Behind the scenes at the National Chef of the Year Mentor Day

Behind the scenes at the National Chef of the Year Mentor Day

by Great British Chefs 18 September 2019

Each year, the Craft Guild of Chefs prepares a mentor day for its ten National Chef of the Year finalists, complete with discussions and demonstrations to help prepare them for the challenges ahead. We go behind the scenes with chair of judges Gary Jones to see what it’s like to be a National Chef of the Year finalist.

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

Scroll down the list of Craft Guild of Chefs National Chef of the Year winners and you’ll see a host of household names – most recently, outstanding talents like Kuba Winkowski and Luke Selby have won the competition, and before them the likes of Russell Bateman, Alyn Williams, Simon Hulstone and David Everitt-Matthias, even Gordon Ramsay if you go back as far as 1992. Winning National Chef of the Year can launch a career to super stardom – this is arguably the most prestigious cooking competition in the country, after all – but the rewards are great for everyone who takes part, not just for those who win.

National Chef of the Year and Young National Chef of the Year are both run by the Craft Guild of Chefs – the UK’s largest chef’s association. Under the watchful custody of vice president David Mulcahy, National Chef of the Year has gone from a skills test to a competition that seeks to provide support and resources to help contestants become better chefs in all facets of their life. David is responsible for much of today’s format, including the introduction of the ‘Chair of Judges’ position (held by Phil Howard and Clare Smyth in the past) and the development of National Chef of the Year Mentor Day, where the finalists of both the National and Young National Chef of the Year competitions gather for a day of talks and demonstrations.

‘The mentor day includes speakers discussing a range of topics, ensuring our chefs are fit for the future,’ David explains. ‘From mental health and wellbeing to understanding the consumer and embracing changing diets and the impact of food trends.’ As the competition has shifted to become more of a vehicle for support and education, the chair of judges role has become increasingly important. Current chair of judges Gary Jones isn’t just responsible for judging the entrants – he and David are at the forefront of everything the Craft Guild of Chefs does to nurture those who enter the National Chef of the Year competition. Hundreds of initial entrants are whittled down by the judges into forty semi-finalists, and they eventually become ten finalists who all compete for the title. Making it to the final means you’re just one step away from taking the crown, but it also gets you an invite to the Mentor Day, where Gary and David organise demonstrations and discussions for the finalists, as well as revealing the brief for their final dishes. ‘You cannot lose entering a competition,’ says Gary. ‘If you test yourself against your peers, you can only get better. If you go for it and don’t make it to the semi-finals or finals, you will learn something along the way.’

Gary and his team are very focused in the way they test the finalists. The brief is much more specific and takes into account some of the challenges that face chefs today, such as sustainability and dietary requirements. The starter course for the last three years has been plant-based, for example; designed to force chefs to think about creative ways to approach vegetarian cooking. ‘For lots of our chefs, coming up with a vegetarian dish needs a lot more thought,’ says Gary. ‘You have to consider where the protein is coming from and how the textures will work together.

'Do we need to eat more plant-based food?’ he asks rhetorically. ‘Yes, absolutely. So that’s why we’ve tested our chefs with that brief in the past.’

The vegetarian brief is out this year, but in its place Gary has challenged the chefs to cook a starter that showcases the flavours of bouillabaisse – the classic Provençal fish stew. The superficial inspiration comes from Gary’s recent trip to Marseille with Le Manoir pastry mastermind Benoit Blin, but there are more important lessons underneath to be learned, surrounding sustainable fish and the impending question of food availability in the UK.

‘Lots of our fish gets sent over to Europe at the moment,’ Gary explains, ‘but that could all change in a few months time, and if that’s the case, we’re going to have to learn to use it ourselves. In Marseille, bouillabaisse came about because fishermen needed to eat the fish they couldn’t sell. When the attractive stuff goes, what’s left? Often it’s the most delicious stuff that isn’t necessarily fashionable or easy to use.’

For their bouillabaisse-inspired starter, Gary has given the chefs a choice of sustainable British fish and seafood. There’s no turbot, salmon or sea bass, no lobster or langoustine – instead, the chefs will need to get to grips with fish like coley, ling, gurnard and hake, as well as local shellfish like mussels, clams and scallops.

For the main course, the chefs will be tackling another traditional British ingredient – suckling pig. Pigs have been reared and eaten in the UK for centuries, and suckling pig is as traditional a delicacy as we have in this country. The chefs will be required to prepare a dish that includes one braised cut of pork (this can be prepared prior to the competition) and one other cut that must be cooked on the day. ‘It’s a great exercise in nose-to-tail cooking,’ Gary explains. ‘To take something like suckling pig and get the best out of it – crisp crackling, perfectly-done meat – takes real skill.’

It’s a similar story for the dessert course – the chefs will be working with British pears, and Gary is encouraging them to explore different varieties, all of which have slightly different flavours, textures, acidity and sweetness. ‘Pear season is a bit late this year,’ he remarks. ‘That adds to the challenge for these guys because they probably need to wait a couple of weeks before they can really start working out what they’re going to do.’

Come the day of the final, the finalists will have two hours to prepare their dishes for the judges. Although they can prepare lots of things in advance, the chefs know they have to show their skill on the day – it’s a hectic few hours, fraught with tension. The chefs get a commis chef each to help them, who is allowed to help with prep but cannot cook anything. This in itself adds another dimension to the competition; the chefs aren’t solely judged on the quality of their food, they’re also judged on how they conduct themselves over the course of the whole day. ‘We have lots of people backstage watching how the chefs work,’ Gary explains. ‘That’s really important stuff – if a chef isn’t working in a safe way, if they’re not respectful to their commis chef, that all goes towards the final result.’

Many a great chef has fallen foul of the pressure of National Chef of the Year finals day. Preparing your dishes alongside your normal restaurant hours is a gruelling ask for everyone involved, and it’s rare that a chef comes in and wins the competition at the first time of asking. For 2013 winner Hayden Groves, his victory came on his fourth attempt at the competition, and many others have returned multiple times before making the final ten. Pressure creates diamonds, so the saying goes, and that is absolutely true of National Chef of the Year. ‘I think the pressure is really important,’ says Gary in closing. ‘Life as a chef is pressurised – the more adept you become at dealing with pressure, the better you will be as a chef. You’ve got to be comfortable with that feeling of being under pressure, be calm and collected in that situation. Lots of National Chef of the Year winners have been here multiple times before – each time they come back with a better understanding of themselves, better skills and more knowledge.’

National Chef of the Year is about the journey, in that sense, rather than the destination. ‘These chefs are going to be the best in the business going forward,’ he says in closing. ‘These are the next leaders of the industry, so we need to do our bit in mentoring them and helping them become the best they can be.’