Continental Chef Supplies sat down with Nick Smith for a three-course autumnal meal cooked by him at the commercial kitchen space in its London showroom. They discussed everything from winning National Chef of the Year 2020/21, to cooking at home during the pandemic. Smith started off by answering some hot topics from this year’s National Chef Of The Year.
Simon Britten: Is sourcing and seasonality increasingly important post-pandemic?
NS: Seasonality is always important as you want to get everything in its prime, and sourcing has seen a big shift to local produce in recent years. During National Chef Of The Year, I wasn't able to get what I needed from my usual suppliers, so I had to travel to nearby Kent for lamb. This really got me back in touch with sourcing and seasonality as I was able to speak to the locals about the produce. We spoke about the hanging of the meats, the exact cuts I needed, and what sort of flavour I could expect based on the rearing and feeding techniques that had been used. The history of your food and building a relationship with the people that produce it is a fantastic experience.
SB: I imagine the biggest challenge is time. How do you find the time for local sourcing?
NS: It’s hard, but it’s not about finding the time; it’s about changing your process to ensure it’s a necessary piece of the food journey. I like to speak to suppliers and get their expert opinion on what I should be cooking. But this only comes from building a relationship with them and, for me, this includes ringing them to tell them when the produce was brilliant, not just when it was poor. If the chef, the supplier, the grower and everyone in between is passionate, then it can only lead to a plate of passionate food.
SB: How is sustainability impacting cooking styles and menus?
NS: Sustainability is always at the forefront of National Chef Of The Year and my background in corporate cooking and contract catering. Clients are now buying into the sustainability messaging more than ever before as it sometimes forms a part of their CSR policy. My dad used to cook skate cheeks. These were fantastic, but skate is now on the Red List (not sustainable), so you have to find alternative fish with a sustainable status. You need to follow the sustainable fish lists and take your time reading up on the latest advice. This really highlights and emphasises a chef's talent: changing your dishes based on latest advice and becoming more adaptable.
SB: Do you see a different approach to chef welfare since the pandemic?
NS: I have and I think it needs to continue to change. I’ve experienced some myself; the long hours take their toll and have a big mental effect. For example, when you’re a head chef you’ll have your own challenges, but you also need to be a good listener for your brigade as they’ll share their problems with you. As a good boss, it’s important to mentor and develop these younger chefs and being a good listener is a part of that. But don’t forget to manage your own mental health at the same time.
SB: Where do you see yourself in the next few years?
NS: I’d love to have my own restaurant. Winning National Chef of the Year was always a dream of mine, which came true! So, my next dream is a restaurant of my own and there’s no reason why that can’t come true as well. The momentum stopped during the pandemic for our industry, but you have to keep going and I feel like things are picking up again now. It’s a struggle, but hard work pays off.
SB: Where does your inspiration come from?
NS: My dad used to be a chef and this certainly inspired me. He always said to me that “you’ve got to cook from the heart”. The pandemic has tested this to the extreme as it’s been a struggle to maintain work and pursue my passion as a chef. I also love the usual favourites, including the Roux Brothers, Marco Pierre White, Raymond Blanc and Rick Stein. Without these chefs I probably wouldn’t have the passion I have today. When I watch Rick Stein his passion comes through every single time. It’s simple cooking infused with passion and love. Sometimes all you need is a decent meal cooked well with a nice cold beer.
SB: How has National Chef Of The Year changed over the years?
NS: The first time I competed was with Clare Smyth as chair of judges, then Gary Jones took over for the next three competitions I was involved in, and of course Paul Ainsworth is the current chair. This change of judge means the competition evolves naturally depending on what each judge is looking for. For example, Gary Jones allowed us to bring a cooked secondary cut to the main course before the competition and Paul Ainsworth came up with the idea for the semi finalists to do a video explaining a dish that sums you up as a chef. The overall format tends to stay fairly consistent, though, with a focus on sustainability and provenance. Although in recent years there has been a focus on vegetarian cooking and the reduced use of meat as the competition continues to update itself.
SB: What was it like competing in National Chef of the Year during a pandemic?
NS: In previous years we have had a commis chef, whereas this time it was just me. This means you must be organised and clever with what you can manage in two hours on your own. I kept it simple with just enough quirkiness to show off my character, but it was still hard during the pandemic. I managed to do some prep work before we got locked down, but I still had a lot of work to do on my dishes at home, including trying to source ingredients, which wasn’t easy. In the end, I feel that it may have worked in my favour as the situation forced me to simplify my cooking.
On the menu
Starter: Butternut mulligatawny
Smith’s take on the 1970s soup, elevated by poaching off some butternut and potting it as a ballotine with some green raisins, cumin, butter and wrapping in spinach. He toasts off some curry leaves (his favourite ingredient) and coriander as a garnish. He also makes a puffed rice, walnut and pistachio salad with the soup to give some texture.
Main course: Beef cheek with streaky bacon and silverskin onions
Slow-cooked for three hours and glazed in its own stock, Smith’s main course is partnered with brown butter Maris Piper mash. “I love ox cheek, I think it’s a brilliant cut and great for this time of the year. Slow-cooking hearty food is perfect for Autumn. It’s the type of dish I love to eat,” he says.
Dessert: Lemon madeleines enrobed in white chocolate
Smith finishes off the meal with this palate-refreshing and brilliantly delicate dessert. The madeleines were complemented by meringue, lemon curd and crème Chantilly plus blackcurrant sage flowers for a floral note alongside some candied lemons.
About Continental Chef Supplies
Continental Chef Supplies (CCS) supply premium and fine dine tableware to the hospitality industry and host regular cooking demos at its London Innovation Centre, which features a commercial kitchen and a mixology area alongside the UK’s largest display of Tableware. CCS has sponsored National Chef Of The Year for over a decade and provide culinary trips for previous winners. 2022 will see CCS take the past three winners away on a culinary trip to Northcote's Obsession food festival, which will feature fine dine cuisine from Alex Bond, Hrishikesh Desai and Simon Rogan. Find out more about its London Showroom here.