The head chef at Essex's Square 1 restaurant was named MasterChef: The Professionals champion in December last year. Lisa Jenkins talks to him about his training, his heroes and mentors, and his plans for the future.
Where did you gain your cooking skills?
I started out as an apprentice chef at the Savoy London. The programme included attendance at Westminster Kingsway College in London for one day a week. I had a good grounding. I worked all the sections at the Savoy and by the end of my time there I was working in Kaspar's restaurant as a commis chef.
Towards the end of my time at the Savoy I secured a one-week stage with Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, which led to being offered a full-time role as a commis chef. It was incredible to work in a two-Michelin-starred restaurant. I was there for just over two years and left as demi chef de partie in 2017. I learned all about plating up and styling. It's all about making your dishes look like a piece of art.
It's all about making your dishes look like a piece of art
Where did you head to next?
I spent a short time at Dinner by Heston and then moved to Roux at Parliament Square in January 2018, working with Steve Groves. It was still French cuisine but with an English twist, using some of the best English ingredients. This was accessible fine dining and I learned a lot from Steve. It was my time here (just under two years) and with Hélène Darroze that has formed my style of cooking, with my own sense of fun mixed in.
What took you back to Dunmow, in Essex?
I grew up in Essex and have family there, but I started in hospitality as a kitchen porter at the Square 1 restaurant, which is where I'm now working as head chef. I went back in November 2019. I'd been in London since my apprenticeship and I wanted to see what my options were nearer to home. I did a dinner at Square 1 and it evolved from there. I applied for MasterChef: The Professionals soon after. Spencer Hewitt (the owner) was so supportive and he helped me with some of my dishes for the show.
What have you done since MasterChef, and how are you coping in these extraordinary times?
After winning the competition, we had an increase in bookings at the restaurant, and we added a tasting menu with dishes based on the ones I'd made along the way. The restaurant is now closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, but I've been doing some private dinners for single households. I've got quite a few lined up for February.
Once the restrictions ease a little, we are hoping to do some pop-up dinners with the final four contestants from MasterChef: Bart [Van der Lee], Santosh [Shah] and Philli [Armitage-Mattin]. We're planning one at Square 1 and hopefully one at the Cinnamon Kitchen in Oxford. I've stayed in touch with Jono [Hawthorne] from the show, too.
Other than that, I'm keeping my options open. I'd love to do a cookery book, loosely based on the show, including some skills recipes, and perhaps sharing some of my stories, like the dish inspired by my grandad. It would be fantastic to do some more TV work, too.
My Instagram account has become my marketing tool. Before the show I had 600 followers and I now have nearly 23,500 followers. It's insane. I'd like to do some Instagram Live videos along the same lines as my book idea. Ultimately, I'd like to have my own restaurant. Hopefully by the time I'm 30 – which gives me four and a half years!
I understand you received a message from Jamie Oliver after winning the show – is he one of your food heroes?
I did. He sent me a video saying well done via Spencer [Hewitt]. He was so generous and said he'd love to come and visit the restaurant to try my food. That would be amazing – maybe one day I could do some work with him. I've always felt an affinity with him; there's the Essex connection, obviously, but I think we have a similar ethos. Simple, flavoursome food with an element of fun.
What did you learn from the show?
I learned that I could perform under enormous pressure. And that in the future, in whatever restaurant I'm working, I can produce a two-course meal in an hour. It's given me a massive confidence boost, too. I'll be able to use these learnings in all walks of life. And, of course, I learned new skills from Marcus [Wareing], Monica [Galetti] and Aktar [Islam], who really gave me an insight into using simple ingredients well. Aktar has invited me to go and eat at Opheem, too – which I will certainly try and do.
Can you use your platform to influence other young chefs?
Yes, I think so – anyone that has some success in hospitality can inspire others. It's tough in this industry, but you can work your way up if you stick at it. You must be determined to win a show like MasterChef and I hope this is motivating for other chefs to see.
It's tough in this industry, but you can work your way up if you stick at it
After this pandemic, I truly believe the industry will bounce back and people will want to be out in restaurants again. It will be an opportunity to remind everyone how wonderful the UK hospitality industry is, and how much talent there is in it.##The winning menu
Scallop ceviche with artichoke and pickled pear tartare, yogurt foam, parsley powder and crispy capers, finished with a watercress oil.
Pan-seared trout, parsnip crisps, parsnip coleslaw, roasted parsnip, parsley gel and a parsnip purée, finished with a mussel and caviar cream sauce, served with a mini potato fish pie topped with caviar and parsley powder.
White chocolate and passion fruit dome with passion fruit pearls, a Prosecco sorbet on a feuilletine and dark chocolate base, served with a passion fruit cocktail and passion fruit powder party poppers.## The judges' comments
"Alex is a brilliant young chef. I love his thirst for knowledge, and he has cooked beyond his years. MasterChef is about the next generation and for me, as a chef, I see Alex as the future."
"Alex's food has a cheeky sense of humour in it. There is a bit of his youth, which comes through in his cooking, which makes it very different, and that is something I have really enjoyed."
Webb is the 14th professional chef to be awarded the MasterChef: The Professionals title, alongside previous winners including Gary Maclean, Steve Groves, joint winners Keri Moss and Anton Piotrowski, Steven Edwards, Jamie Scott, Mark Stinchcombe and Stu Deeley.
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