What a difference 18 months can make. After Simon Hulstone finished in 10th place at the Bocuse d'Or in Lyon last January, with only a handful of British fans supporting him in the crowd, last week's European final in Geneva couldn't have been more different.
Not only did the chef outperform himself and any other UK contestant at the Bocuse d'Or, securing a place in the world final by finishing in fourth place and winning the prize for the best meat dish, he also cooked in front of an audience that included nearly 40 UK supporters (mostly brought together by Gourmet Classic) sporting Union Jack colours and flags and offering the kind of vociferous crowd patronage you'd expect to find at a football match.
"The support was amazing; we were completely gobsmacked and all the noise gave us such a boost," says Hulstone, chef-proprietor of the Michelin-starred Elephant restaurant in Torquay, Devon. "These are all industry professionals, some of them managing directors of massive companies, and there they were, acting like teenagers, screaming and shouting to give me their support."
The Bocuse d'Or Europe, which took place on 7 and 8 June, saw 20 countries from across the continent compete for one of 12 places at the world finals of the prestigious culinary competition, which will be held in Lyon next January. The contestants were given five-and-a-half hours to prepare two silver platters (flats) serving 14 people, using Norwegian halibut and Swiss veal as their main ingredients.
With the competition spread over two days, Hulstone, together with his commis chef Jordan Bailey and coach Nick Vadis, were up on the second day next to some of the biggest competing countries including Denmark, Norway and France (who finished in first, second and third place respectively).
"I was very pleased to have been selected to compete on the second and not the first day, which traditionally is a much better day as the judges are more settled," he says. "None of the teams from day one made it into the top five. I purposely stayed away on the first day as I didn't want to be thrown off course by seeing what the other countries were doing and I wanted to keep my cool."
Despite the inevitable nerves, Hulstone certainly kept his cool, seeming remarkably poised and in control right through the competition. "It was all a front," he laughs. "Inside I was freaking out. But I had to remain calm for the sake of Jordan, as it was his first competition. If I'd started to panic, he would have been totally lost and I had to protect him."
Hulstone developed his menu with the help of some of the UK's top chefs - including Sat Bains, Ashley Palmer-Watts, Glynn Purnell and Mark Hill - who gathered for a brainstorming session at Heston Blumenthal's Hind's Head pub in Bray, Buckinghamshire, to help him refine his dishes.
For the first platter, Hulstone served ballotine of Norwegian halibut poached in seaweed stock with a custard of langoustine and summer pea with wild fennel pollen, young carrots braised in Cornish sea buckthorn with golden beetroot, Scottish smoked salmon and langoustine tartare, pickled onion and Devon flora, while the halibut was dressed with a buttered verjus and spring onion sauce.
"I took a massive risk with the halibut as I didn't serve the fish that was presented on the flats on to the judges' plates and I wasn't sure whether that was against the rules," Hulstone admits. "We cooked the halibut at such a low temperature that I wanted to keep some of the fish back to retain its temperature. Luckily the risk paid off."
The Swiss veal platter, meanwhile, was served with black pudding and rolled in pistachio, accompanied by a sweetbread and garlic sausage, cauliflower and Parmesan cutlet, braised red beetroot with goat's cheese and truffle, Devon asparagus with peas and wild mushrooms, foie gras button and a Madeira and truffle jus. Although Hulstone only needed to serve two garnishes, he also prepared a "cheeky bit on the side" - braised cheeks served in lidded Thomas Keller side dishes - so the garnish was piping hot.
"The cheeky bits were a touch of genius and my favourite part of the day," enthuses Daniel Boulud, who was one of three Bocuse d'Or presidents (the others were Philippe Rochat and Fredy Girardet). "Simon's meat dish was the best and really good on flavour." And Boulud wasn't the only one sharing this sentiment, with the panel of 20 judges awarding Hulstone a special prize for his meat dish (the best fish dish went to Tommy Myllymaki of Sweden).
Meanwhile, Brian Turner, president of the Academy of Culinary Arts, which is responsible for the British entry at the Bocuse d'Or, says he is thrilled with Hulstone's result.
"You always want your contestant to do well but you never know what will happen," he says. "But when I tasted Simon's food, I was very comfortable that he would do well and I think the judges really got it right this time."
However, although Hulstone has overcome the first hurdle and has proved himself a force to be reckoned with, he remains cautious about his prospects in Lyon next January, where Scottish monkfish, langoustine and crab, and Scottish lamb will be on the menu.
"This was just the qualifier and everyone will massively up their game in Lyon," he warns. "The Danish, Swedish and American chefs, for instance, are all quitting their jobs to concentrate purely on the Bocuse d'Or over the next six months, practising up to 3,000 hours.
"I have a restaurant to run and it's simply not possible for me to put that kind of work in. So while I'm so pleased to have done well and proved myself as a serious contender, I also really don't want to get anyone's hopes up and then let them down by not doing as well in Lyon."
So what Hulstone will need over the coming months is the support of his industry, and according to Turner there's an awful lot his peers can give.
"Of course, at the end of the day it's all down to Simon and his background team but he'll also need financial support, equipment and produce so he can really hone his skills in time for Lyon," he says.
Hulstone has already secured sponsorship from Seafood Scotland and Scottish Meat, who will supply him with the produce he requires to practise his dishes. But he will also need a vegetable supplier and someone to help design the flats for Lyon.
"It's not about people throwing thousands of pounds at me but it would be great if a supplier could sponsor me," he says. He adds that another brainstorming session with the chefs from the Hind's Head is definitely on the cards, and the more chefs that can get involved in his menu planning the better.
Last but not least it's the security blanket of the crowd that will also help Hulstone to achieve in Lyon and with the main event an even bigger occasion than the European final, it's imperative a sizeable UK fanbase follows him to France.
"People need to start planning their trips to Lyon now as the town will already be booked up," says Turner. "While Simon had fantastic support in Geneva, the noise levels in Lyon will be five, six times louder so he'll really need a good delegation to make themselves heard."
simon Hulstone's menu
• Ballotine of Norwegian halibut poached in seaweed stock
• Custard of langoustine and summer pea with wild fennel pollen
• Young carrots braised in Cornish sea buckthorn with golden beetroot, Scottish smoked salmon and langoustine tartare, pickled onion and Devon flora
• Buttered verjus and spring onion sauce
• Rib of Swiss veal, pistachio and black pudding
• Sweetbread and garlic sausage
• Cauliflower and Parmesan cutlet
• Braised red beetroot with goat's cheese and truffle
• Devon asparagus with peas and wild mushrooms, foie gras button
• Madeira and truffle jus
• A "cheeky bit on the side"
Bocuse d'Or 2011 qualifying countries
Denmark Kofoed Rasmus (wins €12,000)
Norway Gunnar Hvarnes (wins €9,000)
France Jérôme Jaegle (wins €6,000)
UK Simon Hulstone
Sweden Tommy Myllymaki
Finland Matti Jämsen
Switzerland Frank Giovannini
Iceland Thrainn Freyr Vigfusson
Spain Juan Andrés Morilla
Netherlands Marco Poldervaart
Germany Ludwig Heer
Poland Rafal Jelewski
Best fish dish Tommy Myllymaki (Sweden)
Best meat dish Simon Hulstone (UK)
Best commis chef Cécile Panchaud (Switzerland)
Bocuse d'Or 2011
The Bocuse d'Or world final will take place at the Sirha exhibition Lyon on 24-25 January 2011, with 24 chefs from around the world competing for the title. The chefs will have five-and-a-half hours to create two silver platters using Scottish monkfish, langoustine and crab, and Scottish lamb as their main ingredients.
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