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Mentor Day for National Chef of the Year 2015

Mentor Day for National Chef of the Year 2015

by Hayden Groves 30 September 2015

2013 winner, Hayden Groves gives us his insight into the mentor day of the National Chef of the Year competition, before the finals take place next month. This day sets up the finalists for the final cook-off, and allows them a chance to gain tips from top chefs and previous winners.

After competing at NCOTY for four years running (2010–2013), as well as acting as a speaker and mentor at last year’s event, I guess I'm well positioned to give you a rundown of what this day is all about.

The grand unveil is at Unilever’s HQ in Leatherhead. This is always much anticipated for two reasons; the onsite staff shop where generally anyone who visits comes away with half their body weight in washing up liquid, shampoo and Marmite. More importantly, it is the first time you get to see the definitive mystery list of ingredients you can use in the final.

The four semi-finals are held around the first week of July, so there is an almost limbo period after this for the eight finalists. Although each year’s basket is different, if this year’s finalists were anything like me, they would have looked back on previous finals as certain elements tend to carry over.

The day starts after much coffee drinking. It is the first time that the final eight are all together, sharing stories of the semi-finals and trying to second guess what will be in the basket. David Mulcahy, Vice President of The Craft Guild of Chefs and competition organiser, gives an overview of what will happen at the final, including essential timelines and additional guidance. Then the Chair of Judges, Claire Smyth talks about what she is looking for in the winner of this year’s competition; her words resonate around the room, as there can only be one winner from the eight chefs present.

There is time for a Q&A session and an overview of the year to date from the current (soon to be outgoing) NCOTY – that was me last year and I can't believe how quick the time has gone! Although I was not present this year, I am almost certain that Russell Bateman gave an amazing account of what he has been up to, as he has had quite an incredible year.

Alyn Williams presents a demo with cooking tips for the competition, then the moment arrives when the definitive list is given out and the tables of ingredients unveiled. There is a myriad of meat, fish, vegetables and store supplies, and the suppliers and sponsors present are all keen to answer questions about their produce. You can see the chefs all start to form ideas, dishes and recipes slowly beginning to ferment and grow. The finalists’ camaraderie turns to an almost furtiveness, as all are concerned not to give away any good ideas.

The table of ingredients unveiled
The table of ingredients unveiled
Russell Bateman, winner of the 2014 competition
Russell Bateman, winner of the 2014 competition

The competition rules state that you have nine days to submit your menu and a list of ingredients, and only these ingredients will then be provided on the final day. Any change from this during the final, or over-ordering with excess waste, would incur a penalty.

With the menu written, it is time to practice. Four covers with three courses each in two hours, with one final goal; to cook the very best food with as few errors as you can, all under the high pressured environment of the competition.

The rules are simple, the ingredients are provided and weighed, then everything is done from scratch. You are allowed a commis, a wingman of sorts, but they cannot do any cooking. Don't underestimate their importance, this person is essential. They know your dish; they keep you on your toes and they own the time plan, so pick wisely!

In 2013, the year I won, I had four timed practice runs in between service and invited chefs and colleagues to critique. With each rehearsal, I put another layer of pressure and expectation on myself. We practiced in small areas of the kitchen and tried to minimise equipment. As was the mantra of when I used to race my bike, 'train hard and race easy'. Every time we would finesse the dish. It was all about marginal gains, the search for a small 1% improvement in every task: faster, neater, more flavour.

I know exactly how they will be feeling, trying to choose from the extensive basket. I always felt a sense of relief when my menu had been submitted, these were my dishes and I had to just focus on making them the best they could be.

Wishing all the chefs the best of luck with their practice runs, and I look forward to seeing the finished dishes at the restaurant show on Tuesday 6th October, where another talented cook will join the NCOTY alumni.

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Mentor Day for National Chef of the Year 2015


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