Now in its 10th year, Springboard's FutureChef competition has done more to inspire youngsters to join the industry than any other initiative. Tom Vaughan considers a decade of development
When I was 11 I wanted to be a footballer. My friend, Simon, wanted to be on TV and another friend, Chris, wanted to be a racing driver. In fact, among the wannabe firemen, astronauts, doctors, vets and wrestlers, not one of us had designs on a career in the kitchen.
It's exactly this predicament, uncovered by research from hospitality charity Springboard, that brought about the creation of FutureChef 10 years ago. FutureChef is a competition for 12 to 16-year-olds aimed at inspiring the next generation of young chefs. By assigning them a mentor chef and a chance to compete all the way to a national final - judged by Michelin-starred chefs - the aim was to instil a passion for cooking in the young competitors. The first FutureChef attracted 22 entrants. A decade on, it attracts 7,000 competitors from 600 schools, as well as 1,000 mentor chefs.
The 2009 winner, Luke Thomas, already has his eyes on a Michelin star (see panel) while top chefs sing the competition's praises and are happy to give up their time to judge.
"The idea is to begin to influence people at a school level when they've yet to make decisions on careers and make them see that hospitality is a good choice," says craft & food development director at Sodexo UK, David Mulcahy, who has been involved with the competition from the start and acts as head judge.
"At both local levels when regional chefs go into schools, then at the later stages when more famous chefs get involved, right up to the final when celebrity chefs help judge, all of it helps open their eyes and raise their skill level. Everyone that's involved - chefs, industry bodies, manufacturers, suppliers - does so because they recognise the importance of nurturing talent."
John Williams, executive chef at the Ritz, has also been involved with judging the final. "This is where it all starts," he says. "OK, they are mentored and looked after, but it's so stressful, it's like jumping off the end of a ship and having to swim. Some of the food they go on to produce in the final: of the 12 plates of food, three will be of a standard considerably older than their age group."
These days it's less of a competition and more a development programme, says Mulcahy. "A competition sounds like there is only one winner and the rest are losers. Yes, the final has a winner, but so many of the contestants come out of it much better off. It's defined itself as the very first stepping stone. After FutureChef they'll have been exposed to professional kitchens and chefs, and after that hopefully they will consider going on to become apprentices."
FutureChef alumni are starting to crop up more and more in the industry, says Mulcahy. "They've started applying for jobs, or they're competing elsewhere."
Does it make him proud? "It's certainly great to see them enjoying it. I spoke to the parents of a boy who came second last year and he's working with us at Sodexo at Ascot, and they're over the moon about it. They get so much more support than people of my generation got when we were starting out."
Cyrus Todiwala, chef-patron of London's Café Spice Namaste, says half the reason he helps judge is that the children inspire him as much as he inspires the children. "To see little kids like that - and we had two very, very small children this year, one of whom cut her finger - to see them working so methodically and so practically; who could fail to be inspired?"
Regardless of whether they opt for a career in hospitality, the competition is a vital stage in their development, says Todiwala.
"Whether or not they end up becoming a chef, of greater importance is that a small child becomes so influenced by food at such an early age," he adds. "Handling equipment, learning to feed themselves, learning about provenance and to appreciate good food and new things; it is bound to have an effect on them for their rest of their lives."
Luke Thomas: futurechef 2009 winnER
The FutureChef production line of talent is fairly substantial but in 2009 winner Luke Thomas, the competition has turned out one of its most ambitious victors yet.
The 16-year-old from Wales won stages at London restaurant Gary Rhodes W1 and the three-Michelin-starred La Pergola in Rome after wowing judges with a two-course menu of rack of lamb with creamed Savoy cabbage, shallot tarte tatin and rosemary jus and a double chocolate soufflé with orange and ginger confit.
Since then, he has gone on to add stages at other Michelin-starred restaurants, including Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley and Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck in Bray, as well as starring on UKTV's show Market Kitchen and making appearances at kitchen demonstrations at places such as the Wrexham Food Festival.
His ambition, he says, is to become one of the youngest chefs ever to gain a Michelin star. "In five years' time I want to have had loads of experience in the industry - around Europe and the UK. And ideally I want to be heading up my own kitchen," he says.
The FutureChef win certainly opened doors for Thomas, but it was nothing without that searing ambition.
"You're opening your eyes in that competition," he continues. "You're meeting other people, you're working all over the country and you're representing your restaurant, your school and your nation. You have the title for a year and it got me into Gary Rhodes W1 and into other restaurants and that'll all help when it comes to job opportunities."
The young chef currently works part time at Chester Grosvenor hotel, after starting his first job in the kitchen three years ago in north Wales. In October, when his GCSEs are finished, he is set to start full-time at his current employer.
From his experiences so far, hospitality simply can't be compared to any other industry, he says.
"The way the kitchen is organised, the amount you need to learn about food and ingredients and the style of cooking; it's unique."
Throughout all of this, what has been the most eye-opening experience of his past year? "Definitely the Fat Duck," he answers, without hesitation.
"It's the best thing I've ever done. I've now worked in quite a few Michelin-starred restaurants but the Fat Duck is like nowhere I've ever seen. I spent three days doing prep, overseeing service and looking around the lab and there's so much knowledge about the science behind everything."
Thomas's food is shaping up to be modern British and fine dining in style, but he's got a long way to go, he admits, although he's got a pretty comprehensive head start.
KERRY JOHANSEN: FUTURECHEF 2010 WINNER
Kerry Johansen fought off competition from almost 8,000 12 to 16-year-olds to be crowned FutureChef 2010 in the competition's 10th anniversary year.
The 16-year-old impressed the panel of high profile judges with Lamb Three Ways: pan-seared rump of lamb, petit mustard shepherd's pie, lamb scouse, pumpkin purée and buttered spinach, followed by a dessert of navel orange and ginger soufflé with chocolate and orange sauce.
Excelling despite the pressure in the competition kitchen, Johansen's dishes were praised for their intensity of flavour and balanced seasoning. "I practised my menu day and night," she says. "I was really focused on winning this year."
Like the 11 other finalists, she worked throughout the year with a mentor chef. Gareth
Billington, executive head chef for Sodexo Prestige at Everton Football Club, guided Johansen's culinary development.
"Kerry came to Everton on a summer work experience programme," he explains. "We could see she had potential, and Sodexo and her colleagues at Everton helped her development.
"Kerry has such a strong desire to succeed. We never take anything for granted but her win is fully justified. It's nice to see a reward for all her hard work."
Along with the invaluable experience of working - and succeeding - under such pressure, Johansen has also been handed an expenses-paid trip to the Rome Cavalieri, part of the Waldorf Astoria Collection, as well as a day of work experience with the head chef of a Malmaison or Hotel du Vin operation.
what are the Ex-competitors doing now
Northern Ireland representative Victoria Wills won the 2005 competition at her first attempt. "It was great; probably the best day ever," she says, looking back. "Even the night before at the hotel, meeting all the chefs; everything about it."
However, despite her victory, hospitality didn't quite do enough to turn her head. "I've always wanted to do medicine but it was a hard choice to turn down cooking. There was a catering college in my hometown and it would have been so easy to go to it. The mentors are so enthusiastic they're almost enough on their own to convince you to do cooking."
But medicine won out and she is now in her fourth year of study at university. How has it compared so far to how she might imagine a career in the kitchen would have panned out?
"In four years of medicine I haven't met anything nearly as stressful as cooking, especially in that final. But you need that stress, you need the competiveness, and I thrive on it."
Finalist 2005 and 2006
Now senior chef de partie at the Brasserie in Yarm, Victoria Smout only entered FutureChef in 2005 because she liked baking cakes at home.
"I didn't think I'd get past the school stage and then I made it to the final," she explains. "It was only after that first competition that I seriously considered a career as a chef. I competed again to prove it wasn't a fluke and it wasn't. It's definitely why I'm now a chef."
The competition also helped her get her first and second jobs, through the publicity generated through her position as a finalist, she says. Her aim is to be in charge of her own kitchen by the age of 24, cooking the brasserie-style food she does now, and along the way the alumni support system will invariably be there.
"Still things come through the door about FutureChef," she says. "In a few weeks' time I'll be cooking for the FutureChef fundraiser with a celebrity chef, for example. If you want a career in cooking, it's the best way to start."
Since Rebecca Toppin won FutureChef in 2007, she has gone from strength to strength. She left school after completing her GCSEs and started full-time work at the County, a local restaurant in the North East.
She followed this up by applying for a position at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in Oxford and, after a two-day trial, was offered a three-year apprenticeship, which she started in January 2008.
After completing a year she was promoted to commis chef and Rebecca continues to be employed by Le Manoir today.
Clockwise from top left: FutureChef 2010 winner Kerry Johansen; Ffion Evans, Wales region; the omelette challenge; plating up in the kitchen; judge Steve Munkley
from father to son: taking the family route into hospitaliTY
Would you encourage your son into the industry? Nigel Haworth, chef-patron of Northcote, has done just that. After starting as a pot washer in his father's restaurant aged 15, Kirk Haworth was soon bitten by the cooking bug. However, his father's instincts were for him to go to university, then return to cooking.
"However, he wanted to do an apprenticeship and he convinced me to let him do it at Northcote," explains Nigel.
Now, aged 22, Kirk has just returned from a three-month stage at the French Laundry in California, completed on the back of a 15-month period at Pied à Terre in London.
Does having a dad as a chef make it easier or harder for Kirk? "On the one hand you get an instant platform, that a lot of chefs don't get. But on the other hand, it makes it a bit harder as he has my name, so a reputation goes before him," explains Nigel.
Another father-son team are Tony and Jack Robson Burrell of the Wheatsheaf at Oaksey. Again, the cooking bug bit during Jack's formative years pot-washing. Tony encouraged him to take a place at Bournemouth College and from there he completed a placement at the Ritz, before the two joined forces at Tony's gastropub.
Does the team work well together? "Yes," says Tony. "We'll try and achieve some serious goals. We'll certainly be here together for the next five years and try and push the place on and gain a Michelin star together."
But how does the divide between a professional and familial relationship work? "It's fine," says Tony. "Sometimes I get angry when he makes mistakes, but then I get angry with all 17-year-olds. Sometimes it's father and son, sometimes it's employee and employer; but one relationship never affects the other."