With the Bocuse d'Or European finals taking place in Geneva next week, the UK's competitor, Simon Hulstone, talks to Joanna Wood about his preparations for the event, including a brainstorming session at the Hind's Head in Bray.
You might expect the run-up to a high-profile international culinary competition like the Bocuse d'Or to be all about practising the dishes you are due to cook on the day. You'd be wrong.
Of course, refining your cooking techniques and recipes is crucial for a tilt at the title. But the UK's representative, Simon Hulstone (chef-proprietor of the Michelin-starred Elephant bar and restaurant in Torquay, Devon), has been scouring his local B&Q shop, not to mention hunting down a set of highly sensitive drug scales.
His, on the face of it, questionable actions are all a result of a brainstorming session held in April at Heston Blumenthal's Hind's Head pub in Bray, Berkshire. Organised by butcher Aubrey Allen after Caterer's call in January to support Hulstone's bid in the internationally renowned competition (Caterer, 29 January, page 28), the meeting brought together some of the UK's top chef-restaurateurs and competition supremos (see panel on page 31) with the intention of helping Hulstone refine his competition recipes.
Among the creative culinary forces around the table was host chef Ashley Palmer-Watts, Blumenthal's right-hand man at the Fat Duck, who will be heading up his much-anticipated London restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, set to launch in November. As anyone who's either leafed through The Big Fat Duck Cookbook or watched his Channel 4 series Feast will know, once you come into contact with Blumenthal's recipes it's all about fractions of milligrams and boundary-pushing gelling agents like gellan gum.
"Since the brainstorming, Ashley's been sending me all sorts of white powders in the post - I feel like a drug addict!" Hulstone jokes. "It's all 0.01g stuff - so I had to buy some drug scales. I don't think they believed me when I told them what I needed them for."
THE BRAINSTORMING SESSION
Let's return to where it all started, the Aubrey Allen-backed brainstorming session. Generally, in the cheffing world, you fall into one of two camps: either you are a restaurant chef focused exclusively on your business, or you are a competition chef, usually based in a hotel where you have a ready-made back-up structure to cover for time spent on the competition circuit. There is seldom any crossover.
Hulstone is a rare exception. He's a highly respected Michelin-starred restaurant chef who also happens to be an exceptionally successful competition chef. He's the current Knorr National Chef of the Year, a Roux Scholar and one of just two UK chefs (the other is Adam Smith) to win a gold medal at the World Youth Skill Olympics (now called World Skills).
While most of the chefs assembled for the Hind's Head idea exchange knew of the Bocuse d'Or, they were not familiar with the finer details of the competition. So Hulstone kicked off the morning by explaining its intricacies: its overall structure, the number of opponents in his first hurdle - the Bocuse d'Or Europe final in Geneva on 7 and 8 June - what precisely is required in dish terms and, not least, the calibre of the judges.
"All the big boys will be there," he stresses, reeling off a list of luminaries who have sat on past judging panels, such as Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Joël Robuchon, Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal.
"And the crowds are unbelievable," he adds. "It can be up to 3,000 people, plus 200 or 300 photographers. It's in your face, full-on."
In addition there are other factors to contend with, such as the fact that each dish is paraded past the crowd for up to 18 minutes before the judges get to taste and assess it.
"It means you're always serving tepid food," Hulstone explains, "so you have to ask yourself: ‘Do I do dishes that are hot to start with and season things to taste good both hot and cold? And do I design something that has cold garnishes?'"
Being a seasoned competition chef, Hulstone has come to the Hind's Head with two fully-fledged dishes to present for discussion. The Bocuse d'or European final requires him to do a fish dish using a whole 5kg halibut, plus a recipe using rib of veal, with a "recommendation" to use other parts of the carcass as well.
The rules stipulate that each dish has to be accompanied by two garnishes. "Sometimes people do extra garnishes, but the countries that do, don't often win," explains Hulstone, passing around pictures of past Bocuse d'Or winning and placed dishes for his fellow chefs to get their heads around.
The dishes range from classically rooted modern French cuisine to more adventurous food from the Scandinavian countries, which have won the Bocuse d'Or five times.
"The Scandinavians don't use much foie gras; their food is lighter," Hulstone says. "So it's very difficult to know exactly what the judges are after. But it seems to me, if you've got the balls to do things simply, but perfectly, that scores."
His own dishes, when he presents them, look clean and come-and-get-me good, with a few theatrical touches in presentation, such as shot glasses and little casserole dishes.
"I'm impressed with the work you've done," says Sat Bains (chef-proprietor of the Michelin-starred Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms in Nottingham), as the debate about how to improve the recipes really gets going.
There is much discussion about how to improve flavours, how to keep a British feel to dishes and how to keep vibrancy (colour to you and me) in recipes - in other words, how to give Hulstone's dishes a bit of wow factor without overcomplicating them.
Hulstone has been using verjus in his fish dish, but somebody suggests foraged sea buckthorn instead. The dish has a lot of soft textures and so it's not long before ideas for more bite are winging across the table. These include black onion seed, black crispy rice, or, as Glynn Purnell (chef-proprietor, Purnell's, Birmingham) suggests: "some type of crystal, crumble or scallop crisp?"
"How about cooking the halibut in a seaweed liquor to get loads of umami into it, so that when the judges eat it, they'll really remember the taste?" adds Bains.
The veal dish also receives close examination. Hulstone is planning to use calf's head, feet and sweetbreads as well as the required rib, and strongly toying with the idea of serving a little calf's head pie on the side as an extra.
"A take on cottage pie," he explains, bemoaning the fact that he can't find the right size casserole dish to present it in. This prompts Palmer-Watts to dash off to get a dinky little dish used at the Fat Duck as an option - and the contact for its supplier.
Hulstone plans to go classic with his use of the veal rib (he's coy about revealing too much in print, but suffice to say rolled and truffle play a part), but he wants the dish's garnishes to push the boat out. A hollowed-out Brussels sprout and a tongue and almond purée in the dish are soon under pressure to be discarded for something a little more adventurous, with reference to Britain's multicultural cuisine, like a dim sum or samosa.
Plenty of air time is given to slow-cooking fish techniques, gelling agents (like gellan) that deliver stable mousses with fine, silky textures, and how to deceive the eye by creating the illusion of classic cuisine that disperses on eating (a crisp that looks like a cutlet bone poking up out of the cottage pie, for instance). And at the end of the brainstorming session, Hulstone is satisfied with the ideas for improving his recipes and is itching to implement some of the suggestions.
"It's definitely opened me up to looking at techniques and ingredients that I haven't used in my own cooking," he admits. "I was very, very nervous about presenting my food because I thought they'd say it was shite, but after I explained about the competition and they understood why I'd come up with the dishes I had, they understood and were really constructive in their criticism."
SIX WEEKS LATER
Fast forward six weeks to a quick telephone chat with Hulstone, which reveals not only his extra-curricular trips to buy drug scales but also how he's adapted his dishes. "I've been messing around with things since the brain-storming," he says.
In addition, experienced competition chefs Nick Vadis (executive chef UK & Ireland, Compass Group) and Mark Hill (executive chef, House of Commons, London) who were both at the Hind's Head gathering, have come up with some "beautiful" designs for the presentation platters. "They sketched them out after the meeting and have refined them since. They look fantastic," says Hulstone.
Apart from recipe exchanges with Palmer-Watts, he's been in touch with Bains to follow up the idea of a different fish poaching liquor. They've settled on Japanese dashi (a fish stock) and are busy perfecting it. For the record, too, the Brussels sprout has been jettisoned in favour of a beetroot ball, which plays around with temperature contrasts (we cannot say more at this stage).
The idea for getting texture in to the fish dish has also been developed, using deep-fried prawn bodies, an idea unashamedly nicked from a former Bocuse d'Or runner-up, Yannick Alleno of Le Meurice in Paris. "His chef got a bronze in last year's final, too, so he's got to be worth watching," says Hulstone.
Cannily, Hulstone has put both his competition dishes on his restaurant menu, anxious to make sure that they are accessible to diners and not just cheffy navel-gazers. "They're both selling, especially the veal. And it means that me and my commis (Jordan Bailey) who'll be with me for the competition are practising them all the time."
Given such attention to his preparation and the fact that 12 of the 20 competitors will progress to the world finals from Bocuse d'Or Europe, it would seem a safe bet that Hulstone will be in Lyon next January for the finals. In fact, it would be a travesty if he didn't make it.
He is, of course, taking one step at a time, but his ultimate goal is to get a top five finish in Lyon. In doing so, he would place the Bocuse d'Or well and truly in the consciousness of his fellow British chefs and of the foodie public - and underline our nation's credentials as a food force to be reckoned with in the modern restaurant world.
BOCUSE D'OR EUROPE 2010
Where? Geneva, 7-8 June at the city's Gourmet trade exhibition
How many contestants? 20
Which countries are competing? Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK
What's the test? Cooking two dishes (one using a 5kg whole halibut, one using rib of veal), each with two garnishes, in 51/2 hours. Each contestant is allowed one commis chef
When does Hulstone compete? On the second day - in the penultimate time slot
Who goes to the final? The 12 highest-scoring competitors
BOCUSE D'OR FACT FILE
What is it? A biennial international chef competition launched in 1987, and named after its founder, legendary French chef Paul Bocuse. It is always held at the end of January in Lyon (the 2011 final will take place on 27-28 January).
How does it work? Initially it comprised one grand final but it now also includes regional finals in Asia, Europe (Bocuse d'Or Asia, Bocuse d'Or Europe) and Latin American (Copa Azteca). The highest scorers from each regional final go through to the final in Lyon.
Countries competing 24 - across the world. The top 12 chefs from Europe, the top four from Asia and the top three from Latin America go through to the final, staged at the SIRHA International Hotel, Catering and Food Trade Exhibition in Lyon in January 2011. There are also three finalists chosen from national applications (such as the USA) and two wild card selections.
UK's highest placing 8th in 2003 (Eyck Zimmer). Hulstone was placed 10th in 2009.
WHO WAS AT THE HIND'S HEAD?
• Simon Hulstone Chef-proprietor, Elephant bar and restaurant, Torquay, Devon
• Andreas Antona Chef-proprietor, Simpson's, Birmingham
• Sat Bains Chef-proprietor, Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms, Nottingham
• Mark Hill Executive chef, House of Commons
• Roger Hulstone Head chef, Rainbow hotel, Torquay (and Hulstone's Bocuse d'Or coach)
• Ashley Palmer-Watts Executive chef, Fat Duck Group, Bray, Berkshire
• Glynn Purnell Chef-proprietor, Purnell's, Birmingham
• Simon Smith Customer care manager, Aubrey Allen
• Nick Vadis Executive chef UK & Ireland, Compass Group
• Mark Hill executive chef at the House of Commons, and Ashley Palmer-Watts, executive chef at the Fat Duck