There are few people in the world who get the chance to meet their idols, and even fewer who get to spend three months with them. For Adam Smith, winning the Roux Scholarship last April offered him just that opportunity - to spend three months in the kitchens of one of his biggest heroes, chef Yannick Alléno.
One of the industry's most prestigious culinary competitions, the Roux Scholarship has sent its winners to a three-Michelin-starred restaurant of their choice for nearly 30 years. Recently, it has seen the scholars venture to top-class restaurants in Spain - such as El RacÁ³ de Can Fabes or El Celler de Can Roca - and to the USA to spend their stage at the French Laundry in California or Jean-Georges in New York.
So it was a nice change that Smith decided to return to the Roux family's own roots by going to France. "It is always reassuring that our scholars choose not to follow trends and go where they feel is best for them," says Michel Roux, the scholarship's founder.
Smith, premier sous chef at the Ritz in London, chose an equally grand, palatial hotel to the one he has worked at for eight years - Le Meurice (part of the Dorchester Collection) in Paris, where Alléno runs the main restaurant. Known for his modern, creative approach to classical French cuisine, Alléno initially impressed Smith with his simple yet refined way of cooking.
"I chose Le Meurice originally because I fell in love with Alléno's book and the simplicity of his cooking, which inspired me," he recalls. "I really admire his style of food. Everything looks so simple on the plate yet there's so much that goes into each dish and all the different elements are so crisp and sharp."
Aged just 44, Alléno is one of France's most acclaimed three-Michelin-starred chefs, whose reach goes far beyond his own country's borders. Together with his business partner, Florence Cane, he has developed an international brand of restaurants through Group Yannick Alléno, with sites in six destinations around the world, including Marrakech, Dubai, Beirut, Taipei and Beijing, all housed within luxury hotels. "I like working in hotels - it is the best way to guarantee quality," he says.
In France, Alléno has three restaurants, including the two-Michelin-starred 1947 at Cheval Blanc in Courchevel in the French Alps, which relaunched last month.
Alléno's has been a long culinary journey, which began aged 15 with an internship at Le Relais Louis XIII with Manuel Martinez. After graduating from high school in 1984, he embarked on a pastry apprenticeship at the Lutetia Hotel under head chef Jacky Freon before working under some of the most influential French chefs, starting with Gabriel Biscay at Le Royal Monceau Hotel, Roland Durand and Martial Henguehard at the Sofitel Sevres Hotel and Louis Grondard at Drouant Restaurant. In 1999 he represented France in the Bocuse d'Or - arguably the most celebrated international culinary competition - where he was placed second.
In 2003, Alléno was appointed head chef at Le Meurice - where he now leads a brigade of 75 chefs - and just six months later he received two Michelin stars. The coveted third star came in 2007 - an accolade the chef describes as a dream come true.
"After so many years of hard work it was amazing," he says. "It felt like running as fast as you can and then winning the Olympic gold medal."
But, he adds, holding three stars is also a big responsibility. "I want to move forward and perfect my cooking to offer a cuisine that is more rigorous and more creative. It's a new way of working. It's being creative - and creating something new."
Indeed, with his Cuisine Moderne, Alléno wants to revolutionise French gastronomy, fusing tradition with creativity. For the past five years, he has worked tirelessly to explore the origins of his local ingredients, with his initiative "Paris Terroirs", which celebrates and aims to protect the producers and ingredients of the Paris region - known as Ile-de-France - many of which are under threat from urbanisation.
Initially the project saw him serve a special menu at Le Meurice, showcasing produce from within a 50km radius of the French capital, but last March he took it a step further by launching his own bistro, called Terroir Parisien, exclusively dedicated to his cause.
Back at Le Meurice, Alléno has introduced a new concept that delves even deeper into his country's culinary tradition, in line with Unesco's recent enshrining of the French gastronomical meal as part of the world's cultural heritage. Here he serves a menu entitled Repas Gastronomique des FranÁ§ais, a combination of classic flavours and modern techniques, with dishes ranging from an intensely flavoured, bright yellow beetroot consommé to a vegetarian version of boudin noir with garlic and apple cake; steamed scallops and seaweed with hibiscus juice; and beef tail and Parisian mushrooms, roasted rib-steak and seasoned shallots with vinegar.
"French cuisine is so rich in its heritage but I want to move it forward and reinvent things by bringing together that tradition with innovation and creativity," he says.
This is what impressed Roux. "Alléno has a clear and defined vision of what he likes and what he wants to do. He does not follow fads or fashion and cannot be deterred from following his own unique path," he says.
For Smith, working alongside Alléno has been a "brilliant experience". "The first few weeks were tough but I came with the greatest respect and really open to anything they asked me to do," he says.
And it seems to have paid off. While Smith's role at the Ritz is a diverse one in which he deals with "everything, not just the cooking", he says he has enjoyed moving around the kitchen at Le Meurice and "being able to just concentrate on what I'm cooking".
"Of course it was challenging to move from a place where you're at the top and everything comes through you to a place where you start right at the bottom again," he admits.
"But it has been great to step back a bit and absorb everything that's going on around me. I may be standing in the corner peeling onions but I can still learn by watching everyone and seeing how they do things, the different techniques and how they organise themselves, which has been a really nice experience."
Smith adds that the biggest eye opener for him has been the way Alléno's kitchen is run. "The style of the hotel and the restaurant at Le Meurice are similar to the Ritz but the set-up is completely different," he explains. "They only do half the amount of covers but have twice the amount of staff. There is so much focus as there are so many people concentrating on one thing."
For Smith this work ethic is something he would like to take back to London with him. "In the UK there's a bit of a culture where you feel like you always have to be there and you have to touch everything that goes beyond the pass. It's a lot more relaxed here. They have a morning shift and a late shift, which means you are fresher because you're working fewer hours and that in turn means you can work a lot harder during service."
Three months in Paris have left Smith a Roux Scholarship evangelist. "It is by far the best thing I have ever done," he enthuses. "It's a massive opportunity and, if anything, I wish I could have done it sooner. It has been what I hoped it would be and more, but without the scholarship I would never have been able to do this, come to Paris and work alongside one of my biggest idols."
ROUX SCHOLARSHIP 2013
If you think you've got what it takes to become the next Roux Scholar, you have until 28 January to enter this year's competition.
The Roux Scholarship is open to chefs aged between 22 and 30 who are in full-time employment in the UK.
Celebrating the competition's 30th anniversary, this year special guest judges include three-Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal and celebrity chef Rick Stein next to the Roux family and fellow judges Gary Rhodes, Brian Turner, James Martin and the inaugural Roux Scholar, Andrew Fairlie.
Chefs must submit a recipe for one stone bass (meagre) (max 2kg) and four whole fresh squid of small to medium size (10cm to 15cm in length); accompanied by two garnishes, one of which must include new potatoes and the other using a green vegetable. The dish should also be accompanied by a sauce.
Recipes will be judged on paper, with 18 chefs going through to the competition's regional finals, held in London and Birmingham on 7 March. The final will take place in London on 25 March.
Details at www.rouxscholarship.co.uk
A GUIDE TO ENTERING THE ROUX SCHOLARSHIP
The first stage of the Roux Scholarship is judged blind: all the judges have to go by are the contestants' recipes, which are nameless, ensuring everything is fair.
Your aim as an entrant is to get your recipe noticed as one that stands out from the rest because it works and on paper comes across as a dish the judges would like to see you cook and then taste at the regional final. So the clearer the information you provide at this stage, the better.
The judges are looking for simplicity and attention to detail: a clear, well thought-out recipe that they can easily picture at each stage of the process and on the plate.
CREATING YOUR RECIPE Read the brief carefully and devise a recipe using the core ingredients that both showcases your style and allows the ingredients to shine. It is important to consider the season when you'll be cooking the dish - this year in early March.
PRACTICE AND FEEDBACK Make sure you practise your dish, to check that it works and that the flavours are balanced. Discuss your dish with your senior chef and colleagues in the kitchen and ask them to taste it with you to refine the taste and presentation.
GET THE BASICS RIGHT â- Put your name at the top of your recipe.
â- Name the dish. Just as you would for the menu in your restaurant, give your dish a clear name that describes what it is.
â- Provide a full and accurate list of all the ingredients, quantities and estimated costs.
â- Write a clear methodology for each step of the process.
â- Give details of how you will assemble and finish the dish.
â- Include a photo or drawing of the finished dish - this helps the judges to picture your vision.
ADVICE FROM THE JUDGES "A lot of chefs underestimate the importance of the written entry. As judges we are presented with an average of 70 anonymous recipes that we have to read and from which we pick the 20 dishes we would like to see cooked and presented. It is at this point we start to look for the next Roux Scholar.
"A recipe needs a title and a list of ingredients. It has to be well laid out with a detailed method and a precise service description. If the recipe is not presented properly it strikes me immediately that the chef is lazy and is not taking the competition seriously. Simple things such as spelling mistakes, wrong quantities or ridiculous costings will cost good chefs a place in the semi-final.
"Young chefs have a tendency to overcomplicate their dishes and my advice is to keep things simple and make sure that on the day you have time to concentrate on getting every element of your dish perfect.
"If you are chosen for the regional final, take into account that on the day you will also be presented with a list of ingredients from which to devise a dessert; so practising some basic pastry techniques will stand you in good stead.
"In my experience it's the chefs who have practised their dishes at least three times before entering the kitchen that stand a better chance of being successful."
Andrew Fairlie, chef-patron, Restaurant Andrew Fairlie, 1984 Roux Scholar and competition judge
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