Steve Love won National Chef of the Year in 2004 and as we hit this year’s deadline he shared a little insight into how the final went for him, what winning felt like and some tips for those who get to the next stage.
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 26 chefs have experienced. Can you tell us a little more about what that feels like?
After the final cook off had finished I wasn't happy with what I had done. I went outside kicking every box in the way and decided I wasn't even going to go to the dinner. My wife, Claire, and I went back to the Royal Garden Hotel where we had been given a room for the night and I sat in the bath and drank 3/4's of a bottle of red wine. Claire talked me around into going down. I was lucky enough to get the ‘best main course’ prize and Claire said then are you happy to go home now with just that. Of course, the answer was ‘no’ but being realistic about how I felt the day had gone, I wasn't that optimistic of getting anything else. They read out 3rd then 2nd and your sat there with your heart pounding out of your chest with your head down hoping to hear your name read out. As per the norm, David was dragging it out as long as possible before announcing the 1st place to make us sweat a bit longer. I had said it was the last time I was going to do it, after being in the two previous finals coming 3rd to Bruce Sangster and Michael Kitts on my first attempt. I then heard the name I wanted to hear and nothing else mattered. Claire got a massive hug and a kiss for all the support, help and organising behind me. It was a massive team effort from both of us to lift that trophy, which is why I wanted her up on stage with me to celebrate. When I was asked to make a speech, I couldn't talk as it was so emotional. A very proud moment in my life and I got a chair to keep as well. My plate and medal hang very proudly together in their presentation box on the wall at home.
2. What is it that makes the National Chef of the Year competition so special?
For me it was proving something to myself, firstly. So many excellent, inspiring and well regarded chefs have won it and so many have come and tried but to have your name on the wall of those that succeeded is something very special and elite. It's history in the making.
3. At the moment, there will be many chefs finalising their menus for the paper entry stage, what advice would you give to them?
Make it clear and precise. Make it look like you were reading a great chef’s recipe and method. You should include photos so the people marking it can see the dish you are describing. Double check spelling and quantities, let at least two other people read through it without showing the pictures and then show the pictures and see if they understood what you were trying to describe.
4. This year’s brief says the menu must consist of a vegetarian based starter, a duck and cherry combination main course and a classic tart as a dessert. What’s your thought on the brief this year?
The brief is clear for the parameters of each course if you don't follow them you’re not going to get through.
5. What advice would you give to someone who is entering for the first time?
Believe in yourself and visualise yourself standing on the top step holding that trophy. I've heard people saying in the past "I just want to get the finals" if that's you don't bother entering. I was asked by a journalist after winning what was the prize for 2nd and 3rd and my answer was “I don't know I didn't look”. I was accused of being arrogant. My answer again was “no just self-belief”. I wasn't there to make the numbers up.
Make sure you get the dishes on your menu so you can nail the flavour, accuracy of cooking and presentation so you’re not trying to put the dishes up for the first time on the day. Do complete timed run throughs to see where you can save time because, believe me, on the day you will need those extra minutes. Get to the cook off in plenty of time so you’re not stressed, even travel the day before if you need to and stay somewhere close overnight. The first two times of doing it I travelled down in the morning having only had a few hours’ sleep. I got caught in traffic and was so stressed it was unreal and it showed how disorganised I was.
6. And finally, what is it that the judges will be looking for when they are sifting through over 100 menus in May?
Help and nice glass of wine! On a serious note though clear, precise, and legible recipes and methods. With a clear description, the easier it is for them to read so the better chance you have of going through.