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

The  Staff Canteen

This is the fourth 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 for The Staff Canteen, James reflects on his time at Eipic, launching the National Chef of the Year 2018 competition and being a guest judge for the Knorr Student Chef of the Year competition.

These blogs seem to come around fast. I can’t really tell whether it’s because I’m busy or lazy! Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten myself into many heroic or life changing scenarios this month, so it’s a pretty tame edition but I’ll do my best to embellish…

Life has changed considerably since winning the Craft Guild of Chef’s National Chef of the Year, most notably because it ran concurrently with my departure from Eipic. Leaving a kitchen of that calibre wasn’t an easy decision to make. Obviously working in a Michelin kitchen requires hard work and sacrifice but it also bestows upon you a level of kudos.

It even carries weight on a global stage and grants you access into an exclusive fraternity. It's a daunting prospect to walk away from that, even when it’s to your own ambitions.

The qualities synonymous with these kitchens drew me to the industry, more so than a love affair with food. I don’t have the romantic food stories others have. I didn’t churn butter with my grandma, make fresh bread with mum or help around the farm with dad. I’ve always loved eating and the social aspect of food, but that isn’t why I cook, that is why I dine. My first naive glimpse of professional kitchens was watching Ramsay’s ‘Boiling Point.’ His discipline and obsession were instant draws for me. Fair enough, the ‘bollockings’ scared the crap out of me, but I was compelled by the work ethic.

In an environment like that it’s almost an advantage to have OCD. In my experience those that don’t are labelled ‘the dirty chef’. Professionalism is expected, not rewarded. If you're not responsible you're a joker. If you're not early, then you're late. There's a mindset involved which has no financial correlation, it transcends wages, working conditions and even personal happiness.

James Devine
James Devine

I’ve never been thick skinned, just thick boned. I regularly struggled with the demands. However, I wouldn’t change it, on the contrary, when faced with an environment without the same discipline, I'd struggle to peel a carrot. I like repetition, standardization, applied methods and practices. I don't like unnecessary voices and I won’t use seven words when five will do. Applying this attitude always worked well for me and served better than technical ability, which is fortunate as I’m a average cook at best.

>>> Read more about James Devine here

I’m very proud to have worked at Eipic and very fortunate to have staged in great kitchens like Pied a Terre and Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, but throughout all these experiences I never really felt a great connection with the food - just the processes and how clinical they were. Obviously, these places are amazing but my love for that environment has dwindled. Better to leave it on a high than to compromise on quality.

Being completely honest, I now get more joy from a really tasty sandwich than a tasting menu. The street food scene excites me and is something I’d really like to explore. I’m currently in a transition period, the next year will involve experimenting with various styles and concepts that will evolve throughout. On the surface the menu won't look anything like Michelin standard, but beneath it all, the structures, the processes, the discipline and obsession will be the same.

I’ve recently returned from my first act as NCOTY, with the launch of the current 2018 competition. I should mention at this point, it’s a wonderful event and I would encourage anyone who’s passionate to consider entering.

>>> Link to enter the Craft Guild of Chefs National Chef of the Year 2018 here

I also promised the Craft Guild much more Irish interest in the future and hope that comes to fruition. I enjoy any excuse to get to London so naturally I was very happy to attend. Not that I needed any persuasion but I was enticed with the allure of dinner at Street XO. It was an incredible evening, every bit as bonkers as it’s made out to be while remaining utterly delicious.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t just there to eat posh street food and drink massive cocktails, there was the small matter of a speech which David failed to mention until after I’d committed myself to the trip. Just four minutes he said. Public speaking has always been my nightmare, regardless of the audience. I probably shouldn’t have panicked, it wasn’t as if Oliver Peyton, Gary Jones, Mark Sargeant, Alyn Williams where amongst the crowd! Thankfully they were a very warm audience and went easy on me. It was a wonderful visit, a personal highlight was meeting Russell Bateman, National Chef of the Year 2015. Hand’s down the nicest chef of the year (NCOTY)!

I’ve also been named as the guest judge for the Knorr Student Chef of the Year taking place later this month in Cork. I am honored and extremely privileged to take on this role, particularly because I’ve mentored students in previous years and can remember being star struck myself meeting the guest judge. I take great pride in being part of the competition and realise how important it is to encourage talent from an early age.

Whether it’s here in Ireland or across the water, the main topic from industry folk is the staff shortage. There isn’t currently enough good chefs or enough bad chefs. Across the board there’s just not enough chefs period. It’s short sighted to blame the colleges for turning out poor students or the chefs for breaking their spirits and driving them out of the industry. However, I think people in all levels of the industry need to take some responsibility and act. I intend to take some action myself and will host two tasting evenings at my local catering college with the students. This is in addition to some part time teaching also as well as working closely with Belfast Cookery School over the next year. I genuinely think I have a responsibility to the industry that has given me so much, it’s my way of giving back.

Once again, thank you very much for reading. No doubt my next blog will focus largely on clearing my name against allegations of corruption and bribery following my visit to Cork, final preparations for my first ‘pop up’ appearance and oh, I’ll be planning my trip to Switzerland with Nespresso.

Surely hardly worth reading.

>>> Read more National Chef of the Year blogs here 

James Devine, National Chef of the Year 2017

James Devine,

National Chef of the Year 2017

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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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 2nd March 2017

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