'When I won NCOTY I was thrilled, I wanted to celebrate but I felt really guilty because there are people I work with that've lost their jobs'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Overseeing a competition is difficult at the best of times, but this year's National Chef of the Year event reached new heights. 

This year, the Craft Guild of Chefs took it upon itself to fill the void left by the pandemic, giving chefs focus and something within their control - something to strive for - by pushing forward with the National Chef of the Year competition.


"It meant a lot to me and the team because the end of it was the bringing together of that whole effort,  vice president David Mulcahy said. 

"This competition should always be reflecting the market and the industry. So we don't want to stick in one timezone, this moves. As trends change and as the criteria has changed over the years to reflect what people are capturing today."

The skills it brought out in chefs and the worthy distraction it provided for contenders were different, but for founder David, they altered the competition in ways that won't be reversed even when normality is restored. 

Because of the sanitary restrictions in place at the time, semi-finalists were assessed on the basis of a video of them describing and preparing a particular plate of food.

Chair of Judges and chef owner of multiple award-winning restaurants Paul Ainsworth said: "It's a sign of the times. It's actually more productive for them to create a video. The idea was for them to talk about themselves and why that dish means so much to them. 

"You can really see a chef's personality through their food and we're so used to it all being written, but actually to be able to talk about it and express yourself." 

"They were really really good - and of course you've got some that fancy themselves as a bit handy with tech so there were some videos that were like they were going for a BAFTA and there were others that they had done I think while they were on the toilet." 

"Nick's was obviously BAFTA worthy," he added with a smile. 

A great ambassador

Nick Smith, who competed several times before taking the title for 2021, was absolutely over the moon. 

"Nick won the competition because he was the best chef," Paul said.

"But we've got a double whammy with Nick, because he's super humble, he's a brilliant ambassador for what the competition stands for."

"For the nine chefs that didn't win - he's tried and tried and tried and he's been defeated but he's got back up again and he's proved that if you don't win it, go again and keep trying and never give up and if you believe in yourself and you want it." 

"When you've got a winner like that that's won on the merit of brilliantly cooked food but also is the whole package - he's just such an amazing ambassador for the competition." 

Running alongside it is the young national chef of the year competition, which now more than ever is a lifeline for the industry's future and brings the importance of valuing the hospitality industry higher than we currently do to ensure it has posterity. 

David said: "The idea is that we can pull from those young chefs, who are succeeding, best in college or doing other competitions who just need that extra platform.

"We have a tough time in this industry in getting people to stay in it anyway, so the idea that people can look to these young aspiring stars coming from every sector and every segment and go, 'I want to be like that person, I can do that' and be inspired that and see that these chefs, like Paul, Claire, Phil Howard, are nurturing employers that want these people, to capture their passion and enthusiasm while they're still young." 

"This year we had the most diverse, gender-wise, ethnic-wise - that really says this industry is for everyone, it's inclusive and I think we captured that this year with the finalists." 

A tough year for awards and competitions

Nick's victory in the NCOTY was nonetheless bittersweet, because celebration seemed somewhat inappropriate given the situation many of his peers are in due to the pandemic. 

Working for independent caterer, Vacherin, he said: "It's been horrible." 

"I've lost over half of my team," he explained, as the fine branch of the business has all but disappeared. 

"Everytime an announcement gets made all of the business we've booked just gets cancelled.

"When I won NCOTY I was thrilled and I wanted to celebrate but I felt really guilty because there are people who I work with that've lost their jobs. It's been really gut-wrenching for me.

"When I came to Ashurst four years ago I built my team up and got to know them, got them on my side, earned their respect and they've been fantastic, they've been a big part of my life and coronavirus has just absolutely ruined it." 

"We just want to cook, it's what we love doing and we miss it." 

Time to talk up the industry

For Clare Smith, chef and owner of two Michelin-starred Core and a NCOTY judge, the situation in which the industry finds itself speaks to the esteem in which it is held in this country. She said: "Sometimes we just don't respect the hospitality industry enough in the UK. It's something that we always need to talk more about.

"Forget about coronavirus - we cannot get enough people in our industry - particularly young British people coming into the industry. It's a brilliant industry - I don't think anyone should be put off, we can get this year under control, but I don't know any other industry that literally you've got a great job, you can travel, you can go anywhere, you're making people happy everyday.

"You come from zero to hero in the hospitality industry. You don't need to go to private schools, you can come from whatever background, with nothing, this industry will polish you and teach you everything you need to know. It's a brilliant industry and I don't think we talk enough about it in Britain."

"Young people shouldn't be put off - we will get through this," she continued, "but we could have more support. We've looked at other models and how they've backed hospitality a lot more than we've done and we seem to be taking the brunt for a lot of things."

While closing down hospitality is understandable, she said, "support people within it because this industry is so resilient and the minute we get a chance to open up again we will absolutely bounce back and we will pump the economy again - because it's what we do in the hospitality industry."

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 17th November 2020

'When I won NCOTY I was thrilled, I wanted to celebrate but I felt really guilty because there are people I work with that've lost their jobs'