April Lily Partridge flew through the final of the Roux Scholarship to be crowned the 2023 winner scholar and the second female winner in its history
On the two evenings after being named Roux Scholar 2023, April Lily Partridge returned to her flat from the Ledbury in Notting Hill, where she is sous chef, and sat with her cat Otto to drink a cup of tea while looking at the certificate that sets her out as one of the brightest talents in British gastronomy.
"It's like winning the lottery," she says. "You buy a ticket thinking you're never going to have a chance, but you have a go. I never even thought I would enter, so to win is just mind-blowing. It's been such an overwhelming and heart-warming experience. For my whole career I've questioned if I'm good enough and this has been real validation. It just feels really good."
Partridge, who entered the competition for the first time in 2023 – the last year she is eligible under the competition's age constraints – explains that the Roux Scholarship had always seemed out of her reach.
"The Roux Scholarship is on a different level to any other competition. It's the one for big boys – the one everybody talks about," she says. "I'd spoken to Oli [Williamson – Roux Scholar 2020/2021] and Ian Scaramuzza [Roux Scholar 2015], people who are great friends who I really look up to and thought, ‘I couldn't do that, the girl from Chingford, I'm not good enough for that'."
Classic skills matched with flair
The scholarship was established by Michel and Albert Roux in 1983 and is deeply rooted in classical French cookery. However, for the 2023 competition its current chairmen, Michel Roux Jr and Alain Roux, adapted the brief to encourage a more diverse range of chefs to enter, with less emphasis on the classical canon and greater opportunity to show individual flair.
Partridge entered her paper recipe for consideration at the last minute, overcoming self-doubt at not being classically trained and thinking "at least when I look back one day, I'll be able to say I did have a go". Her submitted recipe saw her selected to compete in regional heats where she earned her spot in the final.
On Monday 3 April she joined five others to compete at Westminster Kingsway College in London and was tasked with preparing a take on pâté chaud de lotte: hot monkfish pie, inspired by a dish created by honorary presidents of judges for the 2023 competition, Michel and César Troisgros.
A whole monkfish tail and whole black truffles had to be used within the dish but, in a first for the competition, chefs were invited to select from a table of more than 50 ingredients and told to bring their own style, with Michel and Alain asking to see "classic technique, classic skill, flair and imagination".
Commenting on the brief, Michel said: "The changes are there to help our finalists showcase their skills to a maximum, so we've removed the constraints of a fixed recipe from Escoffier to a theme, and the theme and inspiration came from our honorary judges, Michel and César Troisgros.
"I think it's great for our finalists as we're looking for the usual high quality of skills and technique, but it gives them the scope to showcase their personalities and their personal interpretations."
During the 45 minutes candidates are given to prepare, Partridge came up with a rough idea of what she would do, but on entering the kitchen she questioned herself and, following a gut instinct that she hadn't interpreted the brief correctly, made adaptations as she went along.
"It was definitely more classical than I expected it to be, and it threw me a little bit," she explains. "Over the years my passion has always been meat, so straight away I was out of my comfort zone. A hot monkfish pie was so specific and the pastry had to be in the shape of a dome, which is really technical. Then you have this huge array of ingredients and you almost get overwhelmed with choice."
In the three-hour time period given to the finalists she produced monkfish wrapped in daikon with a mousse of its trim, truffle, yuzu and fine herbs as well as a pathier of barbecued mushroom, spinach and monkfish. Served alongside was a burnt grelot onion top puree, aliums, turnips and a roasted monkfish bone sauce infused with ginger. Partridge says: "There were points in the competition where I was, like, ‘you're going down here'. I was thinking, ‘just put something up, because you're not going to win'.
I let the nerves get hold of me and was so, so shocked when they called my name [at the awards ceremony, held at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park that evening]."
Despite her apprehensions that she may have misjudged the brief, Partridge says the feedback from the judges was incredible. "Michel [Troisgros] came up to me and he said ‘the cuisson of your fish was perfect'. For a three-star chef to tell me the cuisson of my fish was amazing – I was an emotional wreck."
Michel Roux Jr adds: "We were blown away by her precision and how she ran her kitchen. The honorary judges Michel and César really appreciated the different textures and flavours throughout her dish."
Partridge was noticed as a rising talent early in her career after being named best young chef at the The Observer Food Monthly Awards in 2014. She had originally thought she would pursue a love of art and photography, however this changed when she undertook work experience in a kitchen.
Her school pointed her in the direction of Springboard's FutureChef programme, which led her to the Ivy in London's West End for a day's work experience. She says: "I remember going into this kitchen for the first time and I've never been so blown away. It was just amazing."
A Saturday job at the Ivy, then led by head chef Gary Lee, followed and Partridge quickly realised cooking was her calling. "Garyimmediately took to me and really took me under his wing. He mentored me and was just brilliant because he knew how to get the best out of me. He pushed me and believed in me and he put me in situations that most people wouldn't have – I was very young, almost a kid, but because I wanted it he was like ‘try your best and I'll teach you'."
The young chef spent five years at Caprice Holdings, owner of the Ivy, and then used her savings to stage around the country at venues including the Hand & Flowers in Marlow as well as Clove Club, Alyn Williams at the Westbury and the Ledbury, all in London. She then went to work with at Clove Club with Isaac McHale, whose cooking she describes as "so, so incredible", alongside Dan Smith, now of the Fordwich Arms, Kent, who she also cites as a ‘huge influence'.. After this to New York for a year to work with Dan Barber at Blue Hill Farm and on returning to London, she joined the Ledbury with Brett Graham.
She says: "Brett's got an aura about him. He's the epitome of a great master of his craft and he knows how to nurture people. I've seen people that are average cooks, and I would include myself in that, and he makes everyone collectively in their own way be the best chef they can be.
"I've had so many moments where I've thought I can't do this, and Brett's made me feel like I can achieve anything. I remember him sitting there so cool, calm and collected, and saying, ‘April, you were meant to cook and you understand this' and just giving me this amazing pep talk. If it wasn't for Brett, I definitely wouldn't be in the kitchen now."
Partridge has become only the second female winner of the Roux Scholarship in its 39 years, after Mercy Fenton in 1994. The scholarship has been addressing the gender imbalance in entrants in recent years and looking at ways to encourage more women to submit applications, with Emily Roux having hosted a round table discussion at her Notting Hill restaurant Caractère in 2022.
Partridge hopes that her success will inspire other women to enter. She says: "I would love to see a 50/50 split [of men and women in the final], but that will only happen if enough women enter.
"I hope that it inspires women to keep pushing and to achieve their dreams. It is such a male-dominated industry and I know for me sometimes it is hard to embrace your feminine side, because you feel that if you're not tough enough, you'll get walked over and sometimes you do feel like you've got to put in that extra 10% just to get seen. I really hope that this inspires more women to get involved. This year there were four of us [in the regional heats] and that was really cool."
The winner of the Roux Scholarship receives career-long mentorship from the Roux family and previous winners, as well as a two-month stage at a three-Michelin-star restaurant anywhere in the world, or the option of a bespoke training programme tailored to their interests and skills gaps, in addition to a number of prizes from the competition's sponsors.
Partridge has already decided that she would like to take the option of a bespoke training programme and is considering courses in chocolate and fish cookery, among others.
Her focus is on ‘earning her stripes' and honing her craft, but long-term she has aspirations to develop a media profile and inspire others to cook, citing Jamie Oliver and his work convincing a generation to the stove as an inspiration. Alongside this she would one day like to run a fine dining restaurant, possibly with a bakery and pasta shop attached.
She adds: "All I ever wanted to do was to share my love of food and to help people to cook because I think there's nothing better than the feeling of cooking for your family or cooking with your friends."
The finalists of Roux Scholarship 2023
- Ben Champkin, the Newt, Somerset
- Christopher Clarke, Core by Clare Smyth, London
- Oliver Dovey, BaxterStorey, London
- Sam Lomas, Glebe House, Devon
- April Lily Partridge, Ledbury
- Alex Rothnie, L'Enclume, Cumbria
A word from the judge
Honorary judge Michel Troisgros of three-Michelin-starred La Maison Troisgros, Ouches, France
"It is a strange sensation [having the competitors cook this dish] because I know the subject, I have done it many times, I know the result and I know the techniques you need to make it the best. None of the chefs know this, so they have fields of freedom, of imagination, and everyone can have their own ideas.
"You could see even after one hour that the interpretations were amazing – it's not like a classic of Escoffier, as no one knows the pâté chaud be lotte.
"I am so happy to see what they do and maybe we will have ideas that will open our eyes to revolution. It's beautiful to see the work of these chefs. They work like an artist on a painting – they know and they don't know at the same time. We will have six expressions of chefs."
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