Rogan’s winning trio

The Staff Canteen

After speaking to Simon Rogan about the Roux Scholarship and why he’s so far employed three of the past winners it’s now time to talk to these winners in question to ask their memories of the competition and how it helped them. First up is Mark Birchall, executive chef, L’Enclume

Mark first entered the scholarship age 26, but it wasn’t until his fourth attempt in 2011 that he was crowned the winner. Having learnt from his mistakes he knew what the competition was about and what he needed to do in order to impress the judges. “You try and forget they are there,” explained Mark.

“They are just judging the dish at the end of the day. They are looking at how you work, how tidy you are – first impressions count so you want to look smart but fundamentally it’s about food on a plate.” The initial entry involves submitting a recipe which uses the ingredients set out by Roux, Mark says this is key. He explained: “This round is really important because if you don’t impress them with what’s on paper you won’t progress any further. It’s that first impression, the recipe has to make sense, it’s got to sound nice and the costings of that have to be right. It’s definitely worth spending the time getting the paperwork right.” Mark’s regional dish had to include monkfish and a rice based garnish so he chose to create a mussel and wild garlic risotto, grilled leeks and monkfish on the bone wrapped in crispy chicken skin. But what makes a menu good enough to put a chef through to the finals?

“Before your entry you look at the seasonality,” said Mark. “I wanted to use mainly British produce and then it just comes down to practise. I didn’t have a day off until I won, every bit of spare time I had I was practising.” When it comes to the final the chefs have no idea what they will be cooking, they turn up on the day and are presented with a dish, for Mark this was veal orloff. Mark said: “You get a brief and around 20 minutes to research it. It’s usually something served on a big platter and a dish that is not cooked in many restaurants any more. It’s very classical, for example last year’s dish which Tom cooked, Michelle Roux said the last time he cooked it was when he was in the army!”

After winning Mark took up a stage at El Celler de Can Roca, he said: “When you get to the three star status there is so much demand for the chef to go and do things in other countries but this restaurant is run by three brothers and there was always one of them there, which was important for me. “It was a great experience, in a big kitchen of 40 chefs and a totally different culture – that’s what I wanted to see something different. “I’ve taken a lot of techniques from it, the venison dish on the menu now is inspired by Can Roca” Mark was already head chef at L’Enclume when he won but says winning has helped him to get his name out there into the industry. He said: “It projects you and it’s something I always wanted to do.” And for anyone thinking of entering this year, Mark’s advice is – practise! He added: “I don’t think it matters how old you are when you enter, it’s all about your experience. You need a decent background in cooking and always make sure your paper entry is spot on.”

Tom Barnes, head chef, L’Enclume Tom is the current Roux Scholar but he too had entered before, when he won last year it was his second attempt. The 26-year-old started cooking straight out of school and has ten years cooking experience. He had to create a dish using venison and Jerusalem artichokes for his paper entry and he says making sure it looks professional really helps you stand out. “At that point everyone who enters is on a level playing field,” explained Tom. “You are all judged on the same ingredients so I think it’s the way you use them that makes you different – so I did artichoke four ways for example.” Preparing to cook the dish for the regional meant Tom didn’t have a day off for six weeks. He said: “Even before I knew I had got through I was still practising because you only get told three weeks before. It’s important to get your time down because you have to get a dessert in their as well. “I’d learnt from the year before how intense it was and I had a feel for what was coming but there’s no other advantage to doing it previously – it’s always different dishes you are tested on.” In the regionals Tom had to impress Alain Roux, Sat Bains and Steve Love. He said: “Knowing Sat Bains and Steve Love were winners was nerve wracking – but I would have been nervous in front of any judge because I wanted to get it right.”

He added: “When I practised at work I used an induction stove but once I got there it was all gas. So I felt the sauce wasn’t as good as I know it could have been.” In the final Tom was asked to prepare chartreuse of quail, with veal sweetbreads and choux buns stuffed with creamed spinach and a grape sauce. “For the final there isn’t much you can do apart from read books,” said Tom. “It’s horrible waiting for the final dish, you are always second guessing yourself and it pushes you out of your comfort zone.” Tom has only recently returned from his stage at Hof Van Cleve, somewhere he has always wanted to go. He said: “I wanted to go there for years, I saw it on the 50 Best List when I first started cooking. It’s a classical based kitchen but the presentation is very modern.” He added: “I got to work on every section so I was a lot more involved than I thought I would be. I was brought into the team and I spent time with them on my days off as well. “There was no language barrier so I settled in well. And they used a lot of ingredients we don’t use at L’Enclume so whenever I get my own place in the future I’m looking forward to using those recipes and techniques then.” Since returning from Belgium, Tom has been promoted and he’s keen to grow into his new head chef role, which allows him to have an input in the menu alongside Simon and Mark, before thinking about moving on in the future. Dan Cox, head chef, Fera at Claridges

It was third time lucky for Dan Cox, who says his first attempt was pretty terrifying. He said: “It was the complete unknown but I took a lot from that. It’s not just a straight competition, people do win first time but the fact it’s called The Roux Scholarship not The Roux Competition, means they want to encourage you and nurture talent. They encourage you to enter again and they tell you where you’ve gone wrong, where to improve – they genuinely want you to do well.” Dan’s winning year, his paper entry was lemon sole with langoustine and two veg garnish. He took the fish apart, made a mousse with the skirt and put raw langoustines down the middle of the fish with the mousse and fennel pollen before sticking the whole thing back together with Activa food glue.

“I presented the fish on platters rather than plates,” he explained. “It’s the way it would have been presented in a French restaurant ten years ago. In previous years I’d thought I was being clever by being quite modern, this year I kept it classical in appearance but displayed my techniques by sticking the fish back together and giving it another dimension.” He added: “I also realised the importance of the surprise mystery box dessert. The first year you don’t know how it’s going to fit in with your dish, the timings and everything else – so that’s one thing you really get to grips with once you’ve done it a couple of times.” Dan explained the nerves still kick in even after being in the final few times, especially on front of judges like Heston Blumenthal, Michel Roux and Andrew Fairlie. He said: “Having Heston as a guest judge was different to previous years. To me, at the time, he was the best chef in the country. He was really doing something different so to have him coming over to you, asking you questions was completely different. But he was so calm and nice and relaxed – he just put you at ease.”

So how does Heston, an innovative chef using very modern techniques fit into a classic based completion such as The Roux Scholarship? “Although he’s modern he’s always looking back at history,” explained Dan. “His dishes at The Fat Duck were steeped in history, he was always looking back – particularly towards the French. Everyone who is doing something different, or considered to be fresh, new and interesting – a lot of that is based in the past.” Finally winning the competition in 2008, Dan had to wait a month after the final before the winner was announced – which was a bit of an anti-climax. He said: “It was an amazing feeling, it was incredible – a bit of a surprise really. Another year of not winning I think I would have questioned myself about whether I should be doing it or not.” When Dan won he was working at a fine dining restaurant in London’s UBS Bank. He then took his stage at Can Fabes and Santi Santamaria. He said: “I really wanted to go to Spain and get into El Bulli but both Albert and Michel felt that El Bulli might be the wrong place for me at that particular time. It’s not that they didn’t want me to go there but that his style might not suit what I wanted to achieve.

“Can Fabes is pretty incredible. They have a fish market close by and all the fish and seafood was straight from the boats so we used to go down and buy our ingredients.” He added: “The language thing is hard, they speak two different languages there but I learnt Spanish on a short course before I went and I had to get on with it. You learn from your mistakes, when the restaurant manager starts shouting at you, you know you’ve done something wrong.” Dan says you enter the Roux Scholarship because you want to work in a three star restaurant and you don’t already. He explained: “The prize has many elements to it but the stage is the biggest thing. Walking into a three star and realising it’s not that different to what you normally do and your standards are just as high – you just get on and have a great time.” Since winning Dan has been welcomed into the Rogan family and his role now has many aspects to it. He’s not only head chef at Fera but he’s also heavily involved in the farms which are also a part of the Rogan group. He said: “Everything we do in Simon’s group is focused on improving ingredients and making it as good as it can be from the beginning. “It’s about looking at the method of growing and bringing that forward into the kitchen. Giving ourselves products that no one else has.” He added: “My role is not just Fera, for me you have to look beyond your kitchen and where everything comes from.” 

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 30th January 2015

Rogan’s winning trio