Probably the most coveted prize bestowed on winners of the annual Roux Scholarship is the opportunity to undergo a stage at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe. Mark Lewis visited 2008 winner Daniel Cox at Catalan chef Santi Santamaria's restaurant, El Racó de Can Fabes, near Barcelona
Picture the scene: a judging panel including Heston Blumenthal and Andrew Fairlie has just picked you as winner of one of the UK's most respected chef competitions you've been fêted on stage before an audience of the great and good of your industry and now you and the godfathers of British cuisine, Michel and Albert Roux, are debating which three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe you'd like to travel to for a three-month stage.
It's at this point that most chefs wake up, pull on their whites, step into their clogs and trudge back into the kitchen for another day on the stove. But for Daniel Cox, the stuff of many chefs' wildest dreams became reality last April when he was named the 25th Roux Scholar.
Cox's success was the culmination of three years of hard graft. "Five years ago I worked for an ex-Gavroche man called Roger Naylor," he says. "He taught me a lot and wanted me to enter the scholarship, but I was too young. He passed away that year. When I hit 22 I thought, ‘Now I'm old enough, I'll give it a go.'
"The first two years, I didn't reach the final. I tried modern presentation, but Michel and Albert aren't looking for that. The third time, I went classical, but using modern techniques. I went back to basics, focused on clean tastes and true flavours, reached the final and won. Winning was overwhelming, after the build-up of three years".
Cox, who was working at investment bank UBS in London for Compass Group's fine-dining division Restaurant Associates when he won, opted for El Racó de Can Fabes, the three-starred restaurant run by Santi Santamaria in the hills above Barcelona. A few months later, Michel Roux, Roux Scholarship judge Richard Vines and I caught a flight to Catalonia to see how his stage was progressing.
Santamaria opened El Racó de Can Fabes in 1981 with his wife, Angels. Their first Michelin star came in 1988 another arrived two years later and in 1994 he became the first Catalan chef to receive a three-Michelin-star rating. Located in an old farmhouse in the small town of Sant Celoni, the restaurant features sleek black wood beside rough stone walls, and duck presses, guéridons and grandfather clocks beside abstract nude statues.
Santamaria's food philosophy is founded on tradition and authenticity, seasonality and provenance. To dine at Can Fabes is to taste the Catalan countryside and seaboard on a plate. As he told us during our stay, "Visual aesthetics are no use unless a dish delivers taste. All ingredients must be excellent, from the stock onwards."
It was this culinary ethos that Cox sought to experience first-hand. "My cooking is French, but I wanted to go to Spain to see something completely different. The only information I had was on the internet. On the Can Fabes site there was lots of inspirational philosophy about respecting ingredients. That settled my mind. The main technique here is freshness and simplicity."
The website Cox viewed describes Can Fabes as "a bridge between classicism and modernity, roots and evolution… a cuisine of sensations where the produce plays the leading role. Santi loves the land and knows that the best tribute you can pay it is to respect the roots." It's an approach that Jason Atherton has described in Caterer as "Spanish freestyle - modern, but identifiably Spanish… inventive food that starts off in simple Spanish roots, using food indigenous to the area, which then takes off into something fantastic".
Cox picked an interesting time to visit Can Fabes. Early in 2007 Santamaria used his address to the Madrid Fusión conference to mourn technology's eclipsing of flavour and dismiss Spain's more avant-garde chefs as "a gang of frauds whose work is to distract snobs".
His comments sparked a battle of words with the pre-eminent chef in the Spanish culinary vanguard, Ferran Adrià, a battle that worsened last year when Santamaria claimed he and Adrià had had an "ethical and conceptual divorce over what we put on the plate" and accused Adrià of using gelling agents and synthetic additives that represented a health threat to his customers.
The Roux Scholar was aware of what Gourmet Magazine called the "Santamaria vs Adria smackdown" before arriving at Can Fabes. "It was part of the experience of working at the restaurant. There was lots of talk in the kitchen and a lot of film crews and journalists about."
Cox immersed himself in the food of the region while at Can Fabes. "Every day brings something different. It's like a long holiday. On days off I go to markets, old tapas restaurants and other, more avant garde, restaurants. At Blanes market near Girona I saw the catch moved off the boats on to a conveyor belt and into the bidding hall, where the buyers were banked on bleachers with electronic bidding devices. It's not just about being in the kitchen for three months. Sometimes I'm in the mountains or on the beach and I put recipes together in my mind."
Even his digs were above a restaurant, five minutes from Can Fabes, though he had yet to sample its cuisine when we met. "The room feels like someone has died there. I don't dare eat there."
The result was a heightened commitment to provenance, simplicity and "letting ingredients speak for themselves".
And there were cultural, as well as culinary, lessons. "There's a different way of working in Spain. In London you work from eight to five and six to midnight. Here, you start at 9am ("Lazy bugger," quips Michel Roux) and sit down for lunch at noon. Service is 1.30pm to 5pm, then there are two hours off, and you are back for seven. There's no pressure. It's not an aggressive kitchen, there's no shouting. You can go through your career thinking shouting is necessary, but it's not. Here it's a different way of working, more focused on quality of life for yourself."
Three months in Catalonia have left Cox a Roux Scholarship evangelist. "It's been an amazing experience and opens up possibilities. It's all about recognition. You're in the Caterer chefs know who you are. I've always wanted my own restaurant and a Michelin star, and the scholarship is amazing for a career as a chef. You get advice and make connections."
But entering is not, he stresses, all about winning. "Competition develops you as a chef. You are more aware of what you are cooking. The focus is all on you, not your team. You stand on your own two feet - there is no one else to fall back on."
And what advice would you give to 2009 entrants? "Keep it simple: focus on good flavours and techniques." Easy, peasy.
Dan Cox's Can Fabes highlights
- Filleting, cooking and plating on the fish section.
- Visits to Blanes fish market to buy fish directly from the boat.
- Dinner at Celler de Can Roca, Abac and Raco de'n Friexa with Miro the head chef.
- Dinner with Michel Roux and Santi Santamaria.
- The whole experience of working in a three-starred Catalan kitchen.
Five Spanish products that Dan Cox loved
- Fresh fish from the boats at Blanes market near Girona.
- Shellfish from Galicia.
- Freshly picked mushrooms from Montseny.
- Ibérico suckling pig.
- Locally produced foie gras.
Santi Santamaria's Navajas con tocino y moscovado
(Makes one tapas-sized portion or amuse-bouche)
1 razor clam
1 slice of tocino (cured and cooked pork jowl from Ibérico pig - pure, hard fat, sliced wafer-thin)
For the pear and ginger purée
1tsp muscovado sugar
1tsp dried breadcrumb mix
Picked tarragon, fennel, chive and chervil
1 toasted walnut
To make the pear and ginger purée, parcel halved pears and slices of ginger in foil and barbecue until soft. Season with salt and lemon juice.
To serve, place the razor clam on to a hot chrome plancha and squirt water from a squeezy bottle over the shell to create steam. Turn the razor clam over and continue until it opens. Remove from the shell and cut off the mouth from the top and slice the body through. Place the clam on a metal tray, cover with the slice of tocino, sprinkle with the muscovado sugar and breadcrumb mix and place under a hot salamander to caramelise.
Use the pear and ginger purée to drag two lines across a large white plate and place the razor clam on top at an angle to the purée. Dress the herbs and place along the razor clam. Use a micro-plane grater to grate the walnut over the top and serve.
2009 Roux Scholarship- call for entries
The Roux Scholarship is looking for its 26th winner. In addition to the coveted three-month stage at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe, this year's scholarship prizes include £5,000, courtesy of the Savoy Educational Trust a week's work experience in New York, courtesy of Restaurant Associates a trip to the wine cellars of Champagne Gosset and a tour of the Musetti coffee-roasting factory in Milan. The remaining five finalists will each receive £1,000 and a range of other prizes.
The 2009 judging panel comprises Michel and Albert Roux, their respective sons, Alain and Michel Jnr, Brian Turner, David Nicolls, Gary Rhodes, the first Roux Scholar, Andrew Fairlie, Heston Blumenthal and guest judge, food critic for Bloomberg News, Richard Vines.
Entrants are required to submit an original recipe to serve four people, using two, traditional six-boned best ends of lamb (leaving bone in). The dish should be accompanied by two garnishes, one of which must be potato, and the other using one green vegetable. The dish should also be accompanied by a light jus or a salsa.
The closing date for entries is Friday 23 January. For more information, or to enter, go to www.rouxscholarship.co.uk.