Smith wins National Chef of the Year 2020; Johnstone close second

2020 update

Obviously, organising the National Chef of the Year was not straightforward in 2020. Nevertheless the competition did go ahead.

Nick Smith, who gained Number Three place in 2019, won the competition with a menu of: gilthead ‘gazpacho’ incorporating heirloom tomatoes and cucumber; followed by Romney Marsh lamb, roe ravigote, fennel, samphire and aster; finishing with Sweet Eve strawberry split, clotted cream, lemon and mint.

Derek Johnstone, retained his 2029 Number Two position.

Sadly, The Roux at Parliament Square has had to close.

The 2019 competition

The National Chef of the Year is one of the most prestigious culinary competitions. Previous winners have included Gordon Ramsay, Alyn Williams and Mark Sargeant – clearly this competition is a sign of future success! And I was able to watch the competition, which took place at the beginning of this month at The Restaurant Show in London.

Ten chefs laboured over two hours to produce three courses. Their brief was to produce:

  • A starter: this had to be bouillabaisse-style in terms of flavour, using under-utilised fish
  • A main: cuts of suckling pig
  • A dessert: to incorporate the currently seasonal pear – to show ‘technical skill, balance, and maximum flavour impact’

All the above to be produced with sustainability and seasonality in mind.

It was surprising that at least five of the contestants for the National Chef of the Year awards used red mullet in their starter, a fish which the Marine Conservation Society tells us “There is no assessment or management of red mullet stocks. This is a cause for concern as the species is taken in both targeted fisheries and as bycatch.” In terms of sustainability it’s at the bottom of their range. The fish may have been one specified by the organisers.

This was the final heat in a fierce competition between 140 chefs, all at the top of their game, many with Michelin stars. Initial selection was from paper entry, and then ten regional semi-finals.

The winner of 2019’s National Chef of the Year Award was Steve Groves, Head Chef of The Roux at Parliament Square

steve groves winner of the national chef of the year competition
Steve Groves, winner of the National Chef of the Year competition

The winner was Steve Groves, Head Chef of Roux at Parliament Square, and a previous winner of Masterchef: The Professionals. We shouldn’t be too surprised at his victory. Groves’ cooking was reviewed by the notoriously hard-to-please Guardian restaurant critic, Jay Rayner, in the following terms:

“A fat ravioli of crab is submerged beneath a light champagne velouté and dressed with a dribble of bisque so intense it speaks of the virtuous equation of fish shells multiplied by heat and time. This is enlightened classicism, a clear display of gastronomic literacy. The kitchen has read old recipes and knows how to turn them to the light.”

Groves’ starter for the competition was another winning fishy combination, this time of red mullet with a shellfish mousse, and a bouillabaisse sauce.

For his main course he added Jerusalem artichokes, quince, hazelnuts, and trompettes to the statutory suckling pig. This dish certainly made a big hit with Gary Jones, Head Chef at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, and lead judge. In an interview with Big Hospitality, Jones explained that Groves’ entry had impressed him thanks to the good, strong, clean flavours; and a menu that was not overcomplicated. But, in particular, Jones commented, “he served up the best crackling in the room, and I was salivating just looking at it.”

But his pud was ‘sticky’ in more ways than one… he produced a calvados baba, with honey poached pears and a crème fraîche Chantilly… but he was unhappy with it, and was on the point of redoing it.  “It was a bit of a bad Baba”, he commented alliteratively.

On his restaurant’s website, Groves describes his approach to cooking as classical with a modern approach. He finds inspiration everywhere – it could be “a fantastic ingredient, a piece of artwork, a childhood memory or the great people I’ve worked with.”

It would be interesting to know where his Baba beckoned from!

Second place in the competition was won by Derek Johnstone

Derek Johnstone, Borthwick castle
Derek Johnstone (on the left) came second.

Second place in the competition was won by Derek Johnstone, Head Chef at Borthwick Castle, near Edinburgh, a fabulous historic venue for hire.

Johnstone started with sea bream, following with a saddle of suckling pig, and finishing with a poire William. His career has much in common with Groves’ – he too is a winner of Masterchef: The Professionals, and he’s also worked for Michel Roux Jr (at The Gavroche). A couple of years ago he joined Borthwick Castle – a fabulous venue just outside Edinburgh.

Johnstone started his career at the bottom: at age 16 he began working as a part-time commis chef while still studying at catering college. Not really a wine drinker, he prefers a local gin, with a slimline tonic. And he has entrepreneurial interests too. He’d be very interested to visit a London pie and mash shop with Lord Sugar.

Johnstone has launched a dining club at Borthwick, which focuses on local and seasonal food. His latest event, Tastes of Autumn, taking place on 16 November must have been inspired by his competition menu. He’s offering:  seared fillet of sea bream, Shetland mussel tartlet, confit leek, scallop and shellfish essence; loin of saddleback pork, celeriac, pickled quince, cabbage and braised pig’s head; and pear William Chiboust, which is a vanilla poached pear, almonds, clementine and Valrhona dark chocolate.

seared fillet of sea bream, Shetland mussel tartlet, confit leek, scallop and shellfish essence
Derek Johnstone’s starter: seared fillet of sea bream, Shetland mussel tartlet, confit leek, scallop and shellfish essence.

Nick Smith, the Head Chef at Vacherin, took third place

Nick Smith of London caterers, Vacherin, took third place.
Nick Smith of London caterers, Vacherin, took third place.

Nick Smith, the Head Chef at Vacherin, took third place.

Smith’s menu comprised of:

  • a bouillabaisse of gurnard and, like the winner, Groves, red mullet livened with a rouille
  • Smith accompanied his suckling pig with yeasted artichoke, Savoy cabbage, hazelnuts and mustard
  • his pud was a poire William pear with rye crumble, raisins and clotted cream custard
poire William pear with rye crumble, raisins and clotted cream custard
Nick Smith’s pud: poire William pear with rye crumble, raisins and clotted cream custard.

Like Johnstone, Smith doesn’t work for a traditional restaurant. Vacherin is an independent, London-based caterer, focussed mostly on the corporate environment.

Smith was encouraged to enter the competition by his Executive Chef, Alan Eggleston, who had himself competed previously and made it to the semi-finals.

Smith is passionate about sugarcraft, having spent a week with Colin Martin at his School of Sugar in the Yorkshire Dales, learning the art of blown and pulled sugar – an impressive craft.

Among the remaining seven contestants there was:

Fraser Bruce, Head Chef at The Halsetown Inn

Fraser Bruce, Head Chef at the Halsetown Inn
Fraser Bruce, Head Chef at the Halsetown Inn

Fraser Bruce was working as Head Chef at The Halsetown Inn, having previously held the post of Head Chef at The Tate Gallery in St Ives.

His menu comprised of:

  • Bouillabaisse from the south-west
  • Rack and braised shoulder of suckling pig rack, and Waldorf tart with celeriac and grapes
  • Poire Belle Hélène
Bouillabaisse from the south-west
Fraser Bruce’s starter: Bouillabaisse from the south-west.

The Halsetown Inn is a small, unpretentious, independent country pub in Cornwall. It may be small, it may not be glitzily well-known, but its commitment to local sourcing and to the environment in general, is big, it’s wholehearted and genuine. It

  • uses low carbon electricity generated by schemes such as the hydroelectric power station at Trelubbas, Helston
  • sources thoughtfully from as many local and sustainable producers as possible, particularly aiming to keep the carbon footprint to an absolute minimum
  • recycles all cardboard, paper, plastic, glass
  • uses biodegradable cleaning products
  • sends waste oil to be converted into biodiesel
  • uses recycled paper in the office and for menus, files, pens etc
  • supports StreetSmart, a charity for the homeless
  • supports Surfers Against Sewage

That’s quite a list! The support for Surfers Against Sewage may have come from Bruce’s youth – when growing up he wanted to become a professional surfer. But one day he found himself washing up in a kitchen, and the next thing he knew he was learning how to cook….

Marc Billings, Prestwold Hall

Marc Billings, on the left
Marc Billings, on the left

Marc Billings is a sous chef at Prestwold Hall, near Loughborough. Like Borthwick Castle, this is another venue for hire, specialising in weddings and other events. Billings’ menu went as follows:

  • hake bouillabaisse with cuttlefish, clams and orange
  • suckling pig shoulder and faggot with barley, mushrooms, pickled grapes and hazelnuts
  • and a Williams pear with Speculaas, berries and spice, and crème fraîche
marc billings
Marc Billings’ pud – brilliant idea the Speculaas… very European!

You can hear what he had to say about the 2019 National Chef of the Year Award in this clip:

If you want to learn more about the 2019 Restaurant Show, there are posts about various panels that I attended, including Train to Retain and a session about storytelling and branding. I also attended a low and no alcohol beer tasting, which led to some surprising conclusions!

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Related Posts

The Latest Chefs’ Forum – all about game

Small is beautiful and so is game. The latest Chefs’ Forum event offered a different approach to the larger city-based meetings. This smaller, more intimate…
Read More

How does Raymond Blanc run his own vegetable garden at Le Manoir, Oxfordshire?

A trip to Oxford was not going to be complete for me without a visit to Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons hotel. However,…
Read More

Chef Tim Bouget on starting and running a sustainable café in Devon

Devon is lucky to have attracted such a well-travelled and passionate chef as Tim Bouget, owner of Café ODE. But then who can blame…
Read More

Sign up to our Saucy Newsletter

subscribe today for monthly highlights of foodie events, new restaurant at home menus, recipe ideas and our latest blog posts