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Steve Groves, winner of both National Chef of the Year and MasterChef: the Professionals, reveals his motivations

29 January 2020 by

Steve Groves won the National Chef of the Year title on his first try, 10 years after taking the title in MasterChef: the Professionals. Neil Gerrard discovers what motivates the chef to come out on top

Unlike many of his fellow chefs, Steve Groves finds himself relatively relaxed on 21 December, with just one service standing between him and Roux at Parliament Square's Christmas break.

The high-end London restaurant, a tourists' scrum away from the Palace of Westminster, plays host to Parliamentarians all year round. But as the new and recently re-elected MPs pack their bags for the festive season, business at this five-day-a-week restaurant falls away and the operation can afford to grant itself a well-earned break.

If that makes it sound like Groves' life is one of relative ease, you'd be wrong. In addition to running the 60-cover venue, as he has done in his capacity as head chef for nearly seven years, he also oversees Restaurant Associates' catering operation at the adjoining Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), which owns the building.

It's now a decade since Groves joined Roux at Parliament Square, initially as sous chef, having served previously as sous chef of Launceston Place in Kensington. The move came thanks to his MasterChef: The Professionals victory in 2009, in a memorable final against Marianne Lumb and Daniel Graham. After continuing to work at Launceston Place for a spell, Groves took up the opportunity to work with MasterChef judge Michel Roux Jr and his father Albert at the Westminster restaurant in 2010.

Having become head chef in 2013 and steered the restaurant through a recent refurbishment to make it a more comfortable, cosy" environment, Groves set his sights on National Chef of the Year in 2019.

Steve Groves 1
Steve Groves 1

Double take

While two prominent successes a decade apart may make it look like he is something of a serial competitor, that isn't how he likes to be regarded. "I don't want to be branded with this label of being a competition chef because it is not something I do a great deal of," he says.

If he entered National Chef of the Year, then, it was for very specific reasons. "MasterChef was a big one and I saw a lot of recognition off the back of that. And then National Chef of the Year is, in my opinion, the premium competition in the chef world. MasterChef is different – it's more consumer-facing. What was important for me was also to have that industry recognition and respect. That has always been a big thing for me, so doing this competition was all about fulfilling that."

Given that he has been so selective, it makes it all the more impressive that he has succeeded in both competitions, particularly when it takes most chefs several attempts to win National Chef of the Year.

"It was a fantastic experience and it wasn't something I went into thinking that I would win first time," says Groves. "In a competition like that it's unlikely you are going to cook three faultless courses in two hours. Once you get to the end, as any chef would, you focus on the bits you got wrong. I was sure I had blown my chances of coming out on top, but I hoped I would be in the top three. So when the first two names were read out for third and second place, I didn't think I had done it."

Right first time

Groves admits that having the experience of competing in MasterChef in a blaze of publicity stood him in good stead for National Chef of the Year. "At the time, I didn't have much self-confidence and it really reaffirmed to me that I was good at what I do. That's helpful in a competition environment, for sure."

Perhaps more important still, though, is the extra decade's wisdom Groves gained. "I have had 10 years to develop my style and I am more comfortable with what I am doing now, and a bit less try-hard than perhaps I once was."

That's borne out by the fact that Groves "didn't overly practice" for National Chef of the Year – at least, not when it came to the final, when pressures of work meant that he didn't have as much time to hone his plan of attack. But that fitted with his overall approach, which was to try to stay relaxed and not sweat too much about sticking to a regimented schedule.

"That way, you are drawing on your experience all the way through the cook because it's all more natural and you are more able to adapt to different situations that arise from cooking in an unfamiliar environment. Some people can go in completely rehearsed and, if they get knocked off-course, they can't adapt very well," he says.

It helped that Groves attended a mentor day at Sous Vide Tools with last year's winner Kuba Winkowski and 2013 winner Hayden Groves. "I listened very keenly to their experiences, having not done the competition myself, and that gave me a bit of insight. I did a bit of research into what previous winners had done and the overriding message was to focus on flavour, so I very much took that on board," he says.

Now that he has won, Groves hopes that the title will provide an opportunity for him to visit other kitchens and chefs – time permitting. "It's nice to see how people are operating and there are so many fantastic chefs in this country – I would really like to get out there. It is also good inspiration for my younger guys. I try and focus on bringing people in here at the lowest level and then building them up through the team. I also try to get them involved in some of these competitions because it is good for them. It pushes them to constantly improve themselves and I think that is a really good trait to have."

However, he stops short of telling his younger chefs (he has a team of 10), which competitions they should enter. "They are all made aware that if they want to compete, they will have my support and I will guide them as much as possible. I'll give them time to practice and help with the cost of ingredients. But it needs to be selfmotivated. It can't be me telling them that I want them to do a competition because that is not the right reason," he explains.

Classic cooking

As a chef working for the Roux family, it's no surprise that his style is rooted in classical cooking and, as far as he is concerned, that also gives competition chefs the edge they need. "Those classical foundations underpin so much of what is modern too," he asserts. "Having that in place gives you the tools you need to go off and explore new ground and try new things – I think it has always benefited me."

Steve Groves - suckling pig
Steve Groves - suckling pig

Being part of RA Group (RA) also ensures that Groves' chefs have extra backing at their disposal, with culinary director David Simms keen to encourage entries, as well as offering guidance. "There's a lot of really talented chefs in the contract catering world. Sometimes the circumstances of a role like that suit people who are really talented, but maybe don't want that restaurant lifestyle. So it's great for them to get out there and show what they can do, because some fantastic food gets cooked in these places," Groves says.

Balancing act

Chefs at Roux at Parliament Square benefit from working a four-day week, as well as not having to work weekends, thanks to changes the restaurant has made to improve conditions for staff.

"It was something we had to plan quite carefully. It doesn't just happen overnight," Groves says. "And to accommodate that, we had to look at our food offering and strip it back a bit. There is less choice on the menu. We used to have a 3-3-3 set lunch menu plus a 6-6-6 à la carte, which was a lot of dishes to be working on, and we were changing lunch menus every week. That maybe wasn't giving us the best results and also meant the guys in the kitchen were working a lot of hours.

"We've made improvements, but it has to go hand-in-hand with improving what we offer the guests. I think having the guys working fewer hours and coming in more refreshed means we get better results from them."

When it comes to the future of Roux at Parliament Square, Groves doesn't see any major changes in the horizon, but instead wants to bring about a general improvement in as many areas as he can, starting with a push on front of house. With a new restaurant manager having only just joined, he is focused on making sure there is enough support, both from himself and the general manager, as well as from RA and the Roux family.

Groves himself certainly doesn't plan to go anywhere. "I've always felt that there's room to grow here. I have a really good setup and the support of the Roux family when I need it. When I don't feel there are more improvements we can make, and that we can't grow any more, then maybe it's time to move on. But that isn't the case at the moment – I have always felt we can do more."

On being part of the Roux family

Groves has the luxury of advice from Albert and Michel Roux Jr whenever he needs it, but he says he is also allowed creative freedom. "It's the best of both worlds because you are really involved in all areas of the restaurant – not just the kitchen, but also the style of service.

"Silvano [Giraldin] from Le Gavroche is also very much involved in terms of helping us to improve the service here. Chef Michel will come in a couple of times a month. He is a great people person, so when he pops in, the guys have a massive amount of respect for him and the same with Albert. They get a real buzz from cooking for them."

The Roux name, as well as Groves' own achievements and RA's support, also means that, unlike a lot of London restaurants, Roux at Parliament Square doesn't face such acute problems finding chefs, with a "steady stream" of CVs coming through. However, it can be a different story front of house, an area where Groves regrets that there aren't more British applicants.

Contract catering with RA Group

Contract catering may not have been an area of the hospitality industry with which Groves was familiar before he joined Roux at Parliament Square, but he quickly found his feet under then head chef Toby Stuart.

Since then, what was Restaurant Associates has become RA Group, following parent company Compass Group UK & Ireland's decision to incorporate Levy Leisure (now RA Venues), Restaurant Associates (now RA) and guest services business Rapport into one group in March last year, along with corporate events arm Radish. Roux at Parliament Square, run in partnership with the Roux family, forms part of the group's fine dining and public restaurants arm, along with City Social, run in partnership with Jason Atherton, and Bryn Williams at Somerset House in London. RA also runs the catering operation for RICS, which owns the building in which Roux at Parliament Square sits.

"It's similar to being in a hotel where you have banqueting," says Groves. "We cater for Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors' (RICS) external clients as well as the internal clients, so it can be anything from a sandwich lunch for two to canapés and a sit-down dinner for 150."

Everything is handled out of the same kitchen, but Groves' aim is always to do the catering to the highest standard – sometimes employing casual staff – while keeping the quality within the restaurant consistent.

"It's about putting systems in place and being uncompromising on making sure we don't affect the restaurant. We have had some challenges in the past, but we are quite well-versed at doing it. We know about what is happening at RICS quite far in advance, so we can prepare."

Calvados baba, poached pear, crème fraîche Chantilly

Steve Groves' winning dessert at the National Chef of the Year competition finals

steve groves - calvados baba
steve groves - calvados baba

Makes 12

For the baba

  • 50g milk
  • 20g honey
  • 15g fresh yeast
  • 3 eggs
  • 200g plain flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • 75g butter, melted

Grease 12 x 7.5cm brioche moulds.

Allow the eggs to come to room temperature.

Warm the milk to 37°C with the honey then dissolve the yeast into it. Mix the eggs with the flour and salt on an electric mixer with the paddle attachment until smooth and elastic. Add in the yeast and milk mixture and continue to beat until smooth. Add the butter and continue to beat until glossy and completely incorporated.

Divide the mixture between the moulds and allow to prove in a warm place for around 45 minutes or until doubled in size. Bake at 180°C for 10 minutes.

For the syrup

  • 500ml water
  • 400g sugar
  • 1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped
  • Juice and zest of 1 orange
  • Juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • 300ml Calvados

Bring the water, sugar and vanilla to the boil. Remove from the heat and add the orange and lemon zest and the Calvados.

Soak the babas while they are still warm in the warm syrup (but not too hot, around 60°C is good) until well saturated – around eight minutes.

For the poached pear

  • 300ml white wine
  • 150g honey
  • ½tsp nutmeg
  • ½tsp mace
  • 2 star anise
  • 3 Comice or Williams pears

Bring the wine, honey and spices to the boil. Peel the pears and scoop with a Parisienne scoop (or any other shape you desire), allowing five balls of pear per portion. Add the pear to the poaching liquid and cook on a gentle simmer until tender. The time this will take depends on the ripeness of the pear, but allow 5-10 minutes. Once tender, pour the pears and liquid out of the pan into a container and allow to cool.

For the crème fraîche Chantilly

  • 1 vanilla pod
  • 150g crème fraiche
  • 150g double cream
  • 30g icing sugar

Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod and add to a mixing bowl with the remaining ingredients. Whisk until soft peaks are formed. Transfer to a disposable piping bag and refrigerate. When ready to serve, cut the tip of the bag at an angle.

For the pear sorbet

  • 1 leaf gelatin
  • 50g sugar
  • 50g water
  • 50g Trimoline
  • 1kg pear purée
  • Juice of half a lemon

Soak the gelatin in cold water to bloom. Warm the sugar, water and Trimoline together until the sugars are dissolved.

Mix in the gelatin and remove from the heat. Whisk the sugar and gelatin mixture into the purée with the lemon juice. Freeze in Pacojet beakers and Pacotise when needed.

To serve

Place a baba on one side of the plate and pipe the Chantilly over the top. Place the pears in a line down the centre of the plate and a rocher of sorbet on the side.

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