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Interview with NCOTY dessert judge and development chef for Cacao Barry, Julie Sharp

This week the National Chef of the Year mystery basket of ingredients has been revealed and it is now over to the chefs to create their three-course menu ready for the judges to taste at The Restaurant Show.

Making the mystery basket ingredient list are seven different types of chocolate from Cacao Barry and we caught up with their development chef and National Chef of the Year dessert judge, Julie Sharp to find out more.

What makes National Chef of the Year so special?

As a proud sponsor, and as a judge myself, we find it a truly special competition because it is about finding the best talent in the chef world. Every year the standard gets higher with the chef participants pushing the boundaries. As judges, we always see and taste delicious and beautiful food and I’m proud to be part of the judging panel which helps find the UK’s most up and coming chef talent.  

As a dessert judge what do you look for?

I will always be looking for good flavour balance and eye-catching dishes. For me, I want to see the ‘wow factor’ where a dessert both tastes and looks beautiful. However, that doesn’t have to mean something extravagant and complicated as sometimes simplicity is beautiful. A key element for me is being able to taste each of the ingredients.  

Chefs have a lot to do in two hours and sometimes it can be difficult to get the dessert served within the time-scale, especially under the pressure of the judges and live audience. However, I always expect it to be presented nicely with garnish and finesse, regardless of how many minutes are left on the clock.

What makes chocolate such a special ingredient for chefs to use?

Chocolate is so versatile and can be used in every type of dessert including mousses, cakes and tarts. As there are different varieties of chocolate as well with whites, milks, darks and caramels the choice is unlimited.  

What ingredients would the chosen mystery basket chocolates work well with?

This year the mystery basket includes seven  Cacao Barry chocolates and each one has its own flavour and works well with different ingredients. The finalists need to look at their strengths and style, as well the other ingredients available to them, to create dishes that are going to impress the judges on the day.  

However, here’s a summary of the Cacao Barry chocolates on offer and what they work best with.

  1. White chocolate Zephyr – This is a less sweet white chocolate and so it is really easy and nice to pair with fruits or incorporate with a coffee dish.
  2. Caramel Zephyr – This is one of the nation’s favourite flavours and is very popular when combined with fruit, alcohol and coffee. It has a wide range of uses and is always a popular choice with chefs too.  
  3. Papouasie milk chocolate – This has a strong smoky hint to it as the beans are dried over fire. It works well with whiskey and honeys for a different flavour.
  4. Ghana milk chocolate – This is a gorgeous caramelised milk chocolate that has a classic all round flavour. It literally works with anything and is a good carrier of flavours.
  5. Saint-Domingue dark chocolate – is a chocolate with strong fruit notes so it works well with raspberry, red berries and other autumn fruits.  
  6. Ocoa – This is a 70% dark chocolate that has a nice mellow taste and is a fantastic flavour carrier. It pairs well with lots of things so if chefs want a good chocolate taste then this is one I would recommend.
  7. Venezuela – Finally, this is a strong, powerful dark chocolate with olive notes to it. It’s quite herbaceous and so matches well with lots of different things but has more of a solid chocolate note to it. Chefs often use this with coffee as it can take a strong flavour.

What advice would you give the chefs who are planning their dishes and choosing their ingredients over the coming weeks?

If they are trying to taste the chocolate they should melt it first and then put it on a spoon with an ingredient they are considering pairing it with. Then they need to eat the two ingredients together and see how it tastes. Chefs should always melt chocolate for tasting so it is slightly warm as they will get a much quicker flavour pairing.

I’d also say don’t just automatically go for a 70% chocolate thinking it will work best in your dish. Some of our chocolates are smoky, others are fruity, and these may work better for your dish so it isn’t always about the highest percentage.

What's the most surprising ingredient that chocolate works well with?

You can find a chocolate that will be paired with most things and often you see a type of chocolate matched with certain ingredients e.g. white chocolate and caviar or white chocolate and olive. When you put sweet and savoury together in this way, you can often create surprising results.

What is your favourite dish to create?

That’s always a hard question for me to answer, as once you have created a dish you are proud of it and it becomes your new favourite. However, it is often only that for a week or two, as then you create something different or new that becomes your favourite.

The National Chef of the Year live final takes place at The Restaurant Show on Tuesday 3rd October 2017. You can follow all the updates from @Craft_Guild and using the hashtag #NCOTY.

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