Kuba Winkowski: Lockhart goes behind the scenes with the National Chef of the Year 2019

Lockhart Catering social media followers will know that they recently invited Kuba Winkowski from The Feathered Nest into the London Innovation Centre to cook for them.  Kuba was crowned the Craft Guild of Chefs National Chef of the Year in October 2018 after impressing a panel of judges chaired by Gary Jones, executive head chef at Le Manoir.

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The first task was choosing the crockery he'd like to use to display his dishes on. In the Lockhart Innovation Centre they display the full Lockhart catalogue so visitors can see and feel the quality of the products before they make this important decision. For his starter, Kuba cooked up Pan Fried Orkney Scallops with Carrot, Miso Paste & Caraway Seeds and served it on a Crème Espirit plate. Scallops are one of Kuba and his team's favourite ingredients. He said: "In Poland a lot of raw vegetables and salads are eaten so the carrot with caraway seeds is inspired by my heritage, styled as carrot juice, rapeseed oil and white miso paste."

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Kuba's main course truly had the wow-factor with him serving up a Cotsworld Asparagus, Glazed Veal Sweetbread in Sherry Sauce, Hazelnuts, Lemon Hollandaise and Rapeseed Flowers presented on the new Artisan Andromeda. This crockery range was inspired by the Cornish night skies with a semi-matt shimmering black glaze, which subtly varies with shades of petrol blue and granite flecks. It gives a wonderful contrast to fine food and allows chefs to showcase dramatic food presentation.

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The final dish was Mango, Sea Buckthorn, Meringue and Sorrel showcased on one of the new Artisan Cove Coupe plates. The warmth and comforting look of the Hygge movement is at the heart of this Cove collection. It has a grey matt exterior contrasting with a warm white, reactive speckled gloss interior so the bold colours of Kuba's dish looked amazing on this backdrop.

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NCOTY Winners Trip 2019

Last week, Kuba joined Lockhart on the prize-winners trip to Norway along with Extra Mile Award Winner George Blogg of Gravetye Manor and NCOTY organiser and Vice-President of the Craft Guild of Chefs, David Mulcahy. During the trip they flew into Stavanger for a tour of the eco-friendly porcelain factory Figgjo. After sampling some delicacies at Fisketorget they went to Brimse Island for a spot of Halibut fishing with local experts and then enjoyed the delights of Tango restaurant. On the final day, Kuba, George and David made a quick stop-over in Oslo for some more sightseeing adventures as well as enjoying food at Restaurant Rest and Restaurant Galt.

Chef Insight With Kuba

Kuba has had some incredible experiences since taking the title of National Chef of the Year and as proud headline sponsors of this prestigious competition, Lockhart has loved following his success and journey since winning. After tasting his amazing dishes, they sat down with Kuba to learn more about his journey to the top.

In a recent interview with the Craft Guild of Chefs, you said that you are always trying to do something more exciting than your mum's cooking! Did that play a big part in the development of your cooking style?

Making my mum's cooking more exciting was easy as it was very unexciting! A lot of chefs have stories about being inspired by their family. My story is that my mum was so bad at cooking that I wanted to do something better than her. It simply started by making her dishes tastier by adding flavours such as garlic or chilli. My father was the cook in the house but he was away a lot, so I started taking over in the kitchen.

You and YNCOTY champion Henry Wadsworth both worked at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons under the tutelage of Raymond Blanc and NCOTY Chair of Judges, Gary Jones. Is there one thing that you could attribute to the restaurant's continued line of successful protégés?

The main reason for this is that is their actual mission; they set up the business around developing future chefs. When you look at the brigade, most of them are 17 to 20 years old and it's both Raymond, and now Gary's, mission, to produce future talent so the whole setup is geared towards that. You learn so much, from the garden to the produce coming through the door, the sustainability, how you treat the ingredients, the final product, the pressure of service, basically the entire package! It made a man out of me, as every day was a fight, every day was hard, there was never a relaxing day and that's what drives me.

Does seasonality and local produce play a big part in your cooking style and menu choices at The Feathered Nest Inn then?

Yes, it's massive for us. Nature and the seasons literally tell you what to use. For example, grouse goes well with elderberries or blackberries. Nature tells you straight away what to pair and use! Also, from a purely business-sense, asparagus is at its cheapest in asparagus season so costs are lower. In the Cotswolds, all the dairy, vegetables and other ingredients are there in front of me. Within an hour from a phone call, it will be in my kitchen. I am also led by the farmers' expertise as the soil and weather can change with the seasons. We have to be guided by their expert knowledge and advice.

You've got a smokehouse at The Feathered Nest Inn. Do you try to build menus and dish ideas around these ingredients?

The smoker is there because Poland is big on smoking and charcuterie style. In the UK, not everything can be smoked, but it's a great tool for my own charcuterie which is what I'm known for. Polish charcuterie is different from other European styles as it's cured and hot-smoked. I do smoked salmon and haddock regularly and my breakfast buffet is all made in-house too. Out of 15 dishes there are at least four that are smoked so it's a big influence for us.

As the current champion of NCOTY, why do you think competitions are so important for our industry?

At the end of the day, it's about the win and everyone would like to take the title as it obviously opens different doors and new situations, like me being at Lockhart today. However, NCOTY is about much more than winning. After the first year of trying, I realised that so many factors have to come together to get this win. The whole journey from the brief to the final is such an experience.

The first final I watched was when Russell Bateman won it. It looked interesting, but then it was three years later that I finally entered. Having to work to a new brief takes you out of your box and you have no lead as you do with your job. You don't just smash the mise en place and the service and go home, you have to create something from nothing. From submitting the brief, to the semi-finals, to the final, you're constantly thinking, innovating, meeting your heroes and this is a huge thing for any chef.

Going through the competition twice, what skills or advice could you give to a budding chef who wants to succeed in a competition such as NCOTY?

After the first year I was tired, exhausted, mentally blocked and my brain wasn't clear but I think the competition sparked something in me and it helped me to get to where I needed to be to win it the second time round. A good piece of advice is to not expect too much and put too much pressure on yourself the first time you enter. History shows that first time winners are rare. I found that getting healthy and fit was a bonus, not just in the competition but my entire life.

Be patient, focus and be prepared for hard work as NCOTY is harder than you think! Finding the time is also difficult; between the mentor day and the final there is just three weeks and I did ten practices during that time. Every practise consisted of two hours cooking and about two hours to get ready for each run and then cleaning down too. You're looking at about five hours for each practice, but it was absolutely worth it.

We recently saw you judging the final of Springboard's FutureChef competition, for 12 to 16 year olds. When you are judging chef competitions, even at such a young age, what do you look for in a winning dish?

I think the age of competitors is irrelevant. I'd never judged before until the Sodexo Chef of the Year and then FutureChef recently. I found it incredible how your perspective changed from the other side. You listen to the judges' feedback as a competitor, but in the back of your mind you may be quite stubborn and refusing to take that feedback on-board. But being on the other side of the table was eye-opening as most dishes only focus on three elements; perfect veg, perfect protein and a perfect sauce to bind it. When you are tasting lots of dishes the only things you remember are these three main things. You remember a pronounced flavour and not the extras, unless they're completely wrong! I really enjoyed the FutureChef competition as some of the kids had never been to London, or ever stayed in a hotel or rode in a taxi. For them, every part of that experience is amazing and it was fantastic to be part of their journey.

Today, you're wearing a Chaud Devant jacket exclusively from our partner brand CCS, made from Recycled Plastic Bottles. Every NCOTY judge this year will be wearing these jackets to help promote awareness for our 'Chefs Against Plastic Waste' campaign. Just how important is sustainability becoming in our industry?

It's obviously very important. It starts in the kitchen with everyday operation. A zero-waste policy is great and all our dishes are designed so that there are no leftovers and any organic waste is transferred to a compost or into our pig feed for our four pigs. Plastic is a bit of an issue, as sous-vide bags and cling film are unavoidable but a change of culture when using these things may help. For example, you don't need to wrap clingfilm around everything five or six times for example and cutting back in small ways can save money and helps the environment. In my opinion, higher end restaurants are luckier as they can charge a higher price for a dish as they source more sustainable ingredients, which are generally more expensive. Whereas the mass-producing restaurants will struggle with this. I think there is work to be done as we definitely eat too much meat and fish as well. So, I think the biggest challenge is changing our eating habits, as well as changing our kitchen habits.

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