When Kenneth Culhane of BaxterStorey won this year's Roux Scholarship it offered further proof that contract catering can attract and develop chefs with the skill and expertise to rival any Michelin-starred restaurant. Kerstin Kühn reports
It might not be considered the sexiest of sectors, but contract catering has once again proved that it is able to attract and develop chefs with the skill and expertise to rival any Michelin-starred restaurant. Having won over the most discerning of critics at the Roux Scholarship, BaxterStorey's Kenneth Culhane's triumph provides further evidence that excellence stretches across the catering industry.
Indeed the company came out with the most credit in this year's Roux Scholarship, with two of its chefs making the culinary competition's 27th national final, and one of them, Irish-born Culhane, going all the way to win it. The 28-year-old is only the second chef from the contract catering sector to clinch the title, following Daniel Cox of Compass Group's Restaurant Associates, who won it in 2008.
Scholarship founder Albert Roux believes Culhane's achievement reflects the high standards across the contract catering industry.
"I'm particularly pleased that we have another winner from within contract catering," he says. "Food is there to be enjoyed, whether it's three-star Michelin or scrambled eggs. In the future I would like to see more chefs from all catering backgrounds take a place in the final, including hospital and army catering."
For now it's only the top end of the contract catering sphere that has produced Roux Scholarship finalists and winners, and Culhane, who works at BaxterStorey's prestigious contract at Level 31 Barclays in Canary Wharf, London, is no exception. After graduating from the Dublin Institute of Technology, he spent time at the Irish capital's two-Michelin-starred restaurant Patrick Guilbaud and Tetsuya Wakuda in Sydney before joining the contract caterer last January.
Having entered the Roux Scholarship twice before, 2010 was Culhane's first attempt at the final, in which he was up against six other chefs in a gruelling cook-off in the kitchens of Westminster Kingsway College where fillet of beef en croûte à la Bisontine with béarnaise sauce was on the menu.
Time was certainly of the essence at the final in more ways than one. Not only were the six finalists given extra time to complete their dish, it also took the judges more time than ever to agree on the winner.
"For all the years I have been judging it was by far the most hotly contested final I have ever seen," says judge Andrew Fairlie, who won the very first Roux Scholarship back in 1984.
"We had more than an hour's debate at the end of it where we were splitting hairs."
Guest judge James Martin adds: "We were completely divided - four of the judges voted for one contestant and four for another. In the end the chair of the judges had to cast the deciding vote. It was very close but the right person won."
But let's rewind four months, to the beginning of the 2010 Roux Scholarship when Culhane submitted his paper recipe for a rice-based dish using five different types of shellfish. While in his previous attempts to get to the final of the competition he had chosen a modern approach, on this occasion he decided to go down a more classical route.
"The Roux brothers are known for their classic French cooking so I decided to submit an old classic dish: shellfish risotto with crab and scallop with a crab velouté made with mussels and razor clams," he explains. The recipe impressed the judges enough to put him through to the regional finals, where he battled it out with 11 other hopefuls in the London heat, cooking his shellfish dish as well as making a dessert of trio of biscuit with apple compote, Italian meringue and lemon curd from a mystery box of ingredients including Cox apples, cinnamon stick, lemons, sugar, milk, eggs and flour.
Again his skills impressed and, for the first time, Culhane progressed to the national final. The task was to cook a fillet of beef en croûte à la Bisontine, a classic dish from the Escoffier era, as well as traditional accompaniments, which included pommes duchesse, braised Gem lettuce and sauce béarnaise.
"The dish shows off a lot of different skills, including pastry and general cooking skills, and there are a lot of areas where it can go wrong," Michel Roux Jnr comments ahead of the judging. "Because it is beef in puff pastry, it's the pastry that is vital. If that goes wrong the whole dish falls apart."
ATTENTIONS TO DETAIL
His father, Albert Roux, adds: "We're looking for attention to detail and the tiniest little bits can make the difference. The beef must not be raw but nice and pink; the pastry must not be soggy; the béarnaise sauce must be sharp but not too sharp."
Once the competitors are briefed, they are given 30 minutes to write out a cooking plan. And it quickly becomes clear just how big a job they have. The dish, while not hugely complicated or difficult according to the judges, is a mammoth one comprising numerous different elements - rough puff pastry, pancakes, mushrooms, spinach, braised lettuce, potatoes, cauliflower purée, beef and béarnaise sauce - so the finalists certainly have their work cut out for them.
"Cooking that dish was definitely the hardest task I have ever had to do," admits Culhane after the final. "There was so much to do and at first I thought it wasn't possible to get everything done."
The judges quickly recognise just how big the challenge is and extend the cooking time by an extra 15 minutes. "It's a huge work list to get through," explains Fairlie. "As soon as we saw the dish and looked at the mise en place, we realised they needed more time."
Fast forward more than two hours - during which the kitchens are abuzz with pastry rolling, chopping, frying, baking and frantic whisking as béarnaise sauces threatened to split - the final plates of food are presented to the nine judges. In the judging room the chefs roam between the dishes, forks primed; picking, dissecting, tasting and deliberating. A few dishes cause a stir and journalists and onlookers are sent out as the more serious debate begins. More than an hour later the judges resurface looking tired.
"It was tough," says Alain Roux, lighting a cigarette. "But we got there in the end."
Fast forward again to the awards ceremony, and the six finalists are gathered on stage in front of an audience of the industry's greats while Albert Roux hesitantly announces the winner. "There is a problem. I'm not sure I know how to pronounce his name," he says. "Neither do I," adds Michel Roux Snr.
Needless to say, they get the name out in the end as winner Culhane's fist shoots in the air in relief, delight and utter excitement. "I'm totally ecstatic. This is the pinnacle of my career; it's a huge pedestal," he says.
As the winner, Culhane's prizes are numerous - he will receive £5,000 courtesy of the Savoy Educational Trust to be used to further his education; a week's paid work experience in New York courtesy of Restaurant Associates; an expenses-paid trip to Champagne Gosset in Ay; and a trip to visit the Caffe Musetti roasting factory in Milan. He will also be admitted into the elite club of Roux Scholars which includes Michelin-starred industry heavyweights Sat Bains, André Garrett and Simon Hulstone.
But, of course, one question remains: after the judges' long and heated deliberation what set Culhane apart from the rest in the end?
"It was taste - quite simply taste," says Michel Roux Jnr. "At the end of the day you may feast with the eyes but you get the most pleasure from the taste. And Kenneth's dish tasted better than anybody else's."
Kenneth Culhane, BaxterStorey, Barclays, London 29. Kevin Sutherland, BaxterStorey, Barclays, London
- Kevin Tew, Corrigan's, Mayfair, London
- Stephen Stevens, Cleifiog Uchaf, Anglesey
- Gemma Almond, The General Tarleton, Ferrensby, N Yorks
- Mark Birchall, L'Enclume, Cartmel, Cumbria
Michel Roux Snr, Albert Roux, Michel Roux Jnr, Alain Roux, Brian Turner, Gary Rhodes, David Nicholls, Andrew Fairlie, James Martin
FILLET OF BEEF EN CROÛTE À LA BISONTINE WITH SAUCE BÉARNAISE
The judges spent a long time deliberating, but taste won through in the end according to Michel Roux Jnr
- 1kg rough puff pastry
- 1 fillet of beef (about 800g-1kg), cut from the thicker end
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 80g clarified butter
- 80g butter
- 1kg button mushrooms, finely chopped
- 2tbs chopped parsley
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 60g shallot, finely chopped
- 100ml double cream
- 12 large spinach leaves
- 4 herb crêpes about 26cm diameter
- Egg wash
Trim the fillet of any membrane, then season all over with salt and pepper. Heat the clarified butter in a roasting pan over a medium-high heat and sear the beef for three to four minutes until golden, turning to colour evenly.
Transfer to the oven and roast for eight minutes, turning the meat over after four minutes. Lift the beef on to a wire rack and leave to cool completely. At this stage, it will be very rare.
For the mushroom duxelle, heat the 80g butter in a pan over a medium heat. Add the mushrooms and lemon juice and cook, stirring from time to time, until all the moisture has evaporated. Add the shallot and cook for another two minutes, then pour in the cream and cook, stirring until it is all absorbed. Add the chopped parsley and season to taste and set aside to cool, then chill.
Blanch the spinach leaves in boiling salted water for 30 seconds, then drain and refresh in cold water. Drain well, separate the leaves and pat each one dry with kitchen paper.
To assemble, roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to make a 40cm x 25cm rectangle, 3-4mm thick. Trim the sides to neaten. Place two crêpes along the middle of the rectangle and cover them with eight spinach leaves. Spoon and spread a 1cm thick band of mushrooms duxelle along the middle of the spinach crêpes. Put the cold beef fillet on top and thickly cover the whole surface, including the ends, with the remaining duxelle.
Cover the mushroom duxelle with the remaining spinach leaves and crêpes. Fold the crêpes over the beef and if necessary cut off any overlapping parts with scissors.
Lightly brush the two ends of the pastry rectangle with egg wash. Fold one side over the beef, brush it and the ends with egg wash, then fold to the side over the beef.
Roll out the two ends of the pastry to a 4-5mm thickness, and trim to an 8cm length. Brush these with egg wash and fold them over the beef. Turn the pastry-wrapped beef over on to a baking sheet, egg wash the entire surface of the pastry and refrigerate for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 200°C/Gas 6. Brush the entire surface of the pastry with egg wash a second time and score it with leaf patterns using a knife tip. Cut a small aperture in the middle of the pastry to allow the steam to escape during cooking. Bake for 25 minutes if you like your beef rare, or 35 minutes for medium. If the pastry becomes too brown as it cooks, cover loosely with foil and lower the oven setting to 170°C/Gas 3.
Use a palette knife to transfer the cooked beef en croûte to a wire rack and leave it to rest for five minutes. Carve three thick slices of the beef en croûte and transfer the fillet on to a serving platter. Disregard the first slice with the crust, arrange the second slice on a plate and the third in front of the beef on the platter.
For the garnish à la Bisontine (Escoffier)
Place four croustades made from pommes duchesse filled with creamed purée of cauliflower on the platter and one croustade on the plate. Place four braised Gem lettuce on the platter and one on the plate.
Arrange watercress for presentation and serve the béarnaise sauce separately.
In winning the 2010 Roux Scholarship, Kenneth Culhane, 28, becomes only the second chef from the contract catering sector to clinch the title.
Based at BaxterStorey's flagship contract at Barclays in Canary Wharf, Culhane works as sous chef to head chef Simon Attridge and executive chef Matthew Hazewell in the bank's Level 31 fine-dining operation. He was promoted from the post of chef de partie last November.
But Culhane wasn't always destined to become a chef. Originally, he hoped to have a scientific career, but once he discovered that his passion lay in food, he soon switched focus. While at the Dublin Institute of Technology (where he achieved a BA Hons in Culinary Arts), he spent time working at the city's two-Michelin-starred restaurant Patrick Guilbaud.
Once qualified and having won Student of the Year at the institute, Culhane then joined Patrick Guildbaud proper, working in various roles under head chef Guillaume Lebrun.
Then in 2005, he had the unique opportunity of a placement with Tetsuya Wakuda at his eponymous restaurant in Sydney.
This was followed by a year spent on "a gastronomic adventure" around France including a stint at the then Michelin-starred Le Choiseul in the Loire Valley.
Culhane then moved to London, where he took up a role at the Queen's Club in West Kensington, working under head chef Colin Johnstone, before moving to BaxterStorey 15 months ago.
The predominant prize of the Roux Scholarship, and what sets it apart from all other competitions, is the opportunity for its winner to do a three-month stint at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant of choice from a rapidly expanding band of restaurants in Europe to the value of £5,000, courtesy of the Savoy Educational Trust.
However, in a break from tradition, last year's winner, Hrishikesh Desai, opted to go to Thomas Keller's the French Laundry in Napa Valley, California.
Culhane, meanwhile, has suggested that he might like to be a little closer to home at the three-Michelin-starred Regis Marcon in St Bonnet-le-Froid, south of St Etienne.
"It has been a thought but I would like to sit down with the Roux brothers and get their advice on where would be best for me to go," he says.
In addition, Culhane wins a week's work experience in New York, with flights and accommodation provided courtesy of Restaurant Associates; a jeroboam of Gosset Grande Reserve, signed by all the judges; an expenses-paid trip to visit the wine cellars of Gosset at Epernay; a trip for two to visit the Caffe Musetti roasting factory in Milan with flights and a night's accommodation courtesy of L'Unico; a year's subscription to Caterer and Hotelkeeper; a set of Global knives to the value of £1,000; a five-piece engraved set from All-Clad; a Thermomix TM31 and a travel case worth more than £900.