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Posted by Lockhart Catering on Tuesday 09 July 2019

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Behind the scenes at National Chef of the Year with Head Judge, Gary Jones

As headline sponsors of the National Chef of the Year competition we are proud to work with some of the UK’s best chefs, restaurants, hotels and caterers.

It's been an exciting few weeks for the competition with the semi-finals taking place in Sheffield and London. The final ten have now been revealed and include:

• Marc Billings, sous chef at Prestwold Hall
• Fraser Bruce, head chef at The Halsetown Inn
• Mehdi Lahmadi, junior sous chef at Coworth Park Hotel
• Steve Groves, head chef from Roux at Parliament Square
• Nick Edgar, head chef at The Ryebeck Hotel
• Derek Johnstone, head chef at Borthwick Castle
• Ben Boeynaems, head chef at The Zetter Hotel
• Harry Kirkpatrick, sous chef, Trinity Restaurant
• Karl O'Dell, head chef at Texture London
• Nick Smith, head chef at Vacherin

Read more from our NCOTY Chef Insight Series

After the semi-finals had taken place, we spent a few minutes chatting to the current NCOTY Chair of judges, Gary Jones to get his thoughts on some of the industry's hottest topics.

You are Chair of judges for National Chef of the Year for the third year running, why did you decide to continue with the role for 2019?

I was honoured to be asked to return as I've really enjoyed the role and it's great to give something back to our fantastic industry. The training and development of chefs is a passion of mine as it improves skills and evolves our chefs, teams, restaurants and industry. The Craft Guild of Chefs has created the most prestigious cooking competition in the UK and to be part of developing this is a fantastic opportunity.

How has the NCOTY competition changed over the last few years?

We have focused on developing culinary skills and rediscovering our own heritage, for example the British apple. Sometimes you need to go back to go forward. The entrants had to research the history and taste the different apples to find which one would fit the criteria for what they wanted to achieve.

I also wanted the judges to focus more on what was on the plate. We have developed a clearer marking and judging criteria. The judges sit down like every guest in our restaurants and share one plate of food between two highly experienced chefs. Our judges are the very best in their profession and are our industry leaders.

Judging in this way gives them time to taste every element of the dish whilst creating a dialogue. Each judge marks independently but the pair can voice their views to each other on the merits of the dish. This means we have quicker and clearer results as each judge is asked to decide their 1st, 2nd and 3rd position. Joint first or joint second is not an option and further discussions take place if needed to get a clear individual judgement.

We have also developed 'The Photo Wall' to recap on the dishes, if and when the marking is close or even tied. It allows us to ensure we have an overview for final adjustments or deliberation. Every competitor has put so much into getting there, we have a duty to ensure we select the very best chef to hold that coveted NCOTY title. However, let's not forget every chef that competes in this, whether at the semi-final or final will develop themselves hugely.

The Matt Campbell Extra Mile Award has also been introduced in memory of talented chef and charity runner Matt who tragically died during the London Marathon in 2018. His entry to NCOTY was strong and he earned a place in the semi's but sadly did not compete. The first recipient of Matt's Award was George Blogg who was exemplary in his approach to the competition and for him it was about gaining experience to help his wider team develop themselves and grow as chefs.

True to his word, one of his team entered the competition 'Charles' and made the semi-final this year, missing the final by the narrowest of margins. But I saw a determination that means he will be back stronger next year, under George's guidance and mentorship.

You put a lot of work into creating the brief for entry and the semi-finals, what was your aim for this year's brief?

For me, it's about setting a task that will hook into the chefs' passion. My role is to ensure the tasks are achievable yet challenging. It's vital that they are also levelling so we must have the same quality ingredient and the same skill test which creates learning and development. The core team led by David Mulcahy and Steve Munkley have to get over 100 chefs down to 40 and then to just ten for the final. That's why every finalist has achieved so much before they even start to cook. The winners are those that have mastered the brief, practiced and collaborated with their peers to perfect every element of three consistently great, appetising dishes with impact.

You have trained some of the UK's most talented chefs including NCOTY winners Luke Selby and Kuba Winkowski, what is it about Le Manoir that produces so much talent and gets careers off to flying starts?

Belmond Le Manoir has a phenomenal record for chef development and training. We have so many protégés. This is down to Raymond Blanc's passion for passing on knowledge to his team. We have evolved 36 Michelin starred chefs over the years and a few Young National Chefs of the Year including Carl Newbury, Chris Kenny, Alexandro Cancino, Luke Selby and Henry Wadsworth.

We've had some fantastic success in NCOTY too with Freddy, Larry, Luke and Kuba all working for us at some point. Steve Love was also one of my team in Waldo's at Cliveden so it's fair to say we are playing our part. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing one of the team take the top prize. The individual growth is brilliant, but it also drives the team to aim high and reach their own potential.

You have been executive head chef at Belmond Le Manoir since 1999, describe what it's like to work in such an incredible place.

It's an amazing role, Le Manoir has 35-years of culinary history. I am honoured to have the trust and responsibility to lead the kitchen team for RB. The pastry side of the operation is run by the incredible Benoit Blin. Our Front of House is overseen with the professionalism of Mourad Ben Tekfa, M.C.A. We have all invested over 20 years with Raymond Blanc to create a supportive, mentoring environment where youngsters can evolve their skills, gain confidence and acquire solid foundations for their futures.

Of course, it is demanding in every way, but it's amazing when our protégés go on to achieve great success. It's a family and we support them through thick and thin. Chefs also have to focus on creating nurturing environments to develop newcomers slowly and gently with shorter shift patterns that increase only when they are ready for it. Business models also need to evolve, closing the door for part of the week will maximise the bookings for the rest of the week whilst shortening the working hours. An efficient balance can be achieved by being both profitable and enjoyable for the team and guest.

Sourcing the right ingredients and products is important for the restaurant's success, what do you look for in your suppliers?

Consistency, communication and relentless standards in their produce. They also have to have the highest ethical standards of welfare and care for the environment. We are focused this year on reducing packaging and the elimination of any polystyrene. It's important we all work together at reducing our impact on the planet.

Tell us more about your cooking style. What's most important to you when creating new dishes?

Flavour, nature, seasonality, freshness. We are blessed with a fantastic kitchen garden. Our head gardener, Anne-Marie Owens has spent over 30 years ensuring our 100% organic status and this is where I draw inspiration. The garden is magical and if you have the correct variety, give it care and nature is kind, it will yield fantastic flavour. It pulls you closer to seasonality. Its at the heart of everything we do.

We take what is grown in our gardens, treat it well and guide the team on how to extract the very best flavour, when in season. What's most important is keeping it simple and as close to nature as we can.

Where did your love and inspiration for cooking come from?

From my mother and grandma, both great cooks. I was hooked at 10 years old and knew what I wanted to do. I loved the joy that great food has on people's spirit. The smells, the aromas, the interaction, the process of growing from seed to plant to harvest. My grandad, Chuck Jones, was a very keen gardener and I loved preparing the freshly harvested vegetables for our family Sunday lunch. These are wonderful memories that I have created with my own family.

Food and cooking draws people together in so many ways. As an industry, we need to get more people cooking, especially children at primary school as they will become our future brigades. I would urge every chef to get involved with a local school. This gets pupils engaged and helps them to realise this is a brilliantly, inspiring profession. If each chef could inspire a couple of pupils we will be in a better place. School curriculums have taken cookery away and we have to do our bit, in our own community's to bring it back.

As a joint initiative, Lockhart & CCS are providing chefs jackets made from recycled plastic to help raise awareness for "Chefs Against Waste". Do you have any tips for reducing food and kitchen surplus?

Firstly, I love the idea of using waste plastic as a resource. We individually all have to make small changes in our lives. For example, use a stainless-steel water bottle as they last several years and are worth the investment, plus every chef needs to hydrate during the day. You can also make your kitchen a single use plastic bottle free zone. Small changes will make a difference if we all do it.

Food waste is a key concern and each business needs to look at itself and again make small meaningful decisions and stick to them. Composting food waste, composting tea to feed crops and worm composting are just several ways you could make a difference. We all have a collective responsibility to do the right thing. So let's make good small steps towards a better future. For our planet, for our industry, for our kitchens and for our families.


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Lockhart Catering 09/07/2019 10:00:00