Freddie Forster, who won the National Chef of the Year title at the fourth attempt last month, had so fallen out of love with cooking that 18 months ago he was working as a meeter and greeter for Abercrombie & Fitch. Tom Vaughan reports on how he got his second wind
Freddie Forster has the look of an incredulous comeback kid. "I feel invigorated again," he says, perched in the reception of restaurant Nuovo in Essex's Buckhurst Hill, a framed picture of his victory at the Craft Guild of Chefs' National Chef of the Year 2011 hung beside him. "Sometimes people peak, then they go down, then they peak again. I feel like I've got a second wind and winning this title affirms that."
To many, Forster's victory at the prestigious National Chef of the Year finals in early October was nothing out of the ordinary. A former head chef at the Ritz, and the third-placed finalist in 2010's competition, his triumph could seem like a natural progression for an individual with such pedigree. But on arrival at Nuovo, a smart but casual Italian which he joined as head chef in August this year, it is apparent that all is not as it should be. Though a respectable establishment, it's not a natural home for one of the four chefs to have won both the National Chef of the Year competition and the equally esteemed Roux Scholarship, sporting as it does a menu made up mostly of pizza and pasta dishes. Intrigue abounds. But a quiz on his whereabouts isn't opening-gambit material, and for now Forster is patently cock-a-hoop as the newly crowned National Chef of the Year.
"I just had the feeling when I entered that this would be my year," he says, sat upright in Nuovo's reception. "It was my fourth attempt, I was familiar with what the judges were looking for, I felt comfortable in myself, had done a lot of planning, had some good advice from people I really respect; I had all the bases covered. I thought I really must be in with a shot."
Built like a sprinter and with a Colin Jackson-esque eloquence, Forster could well be a poster boy for UK chefs. In fact, just 18 months ago the 36-year-old was leaning more on his looks than his cooking skill, filling in as one of the honed hunks at shamelessly narcissistic clothes shop Abercrombie & Fitch after falling out of love with cooking (more on which later). However, when talking about his title, his self-belief seems somehow refreshed. "I felt with all the experience I had in the past few years - I've seen who has won and how they've won - I tried to use that to my advantage. I felt it was my year for this."
An entrant in 2004 and a finalist in 2008 and 2010, this year represented Forster's fourth crack of the whip. Prior experiences clearly paid dividends, and he learnt to keep things simple with his winning menu: "In the past I've tried to be too elaborate, to show off. But I realised that you haven't got a lot of time, you've got to keep it simple, keep it clean and well balanced. Simplicity is the key."
In previous formats of the competition - which this year switched from a biennial to an annual contest - chefs were presented, just the night before, with a box of mystery ingredients with which to make a three-course meal. However, 2011 finalists were given a week with which to devise their menu, as well as a mentor day so organisers could talk them through what was expected. "I prefer it this way," says Forster. "There's more time now to come up with what you want to cook. Although it's almost too much time, you find yourself changing your mind, going off track. Once I'd decided what I wanted to cook I had to try and stick to it, to just fine tune." Chefs were required to send in their menu to the Craft Guild of Chefs as an order form, requesting specific numbers of ingredients, which they had to stick to on the day.
After a week juggling the running of Nuovo's kitchens with late nights and early mornings practising dishes, and with the invaluable advice of the Ritz's executive chef John Williams and restaurateur Malcolm John, Forster settled upon his menu: sautéd scallops with croquette of crab and ceviche of vegetables, followed by roast Gressingham duck with duck-leg burger, root vegetables, potato Maxine and a blackberry sauce, then cheesecake panna cotta with a mango and lime sorbet.
Not only had previous years taught him to keep things simple, but he'd picked up practical tips from other competitors: a method of using grill plates to turn the ring hobs into a flat-top stove and the importance of labelling every pot, pan and dish in accordance with its purpose. With just two hours to turn out the three-course menu for four persons, in course order, Forster didn't seem to break sweat as commis chef Adam Bowden and he finished with six minutes spare.
From there it was in the lap of the Gods, and the dishes went to the panel of judges, which included the likes of Bruce Poole, Chris Galvin, Angela Hartnett, Atul Kochhar and Vivek Singh. When the winner was announced, Forster's success appeared somehow preordained. Positioned in the centre of the stage, with all eyes set on him, it wasn't until the compere uttered the words "If anyone lives up to the adage ‘if at first you don't succeed try, try, try again' it's this chef," that his face cracked and his hands clasped his forehead in disbelief. As well as the title, Forster received a prize fund worth in excess of £12,000 including a study trip to France, plus wine tasting in the Hermitage region and dinner at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant.
Forster's victory represents a remarkable turnaround for someone who, 18 months ago, was giving serious consideration to quitting cooking all together. Up until then, his career had been an accolade-laden rise through Michelin-starred kitchens. After graduating from Westminster Kingsway College, he went straight to work for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons, and was spell bound. "It captivated me; how organised it was, how passionate Raymond was. I fell in love with it. And when you start a certain way, it becomes part of you; it just took me over. I thought, ‘This is how cooking should be done', and from there I went straight to other Michelin-starred restaurants."
Next up was a role in the early days of Gordon Ramsay's Aubergine, then the talk of the town in London. "Aubergine was dramatic for me. I went there as it was opening and there was Gordon, Marcus Wareing, Angela Hartnett in the kitchen. It was a great time; exciting, buzzing. Everyone there had to be physically strong, but I never felt the difficulty of it because I wanted to be there so much."
From there came four months at the three Michelin-starred La Côte d'Or, under the late Bernard Loiseau, seven months at Le Gavroche, a spell under Simon Rogan at Addington Place, before a couple of jobs abroad - at the Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados and Le Royal Mirage Hotel, Dubai. Returning to spend four years in a career-high role as head chef at the Ritz, the end of his time there coincided with doubts creeping into his mind: "When I left the Ritz I didn't really know what I wanted to do. Confused isn't the right word but there was certainly an element of that. I wanted to do something different, maybe to freelance for a bit. I had gone as far as I could go in fine-dining and didn't know if I wanted to go back. I hadn't really stopped for 15 years and I was falling out of love with cooking."
Marco Pierre White famously recognised that his pursuit of excellence in the kitchen came with massive consequences to his personal life, was there an element of that in his Forster's change of heart? "Absolutely. From when I left college I hadn't really stopped cooking. I didn't see my friends - I didn't have any friends - I was cooking all the time."
A brief spell at Le Boudin Blanc in London's Green Park followed, before Forster took an indefinite break from the kitchen, visiting a friend in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup and even doing a three-month stint as a meeter and greeter at an Abercrombie & Fitch store. Fortunately, he was eventually coaxed back to the kitchen by the owners of 44 Restaurant and Lounge in Hornchurch. "I didn't really know what I wanted to do, except that I didn't want to go back into Michelin-starred kitchens. But I realised that cooking is what I know and what I love, but that I had to find the right place to work. 44 gave me the chance to fall back in love with cooking." He hadn't planned to enter the 2010 National Chef of the Year title, not feeling "in the right place mentally", but a phone-call invitation persuaded him and a third-place finish gave him the "oomph to go on and win it in 2011", he says.
After a year in Hornchurch, the owners of Nuovo persuaded him to come on board and help transform their restaurants (there is a second site in Chingford) with a line-up of more upmarket British dishes. Two months in and the project is very much a work in progress, with Forster's specials board - featuring the likes of his winning scallop dish and roast partridge - at slight odds with the à la carte pizza and pasta. Both he and the owners know the direction they want to take the restaurant - maintaining some of the Italian vibe but introducing more upmarket British brasserie food, and the aim is to get through Christmas before any major changes are rung.
Does he harbour goals beyond this? "When I first started I didn't say to myself, ‘I want my own restaurant one day', I was just so obsessed with cooking. There was a point when I expected that it would come naturally, but it doesn't always work out that way. It's something I thought about, especially now this title has given me extra drive, but whether I go down that route we'll have to wait and see."
If any talent needed saving, needed a shot in the arm and bringing back into the fold, it was Forster's. The National Chef of the Year title has, fortunately, done just that. Hopefully, he says, it will open doors that he was too young to fully appreciate when an up-and-coming chef. "When I was younger I was trying to fight everybody. Not physically, but I was battling, trying to take on the world. Back then I wasn't ready for those challenges and opportunities. I'm more mature and more settled within myself now."
For the moment, he seems happy pursuing a steady life in the provinces, away from the Michelin-starred mayhem he spent so much of his twenties and thirties in. The Craft Guild of Chefs has organised an agent to help raise his profile in the short term, but what exactly the future holds, Forster is still unsure about. One thing is for certain though; he's adamant that he's not going to let this second wind blow out. "I feel physically and mentally stronger than I did when I was 22," he says. "I feel there's a lot to come from me; I just need to go about it in the right way."
national chef of the year winners since 1990
1990 Roger Narbett
1992 Gordon Ramsay
1994 Lou Jones
1996 David Everitt-Matthias
1998 Kevin Viner
2000 Bruce Sangster
2002 Mark Sargeant
2004 Steve Love
2006 Eyck Zimmer
2008 Simon Hulstone
2010 Hrishikesh Desai
2011 Frederick Forster