what it is supposed to look like, you will do all right but it is very difficult. It epitomises the techniques needed to win the Roux Scholarship. Not many of these kids, particularly at their age, will have seen this dish before."
THE CHALLENGE: CHARTRUESE OF QUAIL AND SWEETBREADS WITH GRAPE SAUCE
Recipe from the Roux family, inspired by Escoffier
For the chartreuse
Six whole "oven-ready" quails
(weighing approx 180g each)
300g veal sweetbreads
Two large Savoy cabbages
150g Brussels sprouts
Two cloves of garlic
One Spanish onion
Six large green courgettes
250g unsalted butter
100ml groundnut oil
Four large turnips
One large white mouli
Four large donkey carrots
200g duck fat
300ml dry white wine
200g blanched, unsmoked
One Morteau sausage
For the seasonings
For the choux buns
150ml whole milk
100g unsalted butter
200g plain flour
Six medium eggs
250g baby spinach leaves
400ml double cream
For the grape sauce
Two normal shallots
500g seedless white grapes
200ml dry white wine
150ml brown chicken jus
One loose celery stick
Method To be prepared and cooked within 2 hours 45 minutes and to serve four people. Line a Charlotte mould with vegetables in the chartreuse style and fill this mainly with cabbage, quail, sweetbreads and Morteau sausage, all prepared and cooked to your liking. Cook in the oven "au bain marie". Demould on a suitable dish with four choux buns filled with creamed spinach and serve accompanied with a grape sauce.