With members of the public and leading industry figures scrutinizing his every move in an intense, live cook-off, Simon Hulstone reveals the tactics he used to secure the prestigious title of Knorr Chef of the Year 2008.
The competition is hard, brutal even. Three hours to cook and serve a meal from scratch with no prior planning or mise en place is a tall order for any chef.
Past winners include David Everitt-Matthias, Mark Sargeant and Gordon Ramsay. It’s taken Simon Hulstone, this year’s winner, four attempts to take home the biennial title to his Elephant restaurant in Torquay.
The contest requires eight senior chefs to create four dishes using ingredients from a mystery basket and make them four times to show presentation consistency.
Hulstone is no stranger to competition. He led the British Senior team to a 25 medal victory at the Culinary Olympics in Efurt, Germany just last week but as he explains, Knorr’s event requires a particular brand of competitive spirit: “I went into it in an angry sort of way, I ignored everyone before hand. I did not lose my concentration. Don’t be jovial, keep your head down and get on with it − there’s not much time. Once it was over I was a bit more convivial.”
It started well for Hulstone when the baskets, containing grey mullet, rabbit, black pudding, parsnips, pears, apples and blackberries, were revealed. “It was a good selection of ingredients that made you think.You had to do butchery, you had to do fish prep − nothing was an easy ride. There was a real work ethic in there. We all got given the same so there’s nothing you can moan about. Brutal but fair,” he recalls.
After a quick look at the ingredients to construct the menu it was time for the cooking. “Everything went right on the day, apart from my commis throwing some soup into the washing up. I think he was keen to clear up and get home. Luckily, for him and me, I had enough left in the pan. It’s much easier to use a commis as your assistant, more senior chefs will give you advice, which you don’t want. If you do it, do it yourself − then you’ve only got yourself to blame, or your commis if they’ve chucked your mise en place out.”
With the initial prep work done the competition steps up a notch as the dishes start to be finished and assembled.
“It’s intense, a stove that you’ve never used before, and everything is in the wrong place. It’s not your kitchen, not your normal environment and you’re all over the shop. Cook what you do everyday, don’t try and do anything that you’re uncomfortable with. The key is to keep your cool. Concentrate.” The judges this year included Marco Pierre White, Angela Hartnett, Atul Kochhar, and John Campbell.
Impressing the best
“It was a formidable line up of chefs to cook for. And you’re never going to be serving the most beautiful plates. But flavour-wise I was happy. You’ve got 16 plates to put together on your own in less than an hour, with limited equipment and in a foreign kitchen. I look back at the photos now and think ‘could that really win chef of the year’. But I think they all worked well, it was a balanced menu. When Marco or Angela pick up the spoon, stick it in their mouth and walk on to the next person, they’ve got to remember what yours tasted like − you’ve really got to blow them away with that first taste.”
When pushed on what was next for the Elephant, he says, “We’re very happy with what we’ve got − we want to retain the standard of a one-star restaurant. Although we would never say never (to star number two), with the current climate, and being down in Devon, it could scare people away from us. All we want to do is keep doing what we’re doing and cook well. Make sure we have a restaurant for my staff to work in and my customers to eat in.”
Hulstone was handed the main prize of £10,000 and awarded a trip to Pordenone, Italy − home of equipment sponsor Electrolux. The competition takes place once every two years at the Restaurant Show. Clark Crawley, a sous chef from Barclays Wealth in London took second place, followed by David Kennedy, chef-proprietor of the Black Door restaurant, Newcastle upon Tyne, in third. The winners were announced at Sheraton Park Lane and Errazuriz provided the wine.