National Chef of the Year 2020: meet the finalists

National Chef of the Year: meet the winners

by Great British Chefs 1 October 2019

The prestigious National Chef of the Year competition has launched some of the most famous chefs in the country to stardom. Get to know a little bit more about this year's winner, along with each of the talented finalists.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

There are a multitude of competitions for chefs to enter in the UK, but few (if any) are as prestigious as the Craft Guild of Chefs National Chef of the Year. The list of previous winners reads like a who’s who of the nation’s great chefs – the likes of Luke Selby, Russell Bateman, Alyn Williams, Simon Hulstone, Mark Sargeant, David Everitt-Matthias and Gordon Ramsay have all won in previous years.

Winning, however, is no easy feat – National Chef of the Year may be the most prestigious competition there is for chefs, but it’s also one of the toughest to win. The contest is open to any chef from any industry over the age of twenty-four, so competition is fierce from the get-go. To make it through to the final, you first have to run the gauntlet – entrants are asked to submit an exciting, innovative menu for four people, which is then looked over by a judging panel of some of the country’s most respected chefs led by Gary Jones – executive head chef at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. They have the enviable task of whittling down the entries into forty semi-finalists, who compete across four heats. The winners of each heat go through to the final, along with the next six highest-scoring chefs.

After that, the competition presents its ten finalists. This year’s contest has been as hard-fought as ever, and the finalists come from all corners of the industry. Read on to learn more about each finalist of the Craft Guild of Chefs National Chef of the Year and find out which one of them took the top spot.

WINNER: Steve Groves – head chef at Roux at Parliament Square, London

Three words that describe your food: flavourful, classical and simple


As a young man, Steve wanted to be a firefighter. He went to catering college simply to make sure that he had something to fall back on in case the fire service didn’t work out, and discovered a real passion for food and cooking that has defined his career. Decades later, Steve is widely recognised as one of the best chefs in the country, and as head chef of Roux at Parliament Square he runs the pass at one of the most esteemed restaurants in London.

He cites Michel and Albert Roux as his greatest sources of inspiration – their dedication and knowledge has always been a huge influence on his food, and Steve puts great energy into helping his chefs develop in a similar way. Steve is no stranger to competitions – he won the 2009 series of MasterChef: The Professionals, after all – but this is his first time entering National Chef of the Year. The fact that he won it outright on his first attempt proves that he's one of the country's finest chefs. Congratulations Steve!

SECOND PLACE: Derek Johnstone – head chef at Borthwick Castle, North Middleton, Midlothian

Three words that describe your food: delicious, simplistic and dynamic


As the inaugural MasterChef: The Professionals winner, Derek is used to cooking under pressure. He grew up with a dream of becoming a chef, and never looked back after enrolling in a general catering course at Glasgow’s College of Food Technology. Derek’s MasterChef victory led to a stellar career – he spent six years with the Roux family at Le Gavroche, and carried out work placements in other highly-rated restaurants, including the three Michelin-starred De Karmeliet in Belgium.

In 2017, Derek took up the head chef position at Borthwick Castle – a five-star private hire castle just outside of Edinburgh, where he and his team cater for corporate events, weddings and the like. A decade removed from his MasterChef victory, Derek entered National Chef of the Year in 2018 and made it to the final. With the experience under his belt and the pressure off, he made it through to the final once more, gaining second place – certainly no mean feat!

THIRD PLACE: Nick Smith – head chef at Vacherin, London

Three words that describe your food: fervour, adroit and considered


Inspired by his father and his stories of kitchen camaraderie, Nick decided to follow his footsteps into cooking and studied at Southend College with the goal of becoming a chef. He graduated with flying colours and worked at London restaurants like Le Pont de la Tour, The Arts Club and Chinon, before a friend convinced him to make the move into private catering instead.

It was a decision that has served him well – today he works as head chef of catering company Vacherin, coordinating all its food for a diverse range of clients. Whether it’s in a restaurant setting or for private events, the thing Nick values most about cooking is the craftsmanship – taking something from its beautiful raw form and using all his skill, knowledge, passion and respect to shape it into something that others can enjoy. ‘I have come to learn so much from NCOTY,’ he explains. ‘That it is not just a competition – it is a growth of learning, raw commitment, pushing yourself and inspiring others. Taking the knocks and getting back up from them and being a better chef for it.’ Third place is an incredible result, and Nick must be very happy with it.

Nick Edgar – head chef at The Ryebeck Hotel, Bowness-on-Windermere

Three words to describe your food: flavour, texture and acidity


For as long as he can remember, Nick has lived for food. He grew up wanting to be a chef and started cooking professionally as early as he could, taking a job in his local pub at fifteen years old before embarking on a three-year apprenticeship with Raymond Blanc and Gary Jones at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. The legendary institution has served him well ever since – after winning the William Heptinstall Award in 2005 and spending some time in America at the likes of WD50, Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea, Nick returned to the UK and later, returned to Le Manoir, becoming head chef in 2012.

These days, Nick is head chef at the Ryebeck Hotel in Cumbria. He’s no stranger to the National Chef of the Year competition either – after helping to mentor one of his young chefs through the Young National Chef of the Year competition, his protégé challenged him to enter the competition himself. Nick did just that, and finished third in 2014’s National Chef of the Year competition, so he returned to the fray with some unfinished business.

Mehdi Lahmadi – junior sous chef at Coworth Park, Ascot

Three words to describe your food: eclectic, flavoursome and complexity


Born and raised in Marseille, Mehdi grew up in a family of cooks and always knew he was going to be a chef. His formative years were spent in his home country, first in Provence with Jéremy Picanol at L’Abbaye de Sainte-Croix and then further north in Alsace, but two years later he moved to the UK to work with Andre Garrett at Cliveden House. He later moved back to France to work at the Jiva Hill Relais and Chateaux, but when an opportunity came along to work with Adam Smith at Coworth Park, he jumped at it.

Young, hungry and passionate, Mehdi has established himself as a huge talent in his time at Coworth Park. Having qualified for the final as the winner of his heat, he was undoubtedly one of the favourites to walk away with the final prize, but the young chef said he was just there to prove himself to himself. ‘You always wonder if people are going to like your cooking,’ he says. ‘You never know how it’s going to go or if what you present is going to be good enough, so I thought this was a good opportunity to see where I was standing.’

Marc Billings – sous chef at Prestwold Hall, Loughborough

Three words that describe your food: seasonal, considered and diverse


As a young lad growing up in the East Midlands, Marc harboured dreams of playing as a striker for his beloved Coventry City FC, but he was guided down a more reliable path by his home economics teacher, Mrs Tomlinson. He started his career as a wide-eyed apprentice under the tutelage of Adam Bennett – a veteran of both the National Chef of the Year competition and the famous Bocuse D’Or – before honing his skills at hotels and restaurants all over the East Midlands.

Marc is currently sous chef at Prestwold Hall – a seventeenth-century stately home near Loughborough which caters for private events and weddings. Among all the things he loves about the industry, it is the people and the camaraderie that really ignites his passion.

Harry Kirkpatrick – sous chef at Trinity Restaurant, London

Three words that describe your food: honest, seasonal and identity


Harry’s career started behind a sink rather than a stove – he washed pots and pans at his local pub as a sixteen-year-old, but the head chef encouraged him to pursue a career in cooking and Harry hasn’t looked back since. After completing two-and-a-half years at Claridge’s Hotel with the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts apprenticeship, Harry graduated with flying colours and left for New York, where he spent a year at Eleven Madison Park – voted the best restaurant in the world whilst he was there.

In early 2018, Harry returned to the UK and took up a sous chef position at Trinity with Adam Byatt – himself a graduate of Claridge’s and the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts. With Adam’s backing, Harry entered the National Chef of the Year competition because he wanted to keep pushing himself.

Ben Boeynaems – head chef at The Zetter Hotel, London

Three words that describe your food: ingredient-led, seasonal and classic-based


Having worked with the likes of Eric Chavot, Andre Garrett, Chris Galvin, Bryn Williams and Shay Cooper, Ben has a serious pedigree. He started working in kitchens even before he left school, splitting his time between a local hotel and a butcher in Hampton Court, before completing a full-time apprenticeship and heading to Petrus. Stints at The Capital Hotel, Galvin at Windows and Bingham Riverhouse in Richmond followed, before winning a Michelin star as head chef of The Goring Hotel under Shay Cooper.

Despite his star-studded resume, Ben credits his parents as his greatest inspiration, saying that without the work ethic and discipline they instilled in him, he would never have had the foundation to do what he does today. He is currently working as head chef of the Zetter Group, looking after the food offering across its three hotels.

Fraser Bruce – head chef at The Halsetown Inn, St Ives

Three words that describe your food: local, seasonal and sustainable


Fraser grew up with a love of food, but never thought he would become a chef – he played football for a couple of professional clubs before moving away and falling in love with surfing. After settling in Cornwall because of the latter, he found himself in a kitchen washing dishes and discovered a passion he didn’t know he had.

After formal training at Leith’s School of Food and Wine, Fraser cooked with Henry Harris at Racine in Knightsbridge, at Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant in Padstow and worked summer seasons at the Porthmeor Café in St Ives with Cameron Jennings. He has thrived in the South West, and has since taken over the kitchen at The Halsetown Inn – a stunning country pub in beautiful St Ives. He made the semi-finals in last year’s competition, practicing and competing during the imminent birth of his first child – he and his wife even marked hospitals near Le Cordon Bleu, just in case they needed to get to one in a rush!

Karl O’Dell – head chef at Texture, London

Three words that describe your food: light, creative and sharp


Karl dreamed of a career in sport in his younger days, but the kitchen always offered him an outlet for his creativity and he thrived off the buzz and the solidarity of the brigade. He started as a commis chef at Colette’s, working his way up to junior sous chef over the course of six years, before moving onto The Artichoke and then Petrus, where he was senior sous chef.

Now head chef of Texture, Karl runs the pass at one of London’s most demanding and technically precise restaurants, working with Icelandic chef Agnar Sverrisson. Karl is no stranger to National Chef of the Year – he made the final a few years ago, and the fact he made it to the final again proves he's a top talent.