Adam Bennett, head chef at Simpsons in Birmingham, has taken over from Simon Hulstone as the UK's Bocuse d'Or candidate. He tells Katherine Alano how he's getting ready for one of the toughest culinary competitions in the world, which takes place in Lyon at the end of this month
How were you selected to represent Great Britain at one of the most highly-regarded culinary competitions, the Bocuse d'Or? I was originally invited to take on the challenge back in early 2011, and after a cook-off at the Ritz, in London, I was shortlisted to take part in the UK final at the University of West London in September that year. It was a challenge, but fortunately I managed to convince the judges that I have what it takes to make it to the world final.
Have you had much competition experience prior to the Bocuse d'Or? I won Midlands Chef of the Year in 2005, and also reached the final of the Craft Guild of Chefs National Chef of the Year in 2004, 2006 and 2010.
You currently work as head chef at the Michelin-starred Simpsons in Birmingham. How have you juggled practice sessions for the competition and working in the kitchen?
I've been very lucky in that Andreas Antona (chef-proprietor of Simpsons) has allowed me to take a sabbatical so that I could focus my efforts on the Bocuse d'Or. As far as I know, this is the first time that a British candidate has had this opportunity and I hope that it puts us in a stronger position this year.
Competition for trade is tough at the moment, too. How has business been at Simpsons? Fortunately, business has been very good at Simpsons and we've just had the second-best Christmas ever.
Does competing have a positive effect on business? Competing is good for the profile of the restaurant within the industry. However, the Bocuse d'Or is still relatively unheard of among the general public so we haven't seen any significant impact on business.
Are you planning anything in particular in terms of promotion for the restaurant in 2013? It has been all hands on deck for everyone for the past few months so we haven't had the luxury of planning that far ahead. However, we have a few ideas in the pipeline for events post-Bocuse d'Or, and we'll be continuing our regular marketing activity throughout the rest of the year.
Does the continued focus on austerity affect the menu? How do you attract a more cost-conscious customer? We've remained busy throughout the tough times but, as with any successful business, we keep a close eye on what we spend.
Having a team of highly skilled chefs helps enormously as we can create high-end dishes using cheaper cuts of meat and less-pricey varieties of seafood. We're keeping our profit margins steady.
In Birmingham there's a big divide between the lower end of the market and fine-dining restaurants such as Simpsons, but we find that offering consistently good food and service keeps our customers coming back. We find that our diners prefer to spend more and eat out less often than to compromise on good food and service. We also have a lunch menu during the week which, at £38 for three courses and half a bottle of wine, offers great value and is proving a hit with customers old and new.
A practice kitchen has been set up at University College Birmingham (UCB). How has this helped with preparing for the competition? The kitchen has been a huge asset. It has given us a space to think, create and experiment and to give our preparation for the Bocuse d'Or the focus it needs. I can't thank UCB and the sponsors enough for making it happen.
Did your study trips help? I was lucky enough to have a week's stage in September with Régis Marcon at his Restaurant Régis et Jacques Marcon, in Larsiallas, St-Bonnet-le-Froid. It was an inspirational experience and encouraged me to learn more about each ingredient and how to get the best out of everything on the plate.
I was also invited to Ireland by Bord Bia, the beef sponsors for the Bocuse d'Or. We checked out the Irish cattle and the team at the abattoir to gain a better understanding of the cuts available. Again, everyone out there impressed us with their knowledge of their produce and their enthusiasm for what they do.
You will be supported by a team including coach Nick Vadis and commis Kristian Curtis. What are their roles? Nick's role is to coach and support me in my preparations. He has helped to organise the equipment and sponsors. He has also helped us to navigate the complex rules of the Bocuse d'Or, which is no mean feat. When we're out in Lyon he'll be making sure that we're in the right place at the right time for the professional engagements and helping us to time-keep in the kitchen. While Nick isn't permitted inside the competition kitchen, he'll be there as the third pair of eyes in the team.
Kristian has been working with me since the end of October so he already has a good knowledge of the ingredients and what's required. His primary responsibility is looking after and perfecting the six garnishes, three for the beef and three for the fish. His secondary role is team comedian, helping to keep up morale, and chief tweeter.
Bocuse d'Or is renowned for having top international chefs such as Thomas Keller and Paul Bocuse himself as judges. How do you feel about cooking for such luminaries?
This year, Bocuse d'Or has changed the rules to encourage creativity and add international flavour. Can you tell us more about that? Has it affected your menu? The new rules have certainly mixed things up a bit. We learnt about the fish ingredients in November, much later than in previous years, which means less time to plan and perfect the dish.
The fish course will be served this year on 14 individual plates and we will also be asked to improvise on two of the three vegetable garnishes. We will be given one-and-a-half hours on the day before the final to shop for two of the accompanying ingredients.
However, the new format will give more scope for spontaneity in the competition, adding even more of a buzz come the final.
I imagine that it will open up the competition and I'm intrigued to see how the others approach the challenge.
Have you had much contact with the Coupe du Monde Team UK? Of course we're right behind them, but apart from professional engagements we haven't had much contact over the past few months. Both the Coupe du Monde (see opposite) and the Bocuse d'Or require focus and weeks of preparation so I expect that Martin [Chiffers] and the boys will have had their noses to the grindstone as much as we have recently!
How have you prepared for the crazy and noisy environment in which you will work? While I can practise my dishes until I'm blue in the face, nothing can prepare for the noise and atmosphere of the Bocuse d'Or. The European finals in Brussels were the closest I've been to such an experience and I loved it. In my view, you can either let the noise crush you or you can feed off it.
Has the 2011 British representative, Simon Hulstone, helped you to plan for that? Before I even decided to take on the challenge, I spoke to Simon at length about what was involved and that discussion helped me to better prepare for the experience. Since then, Simon has always been there whenever I've needed him.
Have you been able to learn from Simon Hulstone's experience? Simon helped to raise the profile of the Bocuse d'Or in the UK. He's a great chef who has plenty of respect from his peers. He left a positive legacy for me and future candidates. Simon didn't have the luxury of a replica kitchen to practise in and yet still proved that Team UK should be taken seriously. I'd like to build on his legacy.
How can we as a country compete with Scandinavia's domination of the competition? On his own admission, Rasmus Kofoed [2011 winner] gave up his life for the Bocuse d'Or, which is what's required if you're going to win consecutive bronze, silver and gold trophies. To compete with the Scandinavians we need to continue the level of support I've had, using the UCB facility and selecting and mentoring future candidates well ahead of the competition. Kristian, for example, may be a prospect for the future.
Money alone is not enough: success in the Bocuse d'Or starts with good ideas, which cost nothing, but to take those ideas to the level of perfection required you then need time, facilities and produce. This is where the money comes in.
It is well known that other competing countries have a massive network of support and funding. Can more be done to change the way chef competitions are perceived within the industry? I think that more should be done because these competitions are a fantastic way to showcase British culinary talent and to generate tourism on the back of it. Other countries have members of government and royalty in attendance, which shows the importance they give it. The UK Bocuse d'Or team has come a long way in the past few years but we have limited resources. If we are going to make the same impact as the other countries, we need to join forces with other chef and hospitality organisations to lobby for support.
What is the goal for Team UK this year? We'd love to reach the podium and bring home a trophy and this is what we're working towards. We also aim to deepen our understanding about the competition and to pass this on to the next candidate.
What is in the Bocuse d'Or ingredients box? Twenty-four chefs compete over the two days at Lyon. With the help of a commis, each chef must produce a meat dish and a fish dish each with two garnishes. The meat dish will be presented on silver flats, while the fish dish will be presented on 14 individual plates to a jury of judges made up of a representative from each competing country.
Turbot Label Rouge â¨(psetta maxima)
Origin â¨Fish from the Côtes d'Armor or Noirmoutier regions (French Atlantic coast)
Weight 2.5kg to 3 kg
Description Three turbots (non-gutted), â¨to prepare 14 plates
European blue lobster (homarus gammarus)
Origin Northern Europe
Weight Approximately 500g
Description Four lobsters without antennae, to prepare 14 plates
Main product â¨Fillet of Bord Bia Irish beef - Irish pastures quality assurance
Description Fillet of beef 3.4-3.5kg unpeeled (butt, centre-cut, and tail)
Additional recommended products made available to the candidates:
Feather blade 2kg
Ox cheek 500g
Ox tail Piece weighing between 1kg and 1.5kg
SPONSORS/SUPPLIERS â¨FOR 2013
Bord Bia Grass-fed Irish Beef
Métro The market that will be available on Monday 28 January as part of the fish test will consist of a "Seasons Market of the five continents", set up by our partner, Métro. The candidates will find a selection of fruit and vegetables that will only be disclosed at the time the market will become available to the teams, before the written test.
COUPE DU MONDE The prestigious biennial competition, known as La Coupe du Monde de la PÁ¢tisserie, which precedes the Bocuse d'Or, sees 20 countries from around the world compete for the title.
This year the UK will be represented by Javier Mercado, pastry lecturer at Westminster College, Nicolas Bouhelier, pastry sous chef at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Nicolas Belorgey, pÁ¢tisserie teaching chef, Le Cordon Bleu London, and promotion manager Richard Victoria from Ritter Courivaud. The team is led by team president Martin Chiffers, executive pastry chef at London's Savoy hotel.
Each team must produce: three chocolate desserts using Valrhona "grand crus", included in an artistic sugar creation; three frozen fruit desserts using Ravifruit products, included in an artistic hydric ice sculpture; â¨12 identical desserts served on a plate, included in an artistic chocolate creation, all in a 10-hour competition.
UK Pastry Club Coupe du Monde chairman Benoit Blin MCA, executive pastry chef at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, says: "Since the beginning of November the team has been meeting at the Cordon Bleu School in London on most Saturdays to practise. While continuing with their busy working schedules, they have also been developing their recipes and techniques and have received valuable support and coaching from colleagues."
La Coupe du Monde de la PÁ¢tisserie was started in 1989 by Gabriel Paillasson, who, inspired by Paul Bocuse creating the Bocuse d'Or, wanted to launch a similar high-profile contest for pÁ¢tisserie chefs.
Valrhona Sponsors message As a founding partner of the World Pastry Cup, a world-class competition that promotes the pastry arts, Valrhona continues to demonstrate its commitment to serving chefs by creating an opportunity for them to further develop their creative skill and enjoy an international sense of camaraderie - and giving this honourable profession the moment in the international spotlight it deserves.