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

The Staff Canteen

This is the last 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 2017James Devine.

So, this is my very last blog as National Chef of the Year 2017 with The Staff Canteen. This month I wanted to reflect on the past 12 months and give my tips for the next round of contestants to compete in the finals this coming October.

James quote 1Winning National Chef of the Year 2017 was a life changing moment for me and this past year has been amazing. I never expected to win, it was just one of those things where it was great just to be there so winning was a complete shock!

The feedback I have received since winning has been amazing. It’s been a complete validation of a lot of years of hard work! I’ve entered a lot of competitions so winning something like National Chef of the Year stays with you for life. What’s been lovely about this prize is that every month there’s been a little reminder, people are still interested or there’s another prize so it’s been great! You’ve almost had a whole year to celebrate it and completely milk it so that’s probably been the nicest part. Most of the time you don’t really get to enjoy the competition because there’s so much work that goes into it and once it’s over it can be a bit of an anti-climax. But what’s been fantastic is I’ve had a full year of celebrations and I’ve come to enjoy it and appreciate it. I’ve met a lot of people on this journey and it’s been incredible. I’m very indebted to the Craft Guild of Chefs and to all the judges who made me National Chef of the Year. It’s been amazing and it’s been worth every long and hard day.

Opportunities started opening up pretty much immediately. I couldn’t help but laugh when I was getting phone calls from Michelin starred chefs asking me if I wanted to be head chef at one of their restaurants! I was so honoured though.

I love competing, I’m from a small town and so I was acclimating to the change, I found that idea pretty laughable but I was delighted. The pool of opportunities that came flooding in was just amazing and in terms of opportunities I would be interested in and could see myself doing? Yes, now obviously back in Northern Ireland you know we have a different level of respect I guess and I suppose that when you apply yourself to something you win or you come through people can understand that you’re capable of achieving something. So, obviously since then and even before the competition I had plans to open my own business and it has helped me greatly. It’s still a work in progress but I’ve managed to meet people through it who have all helped in some way so it’s definitely made any movements in the future a lot easier.

James Devine’s top tips for winning National Chef of the Year

I think the first one for me would be the preparation, I’ve always been a firm believer in the saying ‘luck favours the prepared’. I don’t think people realise how many hours goes into practicing, it’s very nice to win a competition but people sometimes don’t realise how much time goes into it especially on top of a very busy job.

James quotationI would also say it’s good to know your menu, inside and out. Obviously because some people (myself included) don’t have time to do stuff, if you do have a small window of time to practice I would focus on the dishes that you’re comfortable with, don’t create a menu you think the judges will like or that you believe would be served in a two or three starred restaurant, just do food you know you can and cook very well.

When I was designing my menu I think the first night I sat down after the mentor day I read the menu and it was almost like I tried to copy different dishes from the judges’ restaurants and I’ve never been quite embarrassed. Most of the stuff I’d never even cooked before I didn’t really understand it but I felt ‘well that’s what they’d like’. Then I was just like, this is the last time I’m going to do this, if I fail I won’t try again so I just had to cook food that I like or would serve and just treat the judges like customers.

Ultimately I was told that was why I won because the first three dishes tasted nicer than anybody else’s. So, I would say when you’re designing the menu if it tastes amazing you’re probably going to win and if it doesn’t you’re not, simple as that. So just create a menu you’re comfortable with rather than it looking good to impress the judges.

The judges have seen everything before, you have to bear in mind that these judges not only cook the best food in the UK, they’ve eaten in the top restaurants in the world so they’ve seen it all. Sometimes I think you can go down the wrong road trying to be unique or special and show them something different. That’s important but ultimately you have to remember when you take that first bite you have to think to yourself ‘holy shit that’s amazing’. For me that’s what I tried doing, at first I thought I was going to win but after I served my starter course I had to produce extra because the judges all wanted more. That was the point when I was like ‘alright I think this plan works’. So just try creating something they have to physically have more of, something addictive.

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

Highlight of the year

My highlight of the year has to be that moment, I’ll never forget it. I look back now seeing the moment when Will Torrent announced the winner and it just felt like forever. I remember being up on that stage and there’s such a wait before they announce who has won. After they announced fifth place, then fourth, then third...I just kind of had this snaking suspicion it was going to be me but you’re never really sure.

It was really nice and I’m never going to forget that. I had my sister and head chef in the audience. It was a great event and really good opportunity. Certainly, the highlight has to be when you hear your name being announced, you know that’ll only ever happen once and I’m going to hold on to that for a long time.

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 12th September 2017

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