Kuba Winkowski, head chef at the Feathered Nest Country Inn in Nether Westcote, Oxfordshire, has been named as the Craft Guild's National Chef of the Year, following in the footsteps of some of the most revered names in the industry.
The award was judged by the likes of chefs Claude Bosi, Clare Smyth and Tom Kerridge, and was based on their ability to produce three courses to the highest possible standard within the space of two hours in front of a live audience.
Winkowski elevated the judge's brief of a lobster starter, a grouse main and a traditional British dessert to produce native lobster with oyster emulsion, celery, sea herbs, buttermilk; Yorkshire grouse, cabbage, foie gras, quince, celeriac, seeds; and sticky toffee with lemon, clotted cream, walnuts.
The win came on Winkowski's second attempt at the title, and while accepting his award he said dramatic weight loss - the chef lost 4.5 stone over the last 12 months - had helped him to become a better competitor.
Moments after being crowned winner, he told TheCaterer the win came as a "massive relief".
He added: "It's a long process and on top of the normal everyday job, to find those hours, to practice and design and plan, it's not easy. The last few weeks were flat out and I think there worst sort of feeling is ‘oh I hope it's not going to go to waste'.
"I think that was the biggest motivation because I said to myself I'll try three times. If I can't do it in three times then, well what can I do"
However, fortunately for the chef, the brief spoke to dishes he regularly serves from his Cotswolds kitchen - including lobster which he runs in some form each summer, grouse which is a mainstay of his autumn menu and an English dessert. Winkowski's sticky toffee pudding is one of the most popular dishes on his menu. He added it "couldn't be a better brief" for him.
The chef was also keen to reflect his success back on his team and family. He said: "I really do feel that the team and myself, we've been working for eight years now and there's a lot of things in place ,and I really believe we deserve some recognition for what we do because I think we do amazing stuff. So that's another great thing we get - finally we won something. "
The National Chef of the Year competition has a well-regarded history of marking the industry's top talent. Asked what the judges were looking for from a champion while the competition was underway, Simon Hulstone told The Caterer: "
In particular Winkowski's ability to make the ingredients provided shine was heralded. While judging, Clare Smyth said: "They've got such amazing ingredients to work with, they don't want to do too much to them. It's really about precision and cooking and flavour."
Tom Kerridge added that it was important to "let the ingredients speak for themselves, and produce something that is beautiful and very simple to look at, and tastes amazing and that will get you to the top".
In claiming the title Winkowski beat off nine of the country's top chefs from a variety of senior roles in prestigious kitchens. Judge Bosi told The Caterer: "It's a big standard because if you look at it, it's all head chefs - they already have the understanding of cooking and respect for the produce."
George Blogg from Gravetye Manor in West Hoathley, West Sussex, picked up second place. In third place was Derek Johnston of Borthwick Castle, Edinburgh, who also won the best presentation award, based on social media response to a dish on sponsor Churchill's Twitter account.
The nine runners up were Glenn Evans from Las Iguanas; Liam Fauchard-Newman from Rhubarb; Martin Frickel from the Forest Side, Cumbria; David Neilson from the Number One at the Balmoral, Edinburgh; Nick Smith from Harbour & Jones; Stefan Sewell from the Combined Services Culinary Arts Team; and Thomas Westerland from Lucknam Park, Chippenham, Wiltshire.