'It all makes sense now - all of the hard work over the years came to this'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

When he was called up onto the podium yesterday to accept the title of Roux Scholar 2020-2021, Oli Williamson was lost for words. 

"I hadn't eaten since breakfast and barely drank anything except water - so it was like, 'now we can relax'," as he raised an invisible glass to the room.

The finals, which pitted him against five of the world's most talented young chefs, took every last bit of energy out of him. He never expected to win - but knew that at 30, this was his final shot at it. 

'Nail-biting hours'

"I didn't want to get stressed or overwhelmed by the whole thing" he said, "so I was like, 'd'you know what, I'm going to enjoy it, this is the last chance I have to do it, so I might as well savour every moment. So I did."

Nonetheless, he said, "they were nail-biting hours."

"It was incredible to even get that far - top six in the country," alongside the likes of YNCOTY 2013 and three times finalist Ben Champkin, and Nathan Cornwell of Restaurant Moor Hall, who was seen as a plausible winner despite having been brought in on reserve.

Oli knows that his victory was the culmination not just of the past eighteen months of training, but the sum of all of his experiences so far. 

"This is years and years of hard work and dedication," a reward for the tougher days spent perfecting his craft.

"It all makes sense now - all of the hard work over the years came to this." 

'They're holding the torch of the family now, so it was an absolute honour'

The competition was tough - not only because of the calibre of chefs competing, or that they were tasked with creating two dishes, but also because they were asked to prepare Roux family classics that most of them would never have practiced: Eggs Albert, an artichoke heart filled with smoked salmon, trout and truffle, topped with a poached egg and a slice of smoked salmon; and Michel Roux Snr's 'Little Flans with Snails in Green Coats,' a snail and herb soufflé baked in a tartlet with beurre blanc sauce. 

"It was a proud moment to win it, based on dishes that [Albert and Michel Roux Snr] had cooked and worked on and made famous themselves. They were crazy dishes, with a lot to do, but it came down to being organised and doing the right stuff at the right time," he said. 

While he and his fellow contestants spent eighteen months waiting to compete, Oli isn't convinced this made much of a difference in what he had to bring to the table.

"It was more time to study I suppose, and I had a flick through the books but there was nothing you could do to really prepare yourself," he said. "It's more the years of preparation - you can't go, 'oh, I'm through, I'd better start reading." 

The victory was all the more poignant from being the first scholar since Albert and Michel Snr passed away. 

"When Alain and Michel [Jr] were talking and holding back tears, it was a big moment," he said.

"I know there have been 36 [Roux Scholars] before me but it was a big moment to be there for the first time without them there. Alain and Michel are holding the torch of the family now, so it was an absolute honour."

What's next for Oli?

The chef has yet to decide where he will undertake his three-month long stage, which, as part of his prize could take him anywhere in the world, but he would like for it to be somewhere where he can diversify his skillset. 

"I'm thinking Singapore - I want to go somewhere I've never been before, somewhere that can further my career - so maybe even China, but I need to take a few days to think about it seriously."

Sous chef at three Michelin-starred The Fat Duck in Bray, he doesn't see a move away from the group anytime soon, though there is scope for different roles within it. 

"I need to speak with Ed[ward Cooke, his executive head chef] about what the future holds for me, but I see myself staying there for sure. They've supported me incredibly, I haven't been there that long but it feels like family and home there." 

For now, he is still letting the reality of it hit home.

"I was just sat here this morning, reading through the messages and had a little cry. This is an absolutely incredible feeling, to have so much support from the industry, friends and family. I've been a bit overwhelmed by it all. It's going to take some time to sink in."

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 26th October 2021

'It all makes sense now - all of the hard work over the years came to this'