National Chef of the Year 2017: James Devine, November 2016

The  Staff Canteen

This is the first in a series of monthly blogs from 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.

Hi everyone, first of all a massive thanks to The Staff Canteen for giving me this opportunity, it’s a huge honor and one which I intend to treat with great respect.

James Devine
James Devine

When initially approached I was really nervous as to what exactly I would write. To get an idea I read previous winners’ blogs, that didn’t help however as Larry and Russell have done lots of exciting things since winning National Chef of the Year (NCOTY) and I myself haven't done much at all!

So with a complete lack of material to show for myself, I thought I'd use the first couples of blogs to give an insight into my experience throughout the competition process. All being well that should take us up to January by which time I'll be filled with exciting tales and shenanigans. 

What I loved about NCOTY initially was its history, the list of winners is crazy and what greater motivation for entering than being on there?Although I’ve competed in almost twenty different competitions, I vowed after unsuccessful MasterChef: The Professionals and Roux Scholarship appearances that I just wasn’t the same calibre as the chefs across the water and it was best to remain a reasonably sized fish in a small pond. It was perhaps time to turn my attention to mentoring younger chefs and concentrating on my actual job. 

Although, I had to enter NCOTY, something felt different right from the off. When Danni Barry, my head chef mentioned it I had a small feeling that under her guidance and now working at a Michelin level, the short comings of the past would no longer be an issue. This time, would be my time. One last major competition, one last push. I would put everything into the NCOTY, I would devote myself entirely for what was almost a 6 month process, and nothing else would break my focus, that this was the priority in my life. I would win this competition and prove that I could hang with the best of them.

People talk about the grueling hours spent practicing for competitions, for me, it’s my favorite part.  I’ve found that most competitions are won in the weeks leading up to it. Often, if you arrive on 'game day' with even a seed of doubt or indecision, it shows in your food. The judges can almost sense that.  However, if you arrive bursting with confidence and totally assured of your product then the judges almost forget they are critics and simply just enjoy the food. Ideally, that’s what you want, we are just cooking food, so it should be enjoyed first and foremost.

I therefore became totally obsessed during practice, every infinite detail would be pulled apart and put back together, making everything totally fail safe. Like most days in a normal kitchen, things go wrong, ovens break, chefs phone in sick, but the wheel keeps turning. This was my approach, make myself so well prepared that it didn’t matter what happened in London. The goal remained the same as the outcome would remain the same.

>>> Read more about James Devine here

Following a very tough semi-final in Sheffield I made it to the NCOTY finals. What was so important for me were the lessons learnt along the way. Four of the ten finalists in London had come from the Sheffield heat and I knew the outright winner would come from there.  

For the finals, the brief was simple, three courses, four covers, two hours, mystery basket. Easy yes? Not exactly. The Craft Guild of Chefs really can put an event together, we weren't just given a mystery basket, it was more of a Narnia style mystery wardrobe, it had everything!  

We were brought to a room, filled with produce resembling a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Fresh produce and suppliers showed us an amazing pantry and we got to decide what we wanted to use. At first I thought it was so obvious what I was going to do, looking at all the ingredients my main motive was, ‘what would Claire Smyth want to eat? What does Sat Bains like? Phil Howard likes lobster doesn't he? Daniel Clifford has venison on his menu, I should use that too! All top chefs love souffles, I’ll do a bloody souffle!’

So I was drawn to the lobster, the oysters, the girolles, the venison, the pigeon, the lamb, because these were premium ingredients and these were menu winning, or so I thought.

I was lucky or perhaps unlucky, it’s hard to tell sometimes. I had a long trip back to Belfast and time to plan my menu, longer still as I stupidly went to the wrong airport.

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUCEMENT: Stansted and Gatwick aren't close, do not mix up. 

You can take the boy outta the country but can't take the country outta the boy! After seven hours traveling a standard 90 minute commute I was home. Menu finished and knackered.

I'd fallen sleep, all my scribbles of paper around me, I woke up suddenly when a pen stabbed my face. It was 5am, I had work in a few hours but I had so much nervous energy I couldn’t sleep. I grabbed all my notes and just stared at my menu. I wasn’t happy. It wasn't my menu. Obviously I’d written it, but it wasn't me, the dishes were a combination of plagiarism and panic. If I was going to win the NCOTY, I would have to present 3 dishes which I was completely sure of, dishes that I knew inside out, dishes that required some risk, but ones which were extremely calculated and more importantly, just bloody delicious. The kind of dishes where each judge would have to eat 2-3 mouthfuls because it was so good. I had to make them forget they were critics, forget about their score sheets, forget there was nine other competitors, forget that it was even a competition. Make them remember the 'chef at station 3' who came out of nowhere...

To be continued...

>>> 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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Editor 25th November 2016

National Chef of the Year 2017: James Devine, November 2016