National Chef of the Year 2017: James Devine, April 2017

The  Staff Canteen

This is the fifth in a series of monthly blogs from former sous chef of EIPIC, which holds one Michelin star in the Michelin Guide UK, and winner of the National Chef of the Year 2017, James Devine.

For his latest blog, James discusses the pressure he faced at last year's National Chef of the Year semi-finals, finally having a drink with Kenny Atkinson at the National Restaurant Awards and cooking his winning menu for his local college to raise money for charity.

James Devine with vice president of the Craft Guild of Chefs%2C David Mulcahy and judge%2C Clare Smyth

James Devine with vice president of the

Craft Guild of Chefs, David Mulcahy

and judge, Clare Smyth

This past month has been exciting and busy with several different projects in the mix but to be honest, on paper they're kind of dull. Unfortunately, there has been a distinct lack of ‘A list’ parties, celebrity dinners, loose women, fast cars, etc. Russell Bateman told me he doesn’t even remember the first six months after he won the 2015 title as he was partying so hard. However, I will do my best to make a very uneventful month worth reading about.

Forgetting about my rather uninspiring month, March saw the search for the new National Chef of the Year. With the entry deadline looming it’s almost time for the semi-finals. Hard to believe it’s been a year since I was at that stage. Last year’s semi-finals for me were perhaps the hardest part of the whole NCOTY experience. It was my third major competition on the bounce – MasterChef: the Professionals and The Roux Scholarship experiences were behind me. NCOTY was very much my ‘hail Mary’ shot. I believed from the start I could win the competition but I was also aware that the odds were against me and I realised that I would probably need to pack a parachute.

>>> Related: Ruth Hansom launches The Craft Guild of Chefs' Young National Chef of the Year 2018 with Snapchat takeover

The semi-finals are just as pressurised as the live finals in London. There is no scenario or training that can prepare you for that adrenalin rush. You spend months training and perfecting dishes in your own kitchen, your own space, in your own time, with your own team and then suddenly it all changes. On game day it’s hostile waters, everything is foreign to you, no longer do you have any of those small confronts you took for granted in the week’s leading up. The ovens are different, the space is smaller, there’s no solid top, the kitchen’s too hot, you’re missing your favourite knife. If you’re a creature of habit you’re in for a long day. You’re in close quarters with 10 other competitors and nobody’s giving an inch.

Kenny Atkinson, Danni Barry and James Devine at the National Restaurant Awards

Kenny Atkinson, Danni Barry and James Devine

at the National Restaurant Awards

If this doesn’t sound tense then add the judges. Some of the best chefs in the UK, Clare Smyth, Kenny Atkinson, Lisa Allen and Steve Love watch you closely and grill you with questions. These scenarios test everything about yourself, there is no greater pressure, the stakes don’t get higher, there is no escape, no respite, and no one else to blame.

>>> Read more about James Devine here

On the day I made a couple of mistakes and lost out to Danny Parker from House of Tides Restaurant in Newcastle upon Tyne. I was in the first of four semi-finals which were held a week apart. The overall finalists would not be announced until all four had taken place but at that point I was incredibly low and I was certain my journey was over. I was gutted and held out no hope of making the final. In hindsight, I was a bit of a sore loser and left rather hastily afterwards which I regret because it would have been good to get a beer with some of the judges.

However, somebody up there was looking after me because I made it through a week after the other semi-finalists were confirmed. I like to think I was the highest scoring runner up but I can neither confirm nor deny this! I was totally chuffed. Better still, a few days later I was lucky enough to be at the National Restaurant Awards in London and got to have that beer with Kenny Atkinson that I had missed out on in Sheffield. He was such a gentleman and was so kind. He even remembered my dishes and wished me all the luck for the final but not too much as his own loyalty had to be to Danny Parker, the Sheffield heat winner.

James Devine with students from South West College, Dungannon

James Devine with students from

South West College, Dungannon

I can safely say if I had won the Sheffield heat I wouldn’t have won the NCOTY, I can even go as far to say if I hadn’t lost out on MasterChef: The Professionals and The Roux Scholarship I wouldn’t have won either. No clichés but everything happens for a reason. Those losses empowered me for the final. I was no longer afraid to lose and that gave me so much confidence and allowed me to enjoy the experience.

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all entrants the best of luck and stress the importance of trying to appreciate the process, it goes by in the blink of an eye so don’t waste any of it.

This past week I was fortunate enough to cook my NCOTY menu in my home town, Dungannon at the local college. Money was raised from the event to help local charity Leukaemia and lymphoma N.I. The charity was set up by a childhood friend, Barry Williamson. Barry’s wife Alison was only 31 when she lost her life to cancer last year. She was a very special woman who raised two wonderful children, Mya and Rhys. Since setting up the charity, Barry has raised almost £60,000 – an incredible achievement by such an incredible man. I can’t begin to comprehend the circumstance nor will I try and pretend but it was a great privilege to help the organisation and I intend to offer continued support in the future. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to meet Barry and Alison’s daughter Mya who has shown signs of a budding young chef, perhaps a future National Chef of the Year winner?

I’m very thankful to the college for facilitating the experience. I live and work in Belfast now but home will always have a special place in my heart and it was wonderful to cook for friends and family. The students and the teachers were both fantastic. I won’t pretend it was easy but it certainly wasn’t hard. The current ‘chef crisis’ often triggers industry to blame the colleges for the lack of young talent coming through but I’d like to give a special mention to the brilliant work being done at South West College. The kitchens are run like clockwork and are an example from which the industry could learn a thing or two.

>>> Read more about the chef shortage here 

April now holds a trip to Switzerland with Nespresso, the development of my own cook book with Knorr, and several pop ups across Belfast city, all on top of my actual job. 

James Devine
James Devine

James is the National Chef of the Year 2017, having won the competition at the Restaurant Show at Olympia London in October. Until earlier this year he was sous chef at the Michelin-starred restaurant,  EIPIC based in Belfast and is now a chef at Noble, Holywood in Northern Ireland. James previously worked as a kitchen porter at a local restaurant and later became head chef at the Black Cat Restaurant and Deli on the Green in Dungannon as well as working part time as a college lecturer.  


In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 7th April 2017

National Chef of the Year 2017: James Devine, April 2017