With a past winners list that reads like a who’s who of the chef world (it includes David Everitt-Matthias, Mark Sargeant, Simon Hulstone and even Gordon Ramsay) NCOTY is among the country’s most prestigious professional cooking competitions.
Launched in 1972, the yearly competition is run by the Craft Guild of Chef and William Reed, organisers of The Restaurant Show, and has helped fast-track chef’s careers and put them on the path toward Michelin stars.
“To have my name alongside the past winners, all of whom are chefs I have always looked up to, is something that I will always be hugely proud of,” says last year’s winner Luke Selby, who is now a head chef at Ollie Dabbous’ Mayfair restaurant Hide.
Held at The Restaurant Show for over 10 years, the competition is about the chefs’ individual performances on the day in front of a panel of respected judges. It is not based on their personality or past triumphs, but on culinary skills and ability to perform under pressure.
This makes for a diverse selection of chefs, with this year’s finalists including people at various stages of their careers and from across the cooking spectrum, from those working in Michelin-starred kitchens to those overseeing the food across large multi-site businesses.
The NCOTY boasts the most distinguished judging panel of any UK cooking competition. This year’s line-up is too numerous to list in full, but includes such luminaries as Clare Smyth, Claude Bosi, Ollie Dabbous, Sat Bains and Tom Kerridge.
With this year’s competition nearly upon us, BigHospitality sat down with Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons executive head chef and chairman of judges Gary Jones and vice president of the Craft Guild of Chefs and competition director David Mulcahy to discuss the importance of cooking competitions and offer up some tips for the ten finalists.
How has NCOTY changed over the years?
DM: It’s evolved and grown. My aim all the time is to look at what’s happening on the high street and what the topics of the day are. It’s not just about being a classically trained, French-based chef. We’ve tried to open the competition up to everybody, male, female and all ethnicities. They are all part of the diversity of this industry, which the competition should reflect.
GJ: It’s got glossier and the whole professional image of the competition and of the chefs has improved. We need to attract more people to the industry so raising the profile of the chefs competing can only help.
Do you think the competition has further to go to become more inclusive?
DM: We recognise that the issue of diversity needs to be continually championed. Each year of the competition will probably bring a different focus. We’re trying to encourage more female chefs to enter. It’s not easy, we haven’t won that battle and there’s a way to go.
Our next evolution is to make sure we’re embracing current trends. This year the competition is reflecting the rise of plant-based eating and veganism. Since 2017 people entering must also identify the allergens in their dishes. It’s a slight test to make sure they understand the ingredients.
So the interpretation of dishes doesn’t have to be classical?
DM: No, the chefs get quite a wide mystery basket of ingredients and we want to broaden the competition. I would hope we see some less classical dishes. Part of that is making sure that we attract people from different parts of the industry and different backgrounds. Looking at the chefs involved also helps influence our mystery basket.
How many dishes do the chefs have to create?
GJ: There’s three courses, so three dishes and four of each one. It’s as if they’ve cooking for a table of four covers, which quite tricky in a competition to plate everything and keep it hot in two hours. There’s no heat lamps that you’d have in a normal restaurant environment.
DM: The criteria is that there’s a vegetarian first course, a particular protein in the main course and same in dessert. The mystery basket becomes an order list, they’ll be emailed that as an order form in Excel and they choose from that and send it in.
Why should chefs consider entering competitions?
DM: Treat it as training and development. If you think of it as a competition where it’s a win or lose scenario you may end up disappointed. It’s about, trialling, testing, executing and positioning dishes. The judges can also learn a bit more about the way they run their businesses and the kind of people they employ.
When people you work with enter, what impact does it have when they come back to work?
GJ: They walk taller, they’re more confident and earn the respect of the team. Once they’ve done a competition like this their kudos goes through the roof. It’s wonderful to see people grow.
DM: Our young chef of the year mentor day, in particular, is all about building confidence. Often that hasn’t been developed possibly because [chefs in charge] can dominate the kitchen. So this is a chance for them to come out of their shell and show their voice, ideas and passion. Then we can nurture that and harness it.
If you have chefs that are competing on a national stage they are ambassadors for their company. It sends a message to the wider industry that that restaurant or company invests in its people.
How does NCOTY compare to TV cooking competitions?
GJ: It’s more rigorous and similar to the environment of an actual kitchen. When you’re a bit in awe of the judges and you’ve got two hours to produce 12 dishes – four of each – it’s massive pressure. But it’s not unlike the kind of pressure chefs face every day.
What would be your key tips for people competing this year?
GJ: Don’t overcomplicate things. The winner will be someone that cooks three consistent dishes. If your dessert or starter lets you down you’re not going to win the competition.
What are the classic errors chefs make in this competition?
GJ: You can be so overrun by the lights and cameras and judges that you can forget the basics, like seasoning or heat the plates up. Imagine you’re cooking for a loved one, like your family or partner. Don’t focus on cooking for the judges, keep your feet on the floor and cook your best.
DM: Practising in an environment that’s very removed from the culinary theatre they’ll be cooking in in the final, it’s a very tight space. Try and reduce the resources you use and cook in a very minimal environment.
How does the marking work?
GJ: It’s mainly based on the overall flavour of the dish, though presentation comes in to it. We changed things slightly last year. Normally a plate would come down and there’d be five or six judges jockeying to get a forkful. Now we pair a couple of chefs together and give them a plate each, so they have a conversation sitting down like a customer. We’ve given the judges the opportunity to look at it fairly with a little bit more time involved.
How it works
The Craft Guild of Chefs National Chef of the Year is open to all chefs over the age of 24. Entrants are first required to devise an innovative menu for four people, which is paper judged by the panel. 40 chefs then go through to the regional heats, which take place in London and Sheffield.
On the day (2 October), competitors are required to produce a three course menu for four covers within two hours using a mystery basket of ingredients. Service may begin after 45 minutes, in course order. This year, the first course most use live native lobster; the main course must involve whole grouse English grouse; and the dessert must be a modern interpretation of a classic British pudding incorporating seasonal British fruit.
This year’s 10 finalists
Derek Johnstone, head chef, Borthwick Castle
George Blogg, head chef, Gravetye Manor
Glenn Evans, head of food, Las Iguanas
Liam Fauchard-Newman, senior sous chef, Rhubarb
Martin Frickel, senior sous chef, The Forest Side
David Neilson, senior chef de partie, Number One at the Balmoral
Nick Smith, head chef, Harbour & Jones
Kuba Winkowski, head chef, The Feathered Nest Inn
Stefan Sewell, defence chef instructor, Combined Services Culinary Arts Team
Thomas Westerland, head chef, Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa