This year's Roux Scholarship hopefuls were given the daunting task of recreating dishes beloved of the scholarship's founders, Albert and Michel Roux. Emma Lake observed the final
Well-thumbed copies of Albert and Michel Roux's pivotal work New Classic Cuisine sit among books by the likes of Auguste Escoffier and Paul Bocuse on the desks where six young chefs are preparing their bids to be named 2021 Roux Scholar.
The legacy of brothers Albert and Michel, who founded the scholarship in 1983, would be felt throughout the day, despite it being the first they could not personally oversee, following their deaths in 2021 and 2020 respectively.
In tribute, their sons, Michel Roux Jr and Alain Roux, devised a fitting challenge for the young hopefuls, who were given three hours to prepare two dishes that were favourites of the great chefs.
The first dish, eggs Albert, is an artichoke heart filled with smoked salmon, trout and truffle, topped with a poached egg and adorned with a slice of smoked salmon. The second is ‘little flans with snails in green coats', a dish of Michel's that was served for many years at the Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire. The dish sees snails and a herb soufflé flavoured with chlorophyll baked in a tartlet and served with beurre blanc sauce.
Explaining the recipes, Michel Jr says: "They are favourites of ours to eat. The artichoke with the smoked salmon and the poached egg is something I remember as a child seeing my dad making and eating at home. I think it's a wonderful combination. It still stands true now. It still is a favourite and we do sometimes still put it on the lunch menu.
"There are a lot of skills in these dishes: turning an artichoke, poaching an egg, making a smoked salmon mousse – it's all stuff that's straightforward, but maybe not something they will have done on a regular basis.
I will be looking for perfectly turned artichokes, perfectly poached eggs, a very light smoked salmon mousse, good use of the horseradish and the truffle. And it's got to look the part, it's got to look as I remember."
Alain was under no illusions as to the challenge facing the chefs, having joined his father at the Waterside Inn while little flans with snails in green coats was on the menu.
He explains: "It's a dish I have seen go wrong so many times, especially when I was doing it. It was on the menu as a starter when I started at the Waterside Inn and it was a big relief when it came off the menu. "It's a dish you can prepare for, but it's done à la minute: you finish your snails, warm your purée – making sure it doesn't catch – the souffle mixture is quite delicate and you need to make chlorophyll and a beurre blanc."
The judges, this year led by Björn Frantzén of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Frantzén in Stockholm, saw many techniques within the recipes that could trip up the hopefuls – not to mention the challenge of having to produce and plate up two dishes rather than one in the allotted three hours.
Judge Brian Turner explains: "It will have been a shock, because normally it's one dish – meat or fish with garnishes. But this year it's not one, but two dishes; one is served cold, the other hot, and they're an assemblage of various things that they might find challenging – the snails, the poached egg, the chlorophyll, the mousse – will they have ever used aspic?
"It's a great test to get four poached eggs, all cooked to the same point and all looking the same with that runny yolk. I'm intrigued to see how many eggs they'll use to get four portions that they're happy with."
Frantzén agrees: "The recipes are quite tricky, they look simple, but it's a bit of a minefield. There are so many things that can go wrong, and if they do go wrong it can very quickly go terribly wrong. These three hours will be very busy for them, but they will prove their skills as a chef."
The best prize of all is having mentorship from that family and an incredible group of chefs that are absolute legends in the industry
For Rachel Humphrey, executive chef of Michel Roux Jr's two-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Gavroche in London, it was the relative simplicity of the finished dishes that could expose the chefs' weaknesses. She adds: "There's nowhere to hide. You are not going to get away with anything because it's just those elements. If the pastry or the eggs are wrong we will know straight away."
The finalists had three hours in the kitchens at Westminster Kingsway College to tackle the two recipes, which were deliberately written with all helpful details omitted. All under the eagle-eyed gaze of the prestigious judging panel, who prowled the kitchen making notes on their methodology, hygiene, health and safety, the management of their commis chef, wastage and much more.
Sat Bains, Roux Scholar 1999, explains how much can be learned from these early observations: "This competition is a tale of two halves, one in here and then the final tasting. You'll see us going around tasting their cooking water, their stock, and that's to see how they're seasoning their food, to see how they're working. Is it methodical? Are they keeping everything clean?"
As the chefs pass the two-hour mark, Bains adds: "I think they have a good grasp, but you never know. Sometimes they may appear to be working badly, but then they will deliver the best-tasting dish. Some of the chefs have overworked the rough puff pastry, or even put it straight in the blender, and that's not going to break beautifully like it should.
"But, it's a very strong group this year. They are very hungry chefs and just knowing one of them will be a Roux Scholar by the end of the day, it gives you goosebumps."
After the final hour ticks by, the dishes are presented to the judges at 10-minute intervals. Following a period of deliberation, it was Oli Williamson, sous chef at the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, who was named Roux Scholar 2021.
Michel said: "I think we have found ourselves an excellent scholar. We've been a long time waiting and we can finally celebrate. My father would have thoroughly enjoyed Oli's eggs Albert dish. Although it did not resemble the original, all the component parts were perfect."
Humphrey agreed that Williamson's eggs Albert was "the dish of the day". She adds: "I think they felt the pressure because there were so many elements. It did catch them out."
James Martin also stresses the level of the challenge set for the chefs, explaining that none had produced flawless dishes in the time allotted. He explains: "The pressure was on them because at the top of each recipe were certain names, the names of the chefs that wrote them, and they had two dishes rather than one. It was a real curve ball. It came down to which dishes would we be happy to eat in a restaurant. The winner achieved in all aspects, but no one presented perfect dishes, which shows how difficult a challenge it was."
It's all in the prep
Williamson's victory was announced during a dinner at Westminster Kingsway College to rapturous applause. The following day he says: "Clare Smyth summed it up well she said ‘you don't win this on the day, it's a culmination of years of work'. The last 12 years I have been training in Michelin-starred restaurants all around the world and it all came to a head there in that moment. That hard work comes back – that's the reward."
The pressure was on them because at the top of each recipe were certain names, the names of the chefs that wrote them
Explaining how he tackled the brief, which included a basic recipe and ingredient list [see panels] but no pictures, Williamson says: "The first thing I did was write a prep list for both dishes. That's when I saw how big the workload was, it was a lot to do. You had to bounce from one dish to the other – you're making puff pastry, then you're turning an artichoke.
"I really relied on my skills, I worked at Midsummer House for three years and chef patron Daniel Clifford taught me to turn an artichoke and make a beurre blanc, all those fundamentals. It just goes to show that you need them as a chef before you go on and do the modern stuff. You need to know the basis of cuisine." Even with classical training under his belt the dishes were unfamiliar. "They're classic repertoire dishes and I'm used to serving very modern food – you don't even dress food like that now. You think ‘is this right, is it wrong?' You're really just relying on your chef instinct," he adds.
One of Williamson's most important pieces of prep was ensuring he was in the right headspace for the final. He explains: "I got through on cooking ability in the regionals, but the feedback from the judges showed I wasn't on my A game. I didn't sleep well the night before and I just wasn't in the right headspace. This time I managed to get in a good zone. I went for dinner the night before, I had a good sleep and brought less stress and anxiety to it. You perform better when you're happy, and I just wanted to enjoy the moment." The chef is now faced with choosing which three-star restaurant he will undertake his three-month stage in. He says his "head and heart", are pulling him towards Japan or Singapore, but he hasn't made up his mind yet.
As well as the opportunity to work at the highest level anywhere in the world, Williamson has won £6,000 to support his career development and a host of prizes, including a butchery masterclass, a magnum of Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Brut signed by the judges, a trip to the Champagne maker's cellars in Tours-sur-Marne and a coffee machine.
But, it is the opportunity to join the Roux Scholarship family that excites the chef most. He adds: "The best prize of all is having mentorship from that family and an incredible group of chefs that are absolute legends in the industry. That's priceless."
The finalists and judges
- Ryan Baker, Maison François, London
- Ben Champkin, the Newt in Somerset
- Nathan Cornwell, the Barn at Moor Hall, Lancashire
- Jonnie Ferguson, the Raby Hunt, County Durham
- Curtis Tonge, the Forge, Chester
- Oli Williamson, the Fat Duck, Bray, Berkshire
- Michel Roux Jr
- Alain Roux
- Bjorn Frantzén
- Sat Bains
- James Martin
- Simon Hulstone
- Rachel Humphrey
- Brian Turner
Little flans with snails in green coats
- 40 large Burgundy snails, cooked in court bouillon
- 500g spinach leaves
- Six normal size shallots
- One head of garlic
- Four bunches flat parsley
- Three bunches chervil
- Three bunches chives
- Three bunches tarragon
- 250ml whole milk
- 250ml double cream
- 500g butter
- 400g plain flour
- Four eggs
- 300g pasteurised egg white
- 150ml dry white wine
- 100ml white wine vinegar
- 100ml red wine vinegar
- Fine salt
- Rock salt
- Cayenne pepper
- Bay leaves
Line four flan tins with rough puff pastry and bake blind. Divide the parsley purée and the sautéed snails between the pastry cases.
Make a soufflé mixture flavoured with chlorophyll and fresh herbs. Heap some of the mixture in a dome shape on top of each flan and smooth the surface with a palette knife.
Bake in the oven. Place each flan onto a plate, drizzle some beurre blanc sauce around and serve immediately.
- 500g smoked salmon slices
- 100g smoked trout fillet
- 250ml TRUEfoods fish stock
- Six medium-sized globe artichokes
- One head of garlic
- 20g horseradish root
- One x 35g whole black truffle
- Four lemons
- 25g Dijon mustard
- 100g mâche salad
- 500ml double cream
- 10 very fresh eggs
- 200g plain flour
- 10g fish gelatine granules
- 400ml olive oil
- 250ml dry white wine
- 250ml white wine vinegar
- 250ml red wine vinegar
- Fine salt
- Rock salt
- Cayenne pepper
- Bay leaves
Trim the artichokes until only the neatly shaped hearts are left. Cook them in a cooking water and leave to cool in their cooking liquid.
Garnish each heart with a mousse of smoked salmon, trout and truffle. Place a cold poached egg on each one and top with an aspic glazed disc of smoked salmon. Serve on four cold plates.
Arrange around each egg Albert some mâche salad dressed in vinaigrette.
Photography: Jodi Hinds
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