Caterer and Hotelkeeper interview – Ben Murphy

11 November 2011 by
Caterer and Hotelkeeper interview – Ben Murphy

Koffmann's commis chef Ben Murphy is on top of the world after being awarded a gold medal for cooking at WorldSkills London 2011. Lisa Jenkins asks him about the challenges involved in the competition

Congratulations on winning the gold medal at WorldSkills 2011 - how did you find the event? It was a great buzz. Cooking in front of so many people was one of the best experiences of my life. It was also the first time my family and friends had seen the standard of food I am producing - it was a great opportunity for them as well.

How much did you know about WorldSkills before entering? I knew a little bit about it from WorldSkills Calgary 2009. Adam Smith, who won gold that year, inspired me to do the same. Being chosen in the final selection in June to represent my country and compete on the live stage in front of so many people was an amazing experience for me.

How did you get into the competition? Michael Godfrey, the executive head chef at Sodexo, asked me to enter when I was still at college [competing in college-linked competitions].

Did you have any idea of the magnitude of the competition? I had a rough idea - I had watched videos on Facebook and YouTube of Adam Smith, which gave me a little insight into what the standard might be. I also competed in EuroSkills in December 2010 against 19 other contenders. I came fifth and this helped me highlight any mistakes I had made.

For anyone not familiar with WorldSkills, can you describe the event? It was a lot better than I expected. There was an amazing atmosphere and the public were very supportive. The competition test project involved tasks that had mystery elements to get you thinking and put more pressure on each competitor - you definitely need to be able to think on the spot!

What does it mean to you to have won gold? Winning gold is the best feeling I've ever had. Having my name announced in front of loads of countries at the O2 Arena and to think that I had done enough to get a medal was amazing. Getting a gold in London, my home ground, means everything. Doing my country proud feels good and makes me feel that all the hard work has paid off.

What were you asked to do across the four days and what did you cook? I had the test project prior to the competition that consisted of a goat's cheese starter, salmon and prawn starter, mystery fish entrée, oxtail consommé, duck main course, venison and pasta main course, mystery dessert, which was to follow a toffee pudding recipe, and a raspberry and dark chocolate dessert.

What was the biggest challenge for you? I had to produce a perfectly clear oxtail consommé with no grease or scum on the top - that was definitely the most difficult dish.

How did you prepare for the event - not just the cooking but also the stress, the public interest and the schedule? I dealt with the stress well as I had plenty of practice. My training manager, Michael Godfrey, always advised me to stick to what I know to achieve a better outcome. For me this meant sticking to what I was comfortable with and confident to produce. I practised away from my work at Sodexo too, so I was able to focus on the competition dishes without distraction.

Did you learn any new skills that you have taken back to Koffmann's? I learnt a variety of new skills, mainly linked to plating up. Every country has a different style of producing the quality ingredients that were supplied in the competition. It was good to see the techniques and the quick ways of doing things with the ingredients from the test project list. It will definitely benefit me in the future.

What's next for you? Do you have your eye on any other competitions? I have the Craft Guild of Chefs Academy Parade to look forward to and the Culinary Olympics next year.

Do you have any advice for future competitors? Take every opportunity. I learnt so much from the WorldSkills process. Michael Godfrey also played a big part - as my training manager he helped point me in the right direction and gave me feedback about dishes and access to his equipment and time to help me deliver a good result.

What more needs to be done to raise industry awareness of WorldSkills? We need more advertising in magazines and posters around colleges for people below the age of 23. It would be great to get it promoted on television and in newspapers too.

The employer Pierre Koffmann, Pierre Koffmann at the Berkeley

Were you involved in preparing Ben for the competition and how did you help? I did spend a lot of time with Ben, practising for WorldSkills at work, but Ben is a self-starter and very motivated and passionate about the business. Ben and I also went to a UK Skills reception at Buckingham Palace, which was a very enjoyable evening.

How proud are you of Ben's success? Ben is a lovely young man and he has a bright future ahead of him. I am hugely proud of his accomplishments at WorldSkills. He is a talented chef and I am very pleased to mentor him and have him on my team at Koffmann's.

Would you put another member of the Koffmann's team through to WorldSkills, with all the commitment it requires? It is up to the individual, as it has to come from them. If they are passionate about it and really want to do it, I would always fully support them.

How did you help Ben celebrate? We are still celebrating and will host a reception for him with all his peers in honour of his big win. When he is ready to move on, I will make sure I help him find a great place where he can continue his career.

The training manager and Worldskills judge Michael Godfrey, executive head chef, Sodexo

Did everything go to plan at WorldSkills? Yes, I'd say so. Ben did an excellent job, as due to the subjective nature of food and cooking, it can be challenging to pitch dishes that are well received by judges from 32 other countries. The support from my employer, Sodexo, was fantastic and really helped us focus on the competition. Their commitment is clear through the support I was given in the run up to the competition and the time out from my day job to focus on supporting Ben and Team UK.

Were there any particular highs and lows? The best part was watching Ben display a huge amount of talent, determination and skill during the four-day competition and knowing that he was certainly deserving of a gold medal.

As for lows, on the last day of the competition you have to read through the judges' marks and sign them off to make sure that you agree they are all fair. I had taken extensive notes throughout the competition so I knew Ben was worthy of a gold but I was worried that he had only been awarded a silver. As you can imagine, I was very relieved when we received confirmation of the gold.

How did you manage Ben's nerves? Ben had practised being filmed so that he could review his own performance and learn from his actions. He had also taken part in some high profile competitions with his college and with the Craft Guild Academy, which really helped. Although the enormity of WorldSkills London was intense, his nerves on competition days were calmed with a little chef humour between the two of us.

Can you give us an insight into the judging process? It is really quite complex. Judges are broken down into teams to assess certain aspects of the competition, such as preparation, blind tasting and hygiene. Hygiene has eight areas alone and judges have to look at things like uniform, bad habits, floors and fridges. There are number of judges for each area and judging is done using flash cards that give competitors marks from one to 10. The difference between a medal really can be as tight as 0.01 of a mark.

How can we further raise the awareness of WorldSkills in hospitality? By further promoting the WorldSkills forums via Twitter and Facebook or via one of the many chef, pastry chef and service societies and associations, such as the Craft Guild of Chefs or the Academy of Culinary Arts.

How does a competitor get involved? There are many paths to getting involved, either via colleges or national salons like Hotelympia, Hospitality Week or the Wessex Salon Culinaire.

How will winning the gold affect Ben's career? He will go on to be part of the Craft Guild of Chefs culinary academy parade team, which is a team of young chefs who will run a kitchen but also promote competition cookery and cookery as a career path. There will also be opportunities for him to compete at a number of high-profile competitions, such as National Young Chef of the Year, the Roux Scholarship and Young Chef Young Waiter.

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