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Chef interview: Paul O'Neill, winner of the 2013 Roux Scholarship

22 November 2013 by
Chef interview: Paul O'Neill, winner of the 2013 Roux Scholarship

Paul O'Neill, winner of the 2013 Roux Scholarship, swapped his post as senior sous chef at Ashdown Park hotel for a stage working in Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire in Paris. He tells Neil Gerrard how he rose to the challenge

How much time have you been able to spend on your stage in Paris? The first stint was about seven weeks. After that, I went home for two weeks and then went back for five because they shut over August. I tried to do it as quickly as possible because my girlfriend was due to have a baby in October. That has made it quite a bit harder because she works at my hotel in the kitchen, so it has been difficult for her.

What responsibilities were you given in the kitchen?

What have you learnt from it?
I have learnt a lot about the way the chefs treat the kitchens, about ingredients and about individual dishes and cooking techniques - it all sort of blends in together, really.
The way that they clean after every service - I have never seen that in any kitchen I have ever worked in. If I cleaned my equipment like that it wouldn't go wrong as often. You could eat your dinner off the stoves after a service. In England you clean, but not to the extent that they do here.

What other differences did you notice working in Pierre Gagnaire's restaurant?
Ingredients-wise, nothing comes in prepped. In the kitchens I have experienced in England, your fish comes in scaled or filleted, but nothing here comes in with anything done to it - the ducks come in with all the feathers on, the fish comes in whole. So you know that if you are doing 30-40 covers on a night, you start at 7am and you will only just be ready for service.

What was the biggest challenge?
The language. Everything is in French, so you need 110% concentration the whole time. In the kitchen at home you can switch off for a bit while you prep for a couple of hours, but in Paris it is constant. You need to concentrate and it can be quite draining.

And what have you enjoyed the most?
I spent a week on the meat, and that was probably the best week I had there. But the whole thing has been a good experience and I have met quite a few good guys - hopefully people that I will keep in touch with afterwards.

What is your plan now the stage has finished? I have come back to Ashdown Park. I promised them I would stay for a year because they paid me while I was out there, so I will stay for a year with them and then we will see.

What is your ambition?
I would like my own restaurant. A country pub would be ideal, but for now security is the main thing with a young family, so I will look for a head chef's job in a small hotel or
restaurant and see where I go from there.

I have been a senior sous at Ashdown for nearly three years, so that would have been my next step anyway if it hadn't been for the Roux Scholarship, and I think that will just push it on to better opportunities.

How much have you seen of Gagnaire himself? He was in quite a lot. Some weeks he would be there for the whole week, and then other weeks he wouldn't be there at all - but he has so many other restaurants around the world.

Why did you choose him specifically? I just like his outlook on food: cooking withthe past and classics in mind, but with modern techniques and modern flavour combinations as well. I haven't experienced much of that
in England, so it was nice to come and see something a bit different.

What is like to be part of the Roux family?
It is incredible. It is quite weird when Michel rings me up in the afternoon when I am asleep, and I am like: "who's that?" The whole experience has been very surreal. Until you have time to sit down and think about it, it is quite difficult to let it all sink in.

Michel and Alain Roux on Paul O'Neill, the Roux Scholarship and TV

What did you think of Paul O'Neill's choice of Pierre Gagnaire?
Michel Sr:
It is a very astute choice. Gagnaire still does French cooking with very classic techniques, but it is very eclectic as well. He moves with the times; his cooking never stays still. He is international now, much more than he used to be. He has quite a few restaurants around the world, and he is a man in our industry whose knowledge as a whole package is seldom - not many people can match him.

He is not only a thinker, he is a doer, and I think Paul will have learned a lot by choosing him.

Paul has not just had his stage to contend with, but also with the fact that his girlfriend was due to have a baby almost as soon as it ended. How do you think he has coped?
Michel Sr:
Because Paul's girlfriend was expecting a baby, and because Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire closes in August, Paul came out to Paris for about six or eight weeks in June and July, went back to the UK in August, and then came back for September to finish his few weeks left.

It is the first time this has happened. Normally my three-Michelin-starred colleagues don't like to see a stagiaire going and then picking the stage back up again - they like to kill it in one. But Paul seems to have been a revelation, and I am not surprised. He has got a great destiny. He will certainly be a one- to two-star for Michelin to watch in the next few years in the UK.

This is the 30th year of the scholarship and in that time you have offered your scholars stages in any three-star restaurant without any of them telling you that it wasn't possible - how have you managed to have such a good relationship with these restaurants?
Michel Sr: Because people look at the name Roux, the two brothers, and my reputation for keeping he three stars for 28 years, writing books, and doing my promotion around the world.

I have been what I call one of the solid ones. If I give my word to someone I don't mess up, so there is quite simply a respect for what I have done and what I am doing, and people are always happy to be associated with that.

We trained a lot of young chefs who now work in two- or three-star Michelins. The name Roux is almost an institution and it means a lot to us.

This was the first year you had the competition televised on the Watch Channel. Will that happen every year? Alain: The scholarship is not really something that is a prime thing to do on television. Last year's show was a wonderful celebration of our 30th anniversary and it was excellent for
the profile of the scholarship. Television is the top of any kind of communication, so it does help boost applications, but our competition is really for professionals.

It can be difficult because television is also a business, and while we want to evolve, we don't want the entertainment to be more important than the cooking. This year the competition will not be televised. That's not to say we won't do it again in the future, but annually is too much.

Roux Scholarship 2014
If you think you have what it takes to become the next Roux Scholar, you have until 27 January 2014 to enter. This year's competition is open to entrants who are in full-time employment as a chef in the UK and who will be aged between 22 and 30 on 1 February 2014.

Entrants will need to submit a recipe for four people before 27 January using:

•One saddle of venison 'fallow buck', weighing 1.4 kg-1.6 kg untrimmed, to be served plated and accompanied by two garnishes*.

One garnish must include Jerusalem artichoke, with the other to be of the entrant's choice.

A sauce must accompany the dish.

Entrants will not be allowed to use or bring any pre-prepared stock or sauce whatsoever for the meat or vegetable dish, and none will be provided.The competition will be judged by Michel and Albert Roux and their sons Alain and Michel Jr, as well as a line-up of other high-profile chefs including Andrew Fairlie, the first scholar to win the competition, Angela Hartnett, James Martin, David Nicholls, Gary Rhodes and Brian Turner.

The judges will select the best 18 recipes from those submitted. These contestants will be invited to cook their dish, along with a 'mystery box' dessert challenge, at regional finals to be held in Birmingham and London on Thursday 20 March 2014.The winner receives an all-expenses-paid, three-month stage at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant anywhere in the world,
as well as a number of unique prizes all related to food and hospitality.

The final will be held in London on Monday 14 April 2014 and the winner will be announced at an awards ceremony at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park on the same evening.

Full details of the competition and the entry process are available on the website at www.rouxscholarship.co.uk.

The Roux Scholarship is supported by companies including: Bridor, Caterer and Hotelkeeper, Direct Seafoods, Fairfax Meadow, Global Knives, Hildon, Kikkoman, Laurent Perrier, L'Unico Caffe Musetti, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, Restaurant Associates and Virgin Atlantic Airways.

Pierre Gagnaire
Pierre Gagnaire
Pierre Gagnaire on Paul O'Neill, the Roux Scholarship and why the French need to learn to share

With so many accolades under his belt and a reputation as a fiery culinary iconoclast, it would be easy to expect a certain amount of arrogance from Pierre Gagnaire - but not a bit of it.

There are few better-known or more celebrated chefs in the world than Gagnaire. One of the masters of French cuisine, he holds three Michelin stars at his eponymous Paris restaurant and operates restaurants across the globe in locations as far-flung as Las Vegas, Moscow, Hong Kong and Dubai.

Despite all this, he is effusive in his praise of the Roux Scholar and Ashdown Park's senior sous chef, Paul O'Neill. "Paul O'Neill is a perfect guy. He is a real chef, he knows the job. He appreciates the opportunity to work with us, so he is very keen and respectful," Gagnaire tells Caterer and Hotelkeeper. "He is not just for show. He gelled with the brigade very quickly."

This is not the first time Gagnaire has played the role of host and mentor to a Roux Scholar - Frederick Forster also chose the Frenchman's restaurant for his stage when he won in 2000. To be chosen for a second time, with a 13-year gap in between, is something Gagnaire is proud of. "For me it is a big deal, very special. It is always interesting when you see that a young guy appreciates your philosophy," he says.

And in some ways, the fact that O'Neill and Forster both chose to spend their stage with Gagnaire is proof of the way the chef and international restaurateur has managed to evolve - rooted in classic French cooking, but always with an eye on modern techniques and flavour combinations. "It is easy to be on top for a couple of years," he explains. "But it is harder to stay on the line, to work with new people, new generations and new techniques, because the world is changing and food is changing."

Even more surprising, perhaps, is the 63-year-old's acknowledgement that the French are not necessarily the best at ensuring that their great culinary traditions are kept alive and shared with the rest of the world.

He praises the Roux family for its adoption of what he calls the "Anglo Saxon philosophy" when it comes to sharing culinary knowledge and skills.

"The Scholarship is absolutely extraordinary. The way in which Anglo Saxon culture works, and the reason why it is developing across the world, is that you take - and you take a lot - but you also give a lot. You give a lot, and you receive a lot - and that is not the French spirit at all. In France, we try to keep everything for ourselves," he says.

In fact, he has considerable admiration for the UK and for London in particular, where he sees a culinary revolution rooted in British traditions taking place. It is also where his restaurant Sketch is doing "unbelievable" business.

Gagnaire also offers some advice for younger chefs in a media-obsessed world - to maintain focus.

"I live in the kitchen," he says. "Nowadays, with TV and the media, the restaurant is a theatre. It is a show, and with that, you have a new generation of chefs. But it is dangerous, because to do our job you need time. I heard of a guy of 16 years old in the UK who is a restaurateur - that is crazy! Today, I can travel because I am 63 and I began work when I was 14, like Michel. I spent 30 years in my kitchen first.

Pierre Gagnaire's 'Clos des Loups' cod fillet

Ingredients (Serves four)
200g medium-grain couscous
3tbs olive oil
1/2 tsp ras el hanout
Salt
500ml vegetable infusion (green part of leek, carrots, turnips, fennel, celery, lemongrass sticks)
2 lemon balm sprigs
2 fresh coriander sprigs
4 x 100g thick cod steaks
3 x 100g green bell pepper, diced
3 x 100g fresh pineapple flesh, diced
50g dried apricots, quartered

Method Pour the couscous into a large bowl and stir in a tablespoon of olive oil, the ras el hanout, and half a teaspoon of salt.

Heat a cupful of vegetable infusion to boiling point and pour it over the couscous. Cover the bowl and allow the couscous to swell for 10 minutes.

Heat the oven to 200°C.

In the bowl of a food processor, mix the lemon balm and coriander with the remaining olive oil and a pinch of salt to make a paste.

Brush this mixture over the four cod portions, place them on a plate, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in the refrigerator.

Fork through the couscous to fluff up the grains, then stir in the diced pepper, pineapple and apricots.

Arrange four large sheets of aluminium foil on a baking sheet. Drop a large spoonful of fruity couscous on the centre of each sheet and top each with a piece of cod.Pour four tablespoons of vegetable infusion over each one and fold up the foil to make little packets. Place in the oven and cook for eight minutes.

Remove from the oven and serve, allowing guests to open their own packet at the table.

Chef's note: Ras el hanout is a North African blend of spices that may contain up to 30 different ingredients. If you can't find it, you may substitute a pinch
of curry powder.

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