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

The Staff Canteen

This is the sixth 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.

This month James works on the finishing touches to his new cookbook, reveals more details about his next venture and meets his role model, Matt Tebbutt at The Craft Guild of Chefs Awards.

James Devine, National Chef of the Year 2017
James Devine

Back again for another addition, in theory this should be an easy enough write as it’s been an exciting month. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be an easy read. I’ll try to keep it light and enjoyable, and if in doubt I’ll riddle it with pictures. In a month that involved the production of a cookbook and the opportunity to share a stage with Matt Tebbutt, I must once again, thank the Craft Guild of Chefs and everyone involved with the National Chef of the Year competition. I’m a very lucky guy to enjoy such a privileged position and I will be sorry to see the end of my term as winner.

Part of the NCOTY prize was small print run of the winner’s cookbook. I was sceptical at first as I think some cookbooks can be quite naff and I don’t believe I'm at the level yet to compete with the good ones but my media savvy side couldn't argue with being available on hardback! Once the project began, I was immediately humbled by the effort being made by the guys from William Murry and Unilever so quickly realised I would have to pull my socks up to match their phenomenal work.

Every cook book needs a good photographer and this prize came loaded with the best, Adrian Franklin. I’ve been very fortunate to work with Adrian in the past for other NCOTY events and think his pictures of food are exceptional. A complete professional, who isn’t happy until he gets the best out of each dish. Even when this involves hours of work, focusing on every infinite detail. I had great confidence in his abilities before the shoot and knew the food would come across great. However, I was concerned that the images of myself would look a bit forced. Naturally I expressed these concerns with Adrian and asked could he make me look cool, strong, taller and maybe a little less fat. His replied was shift; “…James I’m a photographer, not a magician…”

James Devine, National Chef of the Year 2017

James Devine plating up a dish to be

photographed for his new cookbook

Well, I’ve had a sneak peek at the possible cover photos and (even though I’m preparing myself for some much deserved bants from my closest friends), I think I look alright considering. Worst case scenario the shots will seriously strengthen my online game. Thank you, Adrian!

>>> Read more about The Craft Guild of Chefs' National Chef of the Year here

I left Eipic in January earlier this year with the goal of setting up my own venture. When leaving I had an idea of what I thought I’d like to do but it wasn’t much more than that. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m quite green when it comes to the actual realities of creating or operating a business. So, these past few months have been an appropriate time for me to figure out what exactly makes sense to do next. As a chef, I’m very lucky to work in a job I love, and honestly, it’s never felt like a job, not like a proper job anyways. That feeling I know, and that feeling I don’t care for.

Although this is what makes the industry very special it still carries quite dangerous consequences. Often the romanticism of an idea can cloud your judgement and lead to some poor choices. I’ve been guilty of this in the past. I poured everything I had into a restaurant back home, which cost me financial strain and saw my life completely unravel. It’s been over three years since I finally accepted that despite how much I loved the idea of owning my own restaurant in my home town, sometimes love isn’t enough. Passion is probably the biggest difference between a good restaurant and a great one, but it’s not vital for survival. Unfortunately, it’s very much a numbers game, and I always was horrible at maths. My Mum, credit to her, went through three different private tutors just to get me through school. I believe my love for my craft won me NCOTY, but now I hope I’m a little wiser and in a better place to understand the complexities of the industry. Winning NCOTY has certainly given me confidence in my abilities and I take that confidence on the next adventure with me.

James Devine
James Devine's dish for his cookbook

However, just in case I haven’t learnt a single lesson, I’ve sought the help of two promising young restauranteurs who needed less tuition with their sums than me. What I did learn a long time ago was to surround yourself with the right people. I’m very confident in a recently agreed partnership and very pleased to be working with good people, sharing the same goals.

Next stop Hollywood, that’s Holywood County Down, not Los Angeles, just to avoid confusion. Providing my luck doesn’t run out, we are hopeful to be open for business early 2018.

This month I also had the pleasure of attending the Craft Guild of Chef Awards in London at the Westminster Park Plaza. I was very pleased to be invited to the awards, although I will admit, every time I receive an invitation from David Mulcahy I immediately get nervous. I now know the message will contain something that involves public speaking. I can safely say that before winning NCOTY I avoided all sorts of these situations. Since the competition I think I’ve averaged almost one nerve wrecking, gut-wrenching experience per month. Worse still, they aren’t getting any easier.

>>> Related: Winners of Craft Guild of Chefs Awards 2017 announced

However, I’m completely indebted to the Craft Guild and would never refuse a request. So, I agreed to complete the ‘santé du chef’ toast. For anyone, who like me, was unfamiliar with this, it’s basically a toast to good health, carried out and the end of the meal and usually involves welcoming the kitchen brigade on stage for a round of applause. Having never been to these awards previously I wasn’t quite aware how big they actually were. It was massive. Imagine the number of people at every wedding you’ve attended in one giant room. Not quite the small gathering David mentioned.

James Devine and Matt Tebbutt, Craft Guild of Chef Awards

James Devine and Matt Tebbutt,

Craft Guild of Chef Awards

A ginormous room with almost a thousand people is a nervy prospect, and just to make it a little more terrifying was the calibre of some of the people in attendance. An absolute who’s who among the best chefs in the UK, Phil Howard, Alyn Williams, Nigel Haworth, to name but a few. Also in attendance, the reigning Young National Chef of the Year, Ruth Hansom, who I think would have been much more suited to the stage, given the fact she not only cooks like a superhero but looks like a super model. Saving the best till last, across from my own table, the legendary, Mr Raymond Blanc. I was going to retire early for the evening after he shook my hand and said my name. At that point, I felt my evening could only go downhill.

If all of this wasn’t a daunting enough prospect to overcome then throw in celeb chef Matt Tebbutt as MC for the evening. I’ve been a huge fan of Matt’s since his appearance on great British menu over 10 years ago. As a then naive and terribly clumsy commis chef, I really admired his style of cooking and hoped to eventually develop into a similar version myself. Fast forward a decade and we’re on stage together, cracking jokes and presenting toasts. Those ten minutes on stage weren’t by any means the most comfortable I’ve ever had but it’s certainly a career highlight that I’ll never forget. Following our brief performance, Matt went on Saturday kitchen and dropped the “F” bomb live on air, I’d like to take full credit for this, being a regular bad influence. Usually it’s my nieces and nephews I’m corrupting but without a twitter backlash to consider.

On a closing note I’d like to wish all the current semi-finalist in this year’s National Chef of the Year all the very best of luck. It’s beyond cliché to try and advise anyone to enjoy the experience, so I won’t. What I will say however is to prepare like you would for the worst service of your life, and then count your blessings it actually wasn’t that bad.

James Devine, National Chef of the Year 2017
James Devine

A book, a business, a banquette, a Blanc, a Tebbutt and an “F bomb” not a bad month I guess…

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.  

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Editor 7th June 2017

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