Meet the National Chef of the Year heat 4 semi-finalists

Jonathan Zammit, executive sous chef, Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa

The first time Jonathan heard about NCOTY was through word of mouth at another competition he attended in India called Young Chef Olympia (YCO). After hearing about it, he figured it would be a great opportunity for him to continue reaching his career goals. When the semi-finalists were announced Jonathan was out having lunch near the beach as he works in Malta at the moment. He has been doing as many trials as possible to focus on his time-management, preparing the dishes to perfection while using the freshest ingredients.

His mentor, chef and friend Stefan Hogan is his biggest culinary inspiration as someone who has always supported and inspired him throughout his career to succeed. Jonathan is most looking forward to serving up his starter with its combination of the crispy egg with zaatar, charred langoustine and the light airy duck sabayon. If he does make it through to the next stage of the competition, Jonathan will feel fulfilled, happy, excited and eager for the final challenge. As well as having a passion for food, Jonathan loves to travel as much as he can.

Nick Smith, head chef, Vacherin/Ashurst

Nick first heard about NCOTY through his executive chef who had competed in the semi-finals previously and this inspired him to grasp the opportunity himself and enter. The more Nick discovered about the competition, the more it excited him to be a part of it. He said “The level that you have to compete at, under such scrutiny of the country’s elite chefs, and to be recognised for what you truly love was a huge attraction.”

When the announcement was made of who was making it through, Nick was seeing out lunch service at Ashurst, waiting nervously and excited to see who had made the semi- finals. He received a message from his sous chef James, congratulating him that he had made it into NCOTY. There was a huge cheer amongst the brigade and then after service plenty of phone calls to his family and friends to share this big news. In the build-up Nick is doing plenty of practise, fine tuning every element and making sure he is happy with every detail.

Nick has been inspired by so many people through his career in and outside of work, including the brilliant team that he has the pleasure to work alongside now including his executive chef, Alan Eggleston who has pushed him to be a part of the competition. He also finds inspiration in the countless books he has collected over the years by the greatest chefs.

When preparing his menu, Nick put a lot of thought into all three dishes and loves them all equally. He is looking forward to presenting his take and style on them. Each dish was inspired by what Nick would love to eat, classical twists with a more modern approach and flavours that complement one another.

If Nick wins he believes his whole career would flash in front of his eyes. All the hard work and commitment to help him reach this level would make him very emotional and proud to have been recognised by this amazing industry.

In his spare time, Nick has a passion for sugarcraft. He even managed to spend a week with a great chef Colin Martin in Yorkshire, learning the art of blown and pulled sugar, which for him was a massive honour to see such skills. He told us: “This is what I love about this industry you never stop learning.”

Adam Degg, head pastry chef, Kerridge’s Bar & Grill

After seeing that the deadline had been extended via the Craft Guild of Chefs’ Instagram Story Adam decided that now was the time to go for it and enter the competition. When he heard he was in the semi-finals he was actually on a weekend break in Copenhagen with his girlfriend Liz and as he was in Hart Bageri (Richard Harts famous Bakery) they celebrated with a coffee and some Danish pastries!

The biggest inspirations in his career so far are Anthony Demetre and Tom Kerridge who have both been massive influences on his career. Adam is most looking forward to serving up his starter telling us “I think I’ve created a very strong dish that is hopefully different to the other finalists; it’s actually based on a dessert! If my name is called out, I’d be honoured to join the list of incredible chefs that have reached the finals of NCOTY over the years.”

Steve Groves, head chef, Roux at Parliament Square

Steve has known about the competition for a long time and the calibre of past winners and competitors shows that it is one of the best competitions going. He had intended applying for the past couple of years but for one reason or another never did. Whereas this year he just thought he should go for it and here we are.

To prepare for the next round, Steve is doing as much practice and fine tuning as possible and admits he’s really looking forward to the semi-finals as there are some great chefs to cook against.

When asked to tell us about his biggest inspiration during his career he told us “Chefs Albert and Michel Roux Jr.  I really wanted to work for Chef Michel and have been lucky enough to do so for the past 10 years almost. Cooking for Albert regularly and having his feedback has been invaluable also. My cooking style has evolved a lot in that time and I now love looking back at French classics and working them into our menus.”  

Steve is looking forward to serving the main course and his inspiration came from talking to the butcher about different breeds and cuts of beef and seeing the enthusiasm he had for the two cuts that he’ll be using really is what led to his choice. 

When asked what making the final would mean to him Steve said: “To make the final would be a fantastic feeling, as the level of chefs competing is incredibly high so to make it through the semis will take some doing!”

Steve’s favourite dish is fish and chips and if he could have fit that into the brief he would have done.

Ashley Randle, head chef, The Hambrough Hotel

Ashley first heard of the competition under his first job at Viners in Cornwall. Kevin Viner was a winner in the 90s although Ashley admits at the time he didn’t realise the enormity of his achievement.

A few years ago, Ashley met another NCOTY winner Steve Love who encouraged him to chase titles like this and understand what it actually means. When the news of the London heats was released, Ashley was in the kitchen watching Twitter like a hawk trying to convince himself that his dishes were good enough as the names kept coming up and he wasn’t there. However, when the notification did come up, he did a fist pump and shouted “get in”. 

Ashley competed in the 2017 Roux Scholarship but unfortunately he was in between jobs at the time and had no time or opportunity to practice. He felt it really showed on the day, so this time he is practising his dishes at least four times a week, against the clock working in a small space to try and replicate the conditions on the day, as much as possible.

When talking about inspirations Ashley said: “The people I’ve always looked up to, like so many, is the Roux family. What they have done for this country’s food scene is amazing and I think we should all be thanking them for bringing the opportunity to do what we do to this country. Also, Steve Love was the guy who gave me the confidence to try and compete and push myself, I think before I worked with him, I was just plodding along thinking I wasn’t anywhere near good enough for this sort of thing. I have a lot of thanks to pass his way.”

This year has been great for Ashley so far. He’s had the opportunity to become head chef/partner at a fantastic hotel at a beautiful location and his first child was born on the 19th April. He’s hoping that NCOTY will top it off as it would mean the world to him. After a turbulent year last year, he almost hung up his apron but this opportunity has reignited that flame. Winning would be a dream come true to have his name alongside the previous winners. However, Ashley feels that making the semi-final is a huge honour.

When he was younger, he actually wanted to be a professional snooker player and had some great experiences playing the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan, Jimmy White and he even beat Steve Davis. Fortunately, he wasn’t quite good enough and never had the time to practice whilst being a chef, so luckily, he took the professional chef road instead.

Robert Taylor, chef/owner, Compasses Inn

This isn’t the first time Robert has entered the competition having previously made it through to the semi-finals so when he saw the entries were open again he was keen to compete in such a prestigious award.

There wasn’t time for celebrations as Robert was in the middle of a working day and it was straight into thinking what he needed to do to be ready for the next stage. Over the last few weeks he has been practising his dishes, working on refinement and then creating them all together in a timed situation, alongside his sous chef so he knows exactly what he needs to do on the day.

Robert’s biggest inspiration in his career so far is probably Tom Kerridge. He said: “Tom started his pub in similar situations to mine and in the years he's been at the Hand and Flowers he's achieved so much. It just goes to show what hard work and determination can achieve and to do it all from a pub is amazing.”

Robert is most looking forward to serving his main beef dish as it’s something he would run on the menu at the Compasses Inn, using great ingredients maximising the flavours of his dishes.

An interesting fact you may not know about Robert is that he found his love for cooking whilst he was absent from school at the age of 9 due to illness. In this time, he watched quite of lot of cookery shows and realised it was something he wanted to do. He started cooking at the age of 11 with his stepdad, who is also a chef, and from then on he never looked back. 

Matthew Waldron, head chef, Park House Restaurant

Matthew reads about the National Chef of the Year competition on social media every year and this year thought “why not?” He’s never entered a competition before but likes the idea of it. 

When the top 40 was announced he was in the middle of lunch service but could feel his phone vibrating so looked and saw the news. Over the last few weeks Matthew has been practising his dishes and making sure his timings are perfect. He’s been cooking and plating the dishes over and over, so they become second nature.

Helene Darroze is one of the biggest inspirations in Matthews culinary career revealing: “It’s her philosophy of incredible produce cooked and treated with respect and care, not over complicating flavours and just letting the main product shine.”

When it comes to serving his dishes it’s the main course that he is most looking forward to giving to the judges. He loves cooking meat. Using secondary cuts, as well as primals, is something they do a lot back at the restaurant.

An interesting fact about Matthew that not everyone will know is he shoots his own game for the restaurant.

Who else is competing in this heat?

We are looking forward to tasting the dishes from Karl O'Dell, head chef at Texture, Jozef Rogulski, executive head chef for The Stafford Hotel London and Christopher Willis, hospitality head chef at BNP Paribas.

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