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Angela Hartnett on why young chefs must focus on classic skills

By Hannah Thompson , 09-Mar-2017
Last updated on 10-Mar-2017 at 14:30 GMT2017-03-10T14:30:46Z

Angela Hartnett on why young chefs must focus on classic skills

The renowned chef behind Murano and the Café Murano group, Angela Hartnett has been confirmed as the new UK & Ireland mentor for the global 2018 S. Pellegrino Young Chef competition, open to professional chefs aged 30 and under. With the launch of the contest this week, we caught up with her to talk judging, new trends and the importance of key cooking techniques 

What is it about the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition that sets it apart?
I think the main thing is that it's chefs from every country. And unlike with the Bocuse d’Or, which is in teams, this is individuals competing worldwide. Ultimately, that's the main thing. Competitions are all about high standards ‒ obviously you've got the Young National Chef of the Year and the Roux Scholarship ‒ they're all great, but they're all very country-centic. This is worldwide. 

What are you most excited about seeing in the UK & Ireland heat of the contest this year? 
I am in some respects the last person to ask about that, because I am so old-fashioned. I am always blown away by modern techniques of cooking and I'm intrigued and interested by new ideas, but I'm so old-school and I just want it to taste great. At the end of the day I want to see a plate of food that makes me want to eat it. I don't want to think it's sterile, and style over substance. It would be great if a girl came through, but there's always 25 blokes and one woman, so let's see. 

How does the worldwide nature of the contest help the chefs?
It's a huge platform, and media not just from Britain but from across the world, pick up on you, which makes a big difference. And also it's the contacts you'll make. At the end of the day, you're being judged by chefs from Australia, New Zealand, America, Japan, Spain. And if you stand out as the winner and you go knocking on their door, they'll know who you are.  

Do you think that international element influences the types of dishes prepared?
Well, let's put it this way, you're not going to put out meat and two veg, are you? It's going to be a bit more elaborate. As Phil Howard says, it's all about having a great, delicious plate of food. The other thing is to make sure is that it's all singing and dancing, as well. And as Claude Bosi has said, it's about pushing the boat out. 

This is a young chef competition (for chefs under 30). Does that change how you judge it? 
You might look at it and think, well, they haven't had that extra experience, but anyone who is entering a competition will have a fair bit of experience behind them, and have done a lot of training.

Should a chef take part in a competition rather than do lots of stages or just get their head down and learn their current kitchen? 
I think it's important chefs do learn their current kitchen too. I'm sick of seeing CVs from people who've done a month here, two months there ‒ you can't learn a kitchen in that time. You've got to give it 18 months so you see the seasons - lamb, asparagus, truffles...you can't do that in one month. Chefs these days are often too quick to think, oh I've done it, tick that box. There are so many restaurants now following a pattern of food looking great but tasting of nothing. And if you don't stick with a kitchen and learn your skills, you're going to have a worldwide problem of chefs who can cook with foam and jellies, but don't know how to fillet a piece of fish.  

So you think this competition looks at those key skills?
Absolutely, because it's not just putting stuff on a plate, you want to see that there's some skill behind it. 

Do competitions like this take account of new cooking trends, or is it concentrated on the classic techniques? 
There's a bit of both. You have to have a certain amount of trend knowledge as it shows you have some sense of how modern cooking has developed. But if someone cooks me a pigeon sous-vide or roasts it, I'll go for a roast every time because there's more flavour involved. 

You said you’d like it if a woman did well. Would you like to see women standing out more, and coming through in competitions like this one?
Honestly, yes, but I don't think women are as bothered as men are about competitions. I never did a competition, and probably wouldn't have done in a million years. It didn't appeal to me ‒ I wasn't ambitious in that way. I like cooking in restaurants. I did Great British Menu [on the BBC] under duress, and I much prefer being a judge now to doing it. I don't know whether that's a female trait though, or just me!

Angela Hartnett will be the mentor for the UK & Ireland winner of the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 competition.

She will help judge the October national heat alongside Phil Howard (formerly of The Square and now Elystan Street), Mickael Viljanen (The Greenhouse in Dublin) and Alyn Williams (Alyn Williams at The Westbury). She will  accompany the UK & Ireland winner to Milan in Italy for the global grand final in June 2018, where the region will compete against the winner of each of the other 20 regions.

The 2016 winner in the UK & Ireland was George Kataras, whose mentor was French chef Claude Bosi, former head chef at the Michelin starred Hibiscus in Mayfair, and now head chef at soon-to-open Bibendum in South Kensington.

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