National Chef of the Year sponsor Lockhart Catering Equipment recently hosted a study trip in France for 2011 winner Frederick Forster. Michael Raffael reports
The headline prize for the Craft Guild of Chef's 2011 National Chef of the Year, won by Frederick Forster, was a study trip to France. Was the Craft Guild of Chefs sending a message that rumours of France's decline as the culinary superpower were premature?
A generation ago, nobody would have raised the question. It isn't one that would have occurred to Forster back then. He was the Roux Scholar in 2000. He had cut his teeth at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons and done an extended stage chez Pierre Gagnaire. Spain's El Bulli was a force, but our own Fat Duck and Denmark's Noma were newcomers.
Régis Marcon's stature will be familiar to the Michelin guide faithful. Beyond its hallowed walls he's not a household name. His hotel-restaurant at Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid (with a population of just 228) perches on a hilltop, almost 4,000ft above sea level. Lyon, the nearest big town, is over an hour's drive away.
Locally, he's more than a famous chef-patron. He employs about a quarter of the village. An ex-maître d' owns the café. His brother is mayor. Another brother is the region's MP. Son Jacques is both a partner and his head chef. The community revolves around him. He even bakes the bread, selling it at the government-regulated price.
His third Michelin star came in 2005, when his Relais & Châteaux property was in the main street. Since then, he has built a luxury eco-hostelry overlooking the rolling Auvergne landscape. Any sense of Sleepy Hollow vanishes when crossing its threshold.
Its theme, from the cep logo embossed on the menu to the boletus-flavoured chocolate served with coffee, is wild fungus. Opening his mushroom fridge, Jacques Marcon says he's using dozens of varieties depending on the season.
"Some are brought in locally, but we also import them from as far away as Bulgaria. At the moment [because it was spring] we're using morels. There are two kinds and one tastes better than the other. We also have St George's mushrooms and the earliest mousserons. We can get through about 40kg a day."
Forster, who is head chef of Nuovo restaurant in Buckhurst Hill, Essex, has seen the insides of a few kitchens. He was John Williams's head chef at the Ritz and also at Sandy Lane and the Royal Mirage Dubai.
Casting a tutored eye over the Marcon kitchens he picked out the silence with which everyone performed. "That told me everyone was there for a purpose and focused," he says. "You could tell that it wasn't going to be a techno kitchen with every dish prepped in a water bath. It has a strong classical base."
It's a view that Régis Marcon endorses. "I like my cooks to practise all the techniques and not rely on sous-vide," he says.
Jacques Marcon looks like his father. He admits that as a boy he was more interested in gardening than cooking. That has changed, probably because his parent was a natural mentor. According to Forster, "You could see there was a secure relationship, that there was lots of trust between them. It was a real partnership. It was evident in the way that Jacques had taken on the responsibility for the kitchen."
A chasm separates the tasting menus of post-Adrià gastronomy from La Grande Cuisine Française. One relies on cranking up the "gosh factor" with a string of personalised dishes that reflect a creative chef's imagination and technical wizardry. The other uses the framework of an agreed culinary plot and then decorates it with personal touches. A dish stands or falls by its mixture of subtle invention and familiarity. Menus still echo the structure that was in place in the misty past of Escoffier.
Régis Marcon has been working for his government to reform craft cooking education and reintroduce apprenticeships to commercial restaurants. A past winner of the Bocuse d'Or and the prestigious Prix Pierre Taittinger, he's committed to the cause of French cuisine. His son has worked in Shanghai and South-east Asia. These two elements play off each other through the meal. What cements them is a powerful regional theme. The handling of wild herbs, flowers and garlic gives a nod to Michel Bras's restaurant on the other side of Auvergne.
Open four days a week, serving 50 lunches and dinners, Jacques Marcon manages a brigade of 20 chefs. Many of his dishes disguise complex preparation. An opening course (after a string of canapés and an eggshell filled with duxelle and bacon with a wild cress purée) of langoustine included a cauliflower cream, lightly pickled vegetable shards, a pastry mattress topped with herbs and onion and the sautéd langoustine dusted with a powder made from dried pine needles.
Stuffed cabbage wrapping pigeon and foie gras - more of a ballotine - sat on a spoonful of barley, in a lemon grass scented consommé; and on the side was a white cabbage mousse with roasted pigeon leg.
Doing the rounds of his clients, Régis Marcon suggests that the stuffed fillet of milk-fed veal "roasted at 80°C to a core temperature of 55°C without the use of water bath" could have been more tender. It was hard to imagine how. Forster had already guessed it had been slow-baked.
"I like it that this isn't a kitchen where molecular cuisine dominates. I want to be at the stove to get involved, be a hands-on chef," he enthuses.
Back in Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid, Marcon has converted the site of his old restaurant into a bistro, La Coulemelle. On a guéridon there was a profiterole pièce montée topped with nougatine and pulled sugar made by his 16-year-old youngest son. It was worthy of a professional pâtissier.
Meanwhile, in the restaurant, Jacques was dishing up "Les nems croustillant fourrés aux morilles et bananas confites, sorbet à la poire William" - hot spring rolls stuffed with candied banana and morels accompanied by a pear sorbet. The alternatives were goats' cheese sorbet with carrot and orange sablés and hot goats' cheese toasted with honey or a split rum baba soaked in a verveine liqueur.
Forster sums up the meal as "clean tasting, good textures, good techniques". No surprise there. What bowled him over was the boss's attitude to staff.
"There's a notion that a three-star is going to be pompous, but this was very free and informal. In the front of the house it looked as if the staff were almost allowed to make mistakes - they weren't in straitjackets."
The fact that they didn't slip up enhanced the feeling of ease. There were no notepads, no pencils. Every dish ordered reached the right guest. The front of house worked perfectly in sync with the kitchen. They didn't operate as two adversarial camps.
Sandwiching his dinner at Jacques et Régis Marcon, Forster spent a day with Craft Guild of Chef judges David Mulcahy and Andrew Bennett at porcelain manufacturer Revol, and another at the Institut Paul Bocuse on the outskirts of Lyon. The latter operates as a hospitality industry university. Its ratio of about 65 teaching staff to 300 students in graduate and post-graduate work (half of them doing restaurant studies) shows the emphasis France still places on its gastronomic reputation.
In the Revol development kitchen, he cooked an impromptu lunch alongside chef Julie Vastel, Café du Quai Dauphin, Romans. Trained as a technical designer, she opened a bistro with her journalist husband. While Forster was working a cod fillet with a pepper stew, she busied herself with crostini and a strawberry salad. Seasoned with basil, mint, lemon, balsamic vinegar and basil oil, it was as good, in its context, as the elaborate haute cuisine in Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid.
It was the kind of dessert Forster might do for customers at Nuovo. Why is he there? Partly it's because he is working for friends. More, he isn't certain yet which way he wants to develop his career. "I don't want to be labelled a competition chef" - he's clear about this. "I don't want to make a joke of myself on TV" - clear about this, too. "I'll never allow myself to drop my personal standards" - that's a personal commitment to himself.
Whichever path he takes, he has to go it alone. However much the gap in cooking skills between France and the UK has narrowed, there's still a cultural divide. There's nothing more natural than Régis Marcon turning his mother's filling-station-cum-snack-restaurant into one of the best tables in the country and then passing the reins to his son. We don't have that tradition here. Apart from the Rouxs, how many second generation chef-patrons are there?
The other, almost invisible edge that the French still enjoy is relations. It's their equivalent of the old boys' network. But in a nation of food lovers, being a chef with a name oils the wheels. It carries status, which is quite different from celebrity. Forster admires "how humble" Régis seemed. "I felt almost embarrassed that he gave me his mobile number," he says. Self-effacing, perhaps, but a serious player on gastronomy's stage. His climb to the top was never meteoric. It took him three decades to achieve his third star. A footnote to his CV adds that he spent a year cooking in Guildford in 1976.
Entering his prime at 35, Forster admits that his prize dinner had left its mark. "It fills you with desire."
WHAT IS THE NATIONAL CHEF OF THE YEAR?
The National Chef of the Year is one of the most sought-after titles in the UK and a chance for chefs to prove they have the talent, flair, skill and passion to rise to the top of their game.
The competition, which has been run by leading chefs' association the Craft Guild of Chefs since 1972, looks for shining lights of the culinary world. As well as Gordon Ramsay, acclaimed chefs Simon Hulstone, Mark Sargeant and David Everitt-Matthias are all past winners.
Winning the title is an outstanding achievement in itself and the tremendous prize package up for grabs, worth in excess of £15,000, is a true reflection of that.
The winner receives a host of top-class prizes including cash, an exclusive study trip with dinner at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, masterclasses and a selection of chef products and equipment.
Lockhart Catering Equipment on National Chef
Ian Parsons, regional sales director of Lockhart Catering Equipment, the UK's leading distributor of light and heavy equipment to the catering and hospitality industry, says that as one of the most respected and sought-after culinary titles, he is proud to be a major sponsor of the prestigious National Chef of the Year for the third year.
"As the UK's leading distributor to the industry, we support the aims and objectives of the Craft Guild of Chefs, to represent the interests of chefs, from students and trainees to top executives," he says.
Frederick Forster's recent three-day wine and food culinary tour in France was courtesy of Lockhart Catering Equipment. In addition to the superb meal at the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Régis et Jacques Marcon in Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid, the trip included a tour around porcelain supplier Revol's factory, together with a wine tasting at the Maison Chapoutier Vineyard.
Forster says: "I would like to thank Chris Wakeman and Ian Parsons from Lockhart Catering Equipment, together with Bruno Habig from Revol, for their impeccable hospitality and a thoroughly enjoyable trip to France. It was great to spend time with David Mulcahy and get to know him on a personal level. Restaurant Régis et Jacques Marcon was absolutely sublime and it was an honour to meet Régis Marcon."
Lockhart Catering Equipment offers an extensive range of competitively priced branded and own label products, including the UK's largest range of catering equipment with more than 15,000 stocked items for next day delivery, and exclusive warranties on many heavy equipment items. Through Lockhart Design Services, the company also offers a planning, construction and installation service.