What does it mean to be the new chair of judges for NCOTY and YNCOTY?
I’m chuffed and honoured to be asked. Look at who’s come before: Phil Howard, Clare Smyth...phenomenal chefs. It will be really useful for me too.
What will you personally be looking for?
We’re looking at seasonality, weights, measures, practicalities and utilisation of the ingredients. On the day of the final [at The Restaurant Show in October], I’ll personally be looking for three, bang-on, balanced dishes with great flavour. If the flavour isn’t right, it doesn’t matter how pretty you make it. And cooking under pressure is the important thing. These guys ‒ especially in the NCOTY contest ‒ are really well-practiced. Lots of them come back year after year, and they just get stronger.
What’s new for this year?
This is the first year the ‘paper judging’ round will be online, so the results will be recorded more swiftly. We’re going to try to take the judging a bit more slowly, and make sure everyone has time to see and try the food before there are 15 other spoons in the plate.
What is the main thing that has changed in the competition over the years?
The media side of it is now covered really well, and that adds interest and exposure. Everyone is tuned into social media. If you look at old farts like me, we didn’t have smartphones while we were learning to cook. But for the next generation of brilliant young chefs it’s a tool. They’ve got a knife in one hand and a phone in the other.
Has that changed the overall approach to the competition?
Cooking itself doesn’t change. It’s about balance, purity and respect for the ingredients. The chefs are given great ingredients to begin with, and if they match them respectfully, and cook and blend them well, then we should have some great dishes.
What can competitions teach an ambitious chef that stages and spending time working in kitchens can’t?
Competitions raise a chef’s self-discipline and consistency. And when you put youngsters into competitions like this, you see an amazing growth spurt in them. They end up as your sous chefs and head chefs. They’re also pitted against guys in other kitchens, and they work well, as if they’re helping each other to get their dishes better. So there’s camaraderie too.
(Photo: Judges - here, Jones and pastry chef Sarah Hartnett - deliberating at the National Chef of The Year contest / National Chef of the Year)
How does that development fit in with your chef programme at Le Manoir?
We’re lucky enough to have trained four YNCOTY winners at Le Manoir, which is great. We’ve got a breeding ground for chefs at every level. Also, I’ve been trying to help get people into the industry from a really young age, when they’re in primary school and attracting people into catering college. It’s about consistently building those levels. We’re in good shape.
What’s the secret to your and Le Manoir’s success?
Working hard and enjoying it. And training. There’s always a new recruit. It’s hard and it’s a constant, but that’s what we do at Le Manoir. I think it’s 34 Michelin-starred chefs that have been trained there, and I’ve trained about 18 of those with Raymond Blanc.
Nick Edgar [now Michelin-starred head chef at the three AA Rosette The Samling Hotel in Cumbria] came to visit us recently so we got him in the kitchen to train the brigade. He walked into my kitchen at 17 years old, worked up to head chef, left to go to Cumbria, and then eight months later he comes back as a Michelin-starred chef. That’s makes me really proud.
That’s what you want to inspire your current brigade with, and that’s what gets me up in the morning.
What was the best bit of advice you received when you were a young chef starting out?
Taste everything and work hard. When I first started, I did really long days. Now, we’re lucky we can reduce the number of hours our chefs work, and I want them to use their time off as well, doing a sport or a martial art or something else. We want them to keep themselves fit and sharp, and then they can come to the kitchen and put in the hours of graft and be efficient. Britain is in a good place with young chefs compared to 20 years ago.