You're cooking at the Bocuse VIP restaurant, what does it mean to you to do that this year?
It's a massive honour to be cooking with Régis Marcon and Jacques Marcon [of the eponymous three-Michelin-starred restaurant in St-Bonnet-Le-Froid, in the Haute Loire, France]. It's a dream come true. And to be back in the fold of the Bocuse organisation is a real pleasure. There's something special about that atmosphere that you only really can take on if you've done the competition. We'll be hearing all the noise and the music, and the crowd, because we're going to be right next to the stage, so it's going to be special.
What is it about the Bocuse d'Or specifically that makes it that special?
It's a massive occasion, you've got some of the best chefs cooking and judging, you've got the noise, the competitive feeling. People have spent anywhere between 18 months to two years, just working specifically for that day, so you can imagine the tension. I've never experienced anything like that and I doubt I will again. it's also done with that little bit of French pomp and circumstance, and it just adds to the occasion; it's fantastic.
You have worked with Régis and Jacques Marcon before, when you went to their three-Michelin-starred restaurant to train for the 2013 contest...?
That's right. It first started when I approached him because he won the Bocuse many years ago [in 1995], and has been involved in some capacity since. I went to pick his brains on the approach and the feeling of the competition. he was really welcoming, I went over there and did about 10 days' work with him, and just to see his restaurant in operation is quite inspiring. A three star restaurant is quite something in its own right, and he works very closely with his local produce, it's a very special place indeed. he's an inspiring guy, and it's an honour to be invited to cook with him now.
What is the biggest thing you learned that you think you’ll take with you into the event this year?
The way he works with nature and local produce. He’ll use herbs and grasses from literally around the restaurant [where] they’ve got a protected area because they’ve got wild flowers there, and they can only cut the grass at certain times of year. They use this long grass too, which they turn into hay, and use in one of their signature dishes. So it’s this vitality in the dishes that makes it special. But in terms of the competition – he keeps a classical edge to his dishes, with a modern feel and a lighter touch. And I think that really suits the Bocuse d’Or.
Bennett preparing with Régis and Jacques Marcon
What does that actually mean for you when you’re cooking?
Making things into a centrepiece, having something big and bold on the platter - because obviously the meat dishes are still on a platter at the Bocuse d’Or. It’s making something very striking that is reminiscent of the kinds of cooking that you would get in France, many years ago in those classical houses.
How is the actual running of the restaurant going to work?
There will be two menus, running alternate lunches for five days. There will be about 100 covers a day, so it’s going to be pressurised. Each menu is a mixture of dishes from myself, and Régis and Jacques. We’re getting full equal billing there, which is a real honour.
We’ll get there about five days before, at their restaurant, and then we’ll transfer to Lyon. The real pressurised bit comes from the fact that there’s going to be some of the best chefs in the world there.
What’s it going to be like for you, as a UK chef to be part of the Bocuse event – even though you’re not taking part in the actual competition?
Obviously it’s a shame that we’re not fully represented, but it’s just nice to have a foothold there for the UK, and keep our faces in the scene. And hopefully we can be part of the regrouping process that will get us there in the next cycle of the competition.
Will you try again yourself?
No, I’ve done my time. My wife would be straight out the door with a suitcase if I put my name forward again! There’s only so much you can expect from a spouse, as it’s just so time consuming, and the tension…it does make you edgy, as it’s so pressurised coming up with ideas that are original and impressive. It takes time.
You have arguably been the most successful UK Bocuse candidate ever. [Bennett came fourth in 2013, and he and his commis won Best Platter and Best Commis. Previously the record from the UK was fourth place. He competed again, less successfully, in 2015.] What’s your memory of taking part and getting as far as you did?
It’s incredible. Like I say, the process and the development is arduous. I started with a flipchart of possible combinations and garnishes, and basically over about six weeks, they were all tested, and all went in the bin! The list was getting shorter, and you get more and more tense. You ask yourself, am I really going to pull this off? But then you get a breakthrough and it’s an incredible feeling.
Bennett competing in the Bocuse d'Or
It’s not the actual contest this time, of course, but there must be some challenges in prepping for the restaurant this year?
Anything that goes on outside work is always a bit of a challenge to fit in. But then it’s such a sweet project, and I’m just looking forward to it. I can’t really see any negatives at all. It’s all positive.
In terms of how you’re been preparing for the restaurant, how has that worked?
Well it’s not like before for The Bocuse where I’ve been training away from the day job. And also these dishes are from our repertoire at The Cross, with a few tweaks, so they’re tried and tested and much-loved dishes. But it’s exciting to be able to bring those dishes to a whole new audience.
Was it important to you to have a menu that represented the UK’s style and your style?
Yes, definitely. We’re using Yorkshire rhubarb, which is an iconic product in this country, and it’s one of the highlights of the winter. We’re also using brown shrimps, which is a very northern English product, and we’re using sea kale that’s been grown in the UK. We’ve tried as much as possible to push a bit of English product into the menu.
Is there anything else that you’ll bring from your day job that puts you in good stead for these kinds of events?
I think when you get to my age, you’ve got a variety of different experiences that help you face these challenges. Early experiences really set the tone. I was at The Dorchester at the age of 19, which was incredible. If you can carry that standard through your career, it helps you face any challenge. You can have a vision in your head about what you’re trying to achieve, and keep that in your mind.
Traditionally British food has not had the best reputation, especially in France – especially perhaps when the Bocuse was founded, in 1987. How do you think the view of British food has changed in France and internationally in recent years?
I think we’ve gained respect around the world, because those old days were based on what was happening in the 60s and 70s, and things linger. We also went through difficulty after the war, when produce was scarce, and it really took the heart out of British cookery. So, I would say we probably almost deserved [that bad reputation] at one point in history.
But now, we’ve got some iconic restaurants and world-famous chefs, and we’re shedding, if not already shed, that old image.
However, the UK hasn’t managed to compete this year, obviously. As you say, the UK’s standing in this kind of cookery is improving, so why do you think we haven’t had as much success this time around?
It’s a good question. But if I can focus on the positives, I think what we need to do is to build an infrastructure that is a team. Like, Team Bocuse UK, that would include people such as myself, and others who have previously competed, who know the competition well, and put them together as a team to support the candidate.
I think that support is absolutely crucial. It’s what you see in any team that does well. Some of it is about finance, but some of it is just having the right people around you and the right equipment.
Time is also a big part of it. The first time I did it, I took four months off and focused solely on it, and I got a good result. The second time, I only spent 7 weeks on it, when I was in the middle of setting up The Cross, and we didn’t get a good result at The Bocuse. There’s no coincidence there.
Are you hopeful that the UK will come back and do well in future years?
Yes, I don’t see why not, we’ve got the talent here. We’ve got fantastic craftsmen in this country, and very dedicated people, and we’ve definitely got the building blocks for a successful candidate. We’ve just got to find the person and put a good Team around them, and then I can’t see anything stopping us.
What would your advice be to any UK chef thinking, maybe I should give Bocuse a go?
Give me a call, come to The Cross, and we’ll have a chat. I’ll show you how it feels; the difficulties and the positives. It’s important to have a full picture of what you’re getting into, because it’s a big commitment. But it’s also important to understand the massive buzz, and the pride you gain from it, if you get a good result. It’s like anything in the chef world, you have to be willing to put your neck on the block. Sometimes it gets chopped off, and sometimes you come out with a great result. That’s what makes it a buzz.
But I guess you would encourage a young chef to get involved?
Definitely. Even if it’s not as the candidate. If you’re the commis for the candidate, that puts you in such a great place. You can see if it’s for you, how to approach it, and get inspired by the atmosphere.
Talking of commis chefs, you’re again bringing your sous chef with you, the same chef who worked with you in the actual Bocuse…?
Yes, and it’s a nice circular thing really. Kristian [Curtis, sous chef at The Cross] will love to be back in that atmosphere, and any chef will tell you that with a chef who works with you over a period of years, you become like a left hand and a right hand. You move around each other in a natural way, and everything works out. We have a great understanding and working relationship.
What is it that you’re most looking forward to overall?
I think it’s just being back in that atmosphere, and meeting all these iconic chefs from around the world. It’s electric.
And are you going to have a chance to pop your head round the door and look at the contest?
I’ve no idea yet, but I will be trying to, if circumstance allows!