Ten years ago, British Masterchef Brian Mellor had a light bulb moment. Fiercely proud of his Northern roots and disappointed to see one of the region's only competitions for young chefs disbanded, he put his money where his mouth was and launched a new, annual battle of brilliance, further inspired by the propensity of fantastic produce on his doorstep.
As North West Young Chef, supported by expert stockmaker Essential Cuisine, celebrates its 10 year anniversary, we catch up with two of the very first finalists; Steve Smith, now chef patron at Freemasons in the Lancashire village of Wiswell, ranked in the top 15 gastropubs in the UK and on course for a Michelin star, and Scott Price, who became one of Gordon Ramsay's right hand men and is now executive chef at the TV chef's acclaimed restaurant at the Dubai Hilton.
Entering North West Young Chef "I haven't a clue why I entered North West Young Chef, to be honest," admits Steve, who was 18 at the time and, off his own bat, was going into Blackburn College on his days off from working as a commis pastry chef at The Fieldings hotel, Preston, to build up his skill set.
"I had heard about this new competition for young chefs who had to cook regional, seasonal food, and thought, why not, I'll give it a go. I've had many, many hard services since then, but, funnily, I still remember what I cooked for that Lancashire heat, which was a soufflé of black pudding, a Gressingham duck dish and a torte of apple and Lancashire cheese. I put it together with my college lecturer, Iain Steele, who said he saw me as a stand-out student.
"I had been in a few competitions, but they were just college ones and I knew, this time, I would be up against a very high standard of young chefs in the trade from across the region.
"Mine went a dream. Practicing for eight weeks really paid off. Then, in the final, I messed up because I tried to do too much. The mousse for the ballotine, for instance, went wrong because I'd made it so complicated. Now, I would say, simplify, use the best produce available at that time, and cook it simply, but do it with respect and make it taste like it should taste. If you are going to cook carrots, they should taste of carrots. At that age, you think differently."
Scott Price, who was working as a 19-year-old commis chef at the Rampsbeck country house hotel in Ullswater while training part-time at Carlisle College, faced a conundrum that first year.
After being put forward for the first North West Young Chef by college lecturer Andy McGeorge and winning the Cumbria heat with a stunning salmon confit with oysters, saddle of rabbit and a rhubarb soufflé with clotted cream, he went on to win the Scottish heat of the Gordon Ramsay Scholarship. The national grand final fell in the same week at the North West Young Chef final.
"I went for both, so it was a bit of a mental week," said the 31-year-old, who's first job was washing up at a hotel in Gretna Green at the age of 11 alongside his restaurant manager mum.
"I can't remember exactly what I did for the North West Young Chef final - maybe something with lamb - but the main reason I didn't do well was because I was an hour and a half late due to a car crash on the motorway. I panicked when I got there and it was a total disaster. I felt really disappointed and it was hard to grasp. One of those things, though. You live and learn."
Italian food festivals and a night in Amsterdam
While Steve and Scott were defeated in the North West Young Chef final, they didn't come away empty-handed, their success in the county heats winning them a study tour to Italy.
All five finalists got to go to Salone del Gusto, translating as the Slow Food Festival, in Turin, which Steve, now 30, described as "amazing". "It was something I'd never experienced in my life," said Steve, who was hailed The Publican's Best Newcomer in 2010 and has cooked alongside some of Britain's culinary greats at events such as the London Food Festival.
Scott agreed, although one of his abiding memories of the Turin trip is having to stay an extra night in Amsterdam on the way home because of (another) car crash, which delayed the ferry. "It was hard going," he said. "Seriously, though, the trip itself really opened my eyes and was my first step in discovering what else was out there, outside the North of England."
While he relishes working abroad and has been in Dubai for two years, Scott still holds the view that the North West's abundance of fantastic produce makes it a particularly wonderful place to start out as a chef. "The quality is so good," he said. "I've come to learn that that is imperative, that bells and whistles mean nothing if you don't have the best ingredients to work with.
"Also, when you start out, you think every dish that has a gold leaf on it is amazing, but you start to understand that the best food is quite simple. Italian focaccia bread, for example, which contains four or five simple ingredients and is delicious, it just doesn't need anything else."
Why go for North West Young Chef? "As a competition, North West Young Chef gives those starting out the opportunity to find out the level they are at, which is what Andy advised me," said Scott. "It also gave me confidence, especially when, after the heat, Brian told me he'd found it hard to find fault with what I did.
"It's also a chance for young chefs to look at what they have on their doorstep, while showcasing the region and its 'foodie' scene. There's so much going on in the North West, which isn't always recognised. Great produce, great chefs with bags of talent and great places to eat."
Looking back, Steve believes competitions are about what you do on the day. "One of the guys I beat in that first Lancashire heat, who is now a good friend of mine would, probably, have beaten me on any other day, but his dishes just didn't go 100 percent right on the day.
"Conversely, Darren Smith, who won that year's North West Young Chef, has been to my pub restaurant a few times now and, the first time he came, he said, "if you'd cooked like that at North West Young Chef, you'd have blown me out of the water."
"All in all, I think the competition is brilliant for the winner as, now, they get to do a stage at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Europe. But, whether it really benefits a chef is down to the individual. If you are offered a free stage in Europe, you have to make the effort and take it up."
As for why anyone would want to be a chef, the great thing is that it doesn't discriminate, according to Scott. "You can be from anywhere, from any background. As long as you work hard, you can go on to fantastic things. As for me, I have always loved being in the kitchen, feel comfortable there and have never looked at anything else."
*The final heats of North West Young Chef 2012 have now taken place, with contenders tasked with cooking a three-course meal for two using North West, seasonal produce costing up to £25, a challenge that has produced some spectacular results over the last few years.
As well as receiving regional acclaim, the finalist that comes out triumphant at June's final will win a week stage at a top European restaurant and a set of professional knives.
North West Young Chef 2012 is sponsored by Essential Cuisine, the Lakes Hospitality Association, The Staff Canteen, Oliver Harvey, Villeroy & Boch and Chroma Knives. For more information, call 01606 541490 or visit www.essentialcuisine.com. There is also a Facebook page and you can follow events on Twitter (Tweets by ).
This press release was provided by Essential Cuisine