Larry Jayasekara has come a long way from the sleepy Sri Lankan fishing village he called home to win the UK's most prestigious cooking competition. The National Chef of the Year speaks to Janie Manzoori-Stamford
Congratulations on winning National Chef of the Year. This was the third time you entered the competition. How did you maintain that determination to keep going?
It's a good feeling and achievement. When you want something and you haven't got there yet, you have to keep trying. In the first year, you go in blind because you don't know what to expect or what the set-up is. It helps to have done it two times.
I'd learned to focus on getting three consistent dishes up rather than getting the food out on time. If I went 10 minutes over, I wouldn't worry about it. What I wanted to get out was three dishes that were all tasty, delicious and consistent. That's what won it for me.
How much support did you have from your head chef Neil Snowball and the rest of the Pétrus team?
The whole team was behind me, especially in the last week before the final when Neil's partner had a baby. He came in straight after the birth to help me make sure that the dishes were right. When you yourself are cooking, you don't necessarily see the things that you're doing wrong and having Neil tasting it made all the difference. To win the competition, you need a mentor to tell you what your weakness are. You've got to listen to the people behind you.
What inspired your menu?
The starter had to be a fish dish, the main course had to be meat and the dessert had to feature chocolate and coffee. I looked at what was in season. I thought everyone else would do scallops or crab, which would be more labour intensive and I wouldn't be able to get a delicious plate of food up in time. I decided to go with the lobster. We do a lobster dish at work so preparation-wise, I know how long it takes.
I prepped it, water-bathed it and quickly put the sauce on to glaze it and it was ready to go.
The main course had to be venison because it's autumn when the final takes place. Venison is a standout ingredient. I served it with blackberry and celeriac, which was the perfect marriage. It's a classic combination but I did it using modern techniques, such as vacuum-packing and water-bathing the celeriac to ensure consistent cooking.
I put a little bit of spice into all three dishes so that where I come from (Sri Lanka) has an influence on my food. For the lobster, I included ginger and cardamom in the sauce, the celeriac purée in the main course had nutmeg, and the chocolate cream in my chocolate crémeux, roasted pear and coffee dessert had cinnamon. It made the three dishes more autumnal, but when you taste the spice it's not overpowering. The dishes simply have that little bit of warmth that makes you want to go for a second bite.
How would you describe your personal style of cooking?
I'm classically trained. Every place I've worked has a classic French background with a little bit of a modern twist. That's what I would say. The flavours for me are the most important thing. It has to be tasty, otherwise it's not worth cooking a dish. When you get in a beautiful piece of meat or other produce and you can't make it tasty, then it's pointless.
How different is competition cooking from restaurant cooking?
I won the Craft Guild of Chefs Young Chef of the Year award in 2007 and 2010, so coming into the National Chef of the Year I knew what it was like to be in a competition. When you're in the restaurant you have a team of chefs working with you, so you're not doing everything on your own. A dish comes together at the pass from different sections in the kitchen.
Do you have any other ambitions, in terms of accolades?
This is the most prestigious live competition you can do. My next goal is to achieve a Michelin star, ideally within the Gordon Ramsay group. I'd like to develop myself within the business. It has a really good team behind it that keeps pushing it more towards quality rather than quantity. Looking at the future, this company is more stable for me to achieve the things that I want to achieve.
You came to the UK in 2002 from a small fishing village in Sri Lanka. Was it always your ambition to develop a career in the kitchen?
No, not especially. I was pretty easy going before I came to the UK. I never thought I would be a chef. It's just that when I came here, there were no other jobs I could find. I thought that catering is one industry that is easy to get into.
Your father is a chef, as well as a fisherman. Does that mean you had some cooking skills when you arrived?
Not really. I helped my dad, who worked in a hotel, but I wasn't cooking. I had to prove to him I could wash pots properly before I'd be allowed to cook. And I wasn't very good at washing the pots. When I came to the UK, I went to South Devon college for two years. That was my first introduction to classic cooking and, I'll be honest, I didn't know all of the ingredients that I was using. I'd never seen them before because in Sri Lanka we had completely different ingredients from a different climate. Doing the course for two years helped me to understand the basic foundations.
Then I came up to London and joined Gordon Ramsay Holdings and spent two and a half years with the company. That was a big eye-opener. Wow. Everybody was moving around like machines but they were also like artists. They were really enjoying it. That's why I wanted to do it.
The change of scenery from a fishing village in Sri Lanka to London must have been vast. Was it easy to adjust?
It was not. Absolutely not. I come from a really small village. Coming to London was really tough in those first two weeks. I didn't know anyone and when I went to work, everyone was moving at such a fast pace. I couldn't help but ask myself, what am I doing here? But I never give up. I wanted to take it the furthest I could and this is where I am.
You've quite an enviable CV (see below). How has it shaped your cooking style and what has had the biggest influence?
The most influential experience, apart from here at Pétrus, was Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. If I didn't work there, I wouldn't be doing the role I'm doing here today because Gary Jones, the executive chef, transformed me into a completely different personality as a chef and a manager. When I got promoted to senior sous chef, they put me on five different management courses to help me with whichever role I was to take next. It helped me to settle in at Pétrus quite easily.
Being a chef is not just about standing there and cooking a piece of meat or fish; it's about hygiene and people management and all sorts of other things. Gordon Ramsay Holdings is doing the same thing - setting up appraisals and year-long development plans. That's really key to getting people to stay longer while at the same time getting the benefit of having good management and better people. That makes such a difference to the workplace because it makes everyone happy.
Which chefs, that you've either worked with or not, do you admire the most?
Outside of England, I've always looked up to Michel Bras and Thomas Keller. I did a stage at Michel Bras and that was, for me, the best kitchen I've ever seen, outside England. The way they respect the food is unbelievable. They treat the produce almost like it's family. And I've always respected and looked up to Thomas Keller as a mentor.
In England it's Gary Jones and Clare Smyth. They've had a huge influence on me. Every time I see them, they always give me small pieces of advice that make you ask, 'why didn't I think about that?'
Finally, what's been your biggest career highlight?
Winning National Chef of the Year, obviously! That's the biggest. This is the big fish that I wanted. And I got it in the end.
Larry Jayasekara's menu
Lobster with red pepper and cardamom, leek, fresh yogurt and lemongrass
Roast loin of venison with celeriac and nutmeg purée and a lardo and blackcurrant ravioli parcel
Chocolate cremaux, roasted pear and coffee
Roast loin of venison, nutmeg celeriac purée, cavolo nero and blackberries
- 4 x 125g venison loin
- 10g butter
- 1g thyme
- 2g juniper berries
For the nutmeg and celeriac purée
- 30g butter
- 400g celeriac, thinly sliced
- 100ml milk
- 50g double cream
- 3g ground nutmeg
- 3.6g salt
For the cavolo nero
- 50g cavolo nero
- 1 litre water
- 10g salt
For the venison and juniper jus
- 4kg venison bones
- 2kg venison trim
- 20 shallots, sliced
- 4g star anise
- 20g garlic, sliced
- 2 bottles ruby Port
- 20g thyme
- 5g juniper berries
- 3 litres veal stock
- 3 litres brown chicken stock
- 150g blackberries, crushed
- 15 juniper berries, crushed
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 10 pink peppercorns
- 2 thin slices of garlic
- 400g venison sauce
Vacuum pack the venison loins - each into one bag - then poach at 63Â°C for 25 minutes and then rest for 10 minutes. Remove from the bag and season the meat with salt, then roast in a hot pan for three to four minutes. Add the butter, thyme and juniper berries. Cook for two or three minutes, remove from the pan, then slice and serve.
For the nutmeg and celeriac purée, place the butter into a pan until it melts, then add the celeriac. Cook until the celeriac is starting to soften, then add the milk and cream. Bring it to the boil and blitz until smooth. Once blended, pass through a chinois and season with salt and nutmeg.
For the cavolo nero, bring the water to the boil, salt it, and then add the cavolo nero. Blanch until soft then remove from the hot water and plunge straight into ice water. Once it is refreshed, portion to the size you want, then reheat in a pan with a little butter.
To make the venison and juniper jus, roast the bones at 180Â°C for one hour until golden brown. Lightly roast the venison trim. In a pressure cooker, pan-sweat the shallots and star anise, then add the garlic. Add the ruby Port and reduce down to a syrup. Add the venison trim, bones, thyme, juniper berries and veal stock. Top up with chicken stock to the maximum fill line.
Place the lid on the cooker and bring up to full pressure. Once up to pressure, cook for two hours. Strain through muslin and chill. Remove and discard the fat from the stock. Place the stock into a pan and reduce over a medium heat.
For service, heat the sauce. Add the blackberries, herbs and spices and allow to infuse for 30 minutes. Taste the infusion and strain when ready. To finish during service, add some of the venison reduction.
Larry Jayasekara's prize pot
- Winner's medal
- One-year membership to the Craft Guild of Chefs
- A study trip for the winner and a guest courtesy of Lockhart Catering Equipment
- £1,250 voucher towards Lockharts product range
- £1,500 activity/adventure voucher and a year's supply of Knorr Bouillon
- £500 Churchill voucher and specially designed plate
National Chef of the Year roll call
2016 Larry Jayasekara (year changed to reflect proximity to the New Year)
2014 Russell Bateman
2013 Hayden Groves
2012 Alyn Williams
2011 Frederick Forster
2010 Hrishikesh Desai
2008 Simon Hulstone
2006 Eyck Zimmer
2004 Steve Love
2002 Mark Sargeant
2000 Bruce Sangster
1998 Kevin Viner
1996 David Everitt-Matthias
1994 Lou Jones
1992 Gordon Ramsay
1990 Roger Narbett
1988 Mark Gregory
1986 David Pitchford
1984 Robert Mabey
1982 William Stafford
1980 Ken Whibley
1978 Paul Brady
1976 Eddie van Meille
1974 Bryan Price
1972 Pierre Jacquemin