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60 seconds with former NCOTY, Hayden Groves

The closing date for National Chef of the Year entries is just a few weeks away and one chef who knows what this experience feels like is Hayden Groves. Hayden joined the NCOTY hall of fame in 2013 and we wanted to find out more about his experience, and get some advice from someone who knows exactly what over 100 chefs are going through in these final few weeks of menu planning.

1. So many chefs are eager to hear their name called out as the new National Chef of the Year but it’s something only 25 chefs have experienced. Can you tell us a little more about what that moment feels like?

It's a truly unbelievable feeling, I had always dreamt of winning after watching the final for so many years but hadn't even dared enter until my mid 30's. After my first semi-final in 2010 and subsequent three finals it dominated my thoughts every spring when the criteria were announced. When my name was called out there was almost this huge emotional relief, I had finally achieved my goal.

2. What is it that makes the National Chef of the Year competition so special?

It is a challenging senior professional cooking competition, open to anyone above the age of 24 and judged by some of the best in the industry. You only have to look back and see the quality of the previous winners. They were already or have gone on to be top names in the UK chef scene and I was desperate to be included with them in the hall of fame.

3. At the moment there will be many chefs busy planning their menus for the paper entry stage, what advice would you give to them?

Last year, I was proud to be asked to paper judge. I saw a myriad of differing entries so you really need to make yours stand out. It doesn't matter what level you are cooking at, if you can't express that talent in words on paper, you won't pass the blind paper judging and make the semi-finals.

Be thoughtful, concise and at the same time methodical in your approach. I’d recommend you get at least one other person, preferably with good English grammar and a non-cook, to read through it. What makes sense to you may not make sense to others. Finally give it to one of your chefs who hasn't seen the finished dish to read through.

Take pride in your entry as it is an extension of you as a chef. It goes without saying it should be neatly formatted and the attached photos should be in focus, correct orientation and free from scattered and smeared mis en place in shot!

4. This year’s brief says the menu must consist of a risotto starter of the competitor’s choice; a main course using a whole chicken, with appropriate accompaniments and a choux pastry dessert of choice. What’s your thought on the brief this year?

I think it is a fantastic yet challenging brief. To make a standout risotto is not easy and chicken is such a familiar meat so chefs need to think how they elevate this dish. A great choux, especially in an unfamiliar oven, is a skill that will test chefs. I am looking forward to seeing how the chefs interpret the brief, whether they lean to the classical or take a more modern approach.

5. What advice would you give to someone who is entering for the first time?

Just do it as you can't win if you don't enter. This is a competition that is open to cooks from any avenue, be it pub, foodservice or Michelin starred. Always focus on flavour over presentation. Enjoy and learn from the experience as it will make you a better chef just by finessing three dishes for the paper entry alone.

If and when you make the semi finals cook from the heart. It is a competition that rewards persistence. The year I won, both Russell (2014 winner) and Larry (2016 winner) were in my final and it was great to see them both make the step up and learn, as I did, about what the judges are really looking for.

6. What is it that the judges will be looking for when they are sifting through over 100 menus in May?

A clear, neat entry comprising of three tasty plates of honest cooking. They will be focussing on seasonality, provenance and technique but never at the expense of flavour.

7. With just weeks until the closing date, what should entrants be doing right now?

They should be putting the finishing touches to the dishes and finessing their entries, don't leave it to the last minute and regret another year of not entering. This year it could be you….

Be In It To Win It

Could you be the next chef to join the hall of fame? You only have until 8th April to send us your entry and that time is fast approaching so register now to get involved.

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