Meet NCOTY finalist Nick Smith, head chef at Vacherin / Ashurst, London
Nick began his career as a chef at Southend College where he focused, learnt and absorbed everything he was told to achieve his City & Guilds qualifications. His professional journey started with him working in London, notably at Le Pont de la Tour, The Arts Club in Dover St and Chinon all of which proved to be fantastic training opportunities and learning platforms.
Nick had a colleague who was working in private dining and he decided to take a step into this. He first began working at Credit Suisse, then onto Imagination and finally into Ashurst, at the London Fruit & Wool Exchange just outside the famous Spitalfields Market in the heart of E1. Here they craft all the fine dining and hospitality for Ashurst partners and clients, so it is a very diverse, constantly changing and dynamic place to work.
There are so many reasons Nick loves being a chef, but for him it is working with ingredients in their beautiful raw form and using his imagination, passion and skills to create food into something special for others to enjoy. When he was younger, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do as a career. Luckily for him, at the point he was nearly finishing school, his dad who had been a chef a long time ago, wanted to attend an evening cookery course to broaden his knowledge. Nick went along with him and by the end of the induction it had him hooked. His dad motivated him with his experiences and Nick has never looked back. Inspiration also comes from all the passionate individuals that Nick has had the opportunity to work alongside. He’s also inspired by the many cookbooks that he has collected over the past and the restaurants that he has dined at.
Nick has experienced many memorable days in the kitchen, but one that stands out was when he was given the position of sous chef. He stepped into the kitchen with nerves, excitement and a desire to prove to himself that he could step up to the challenge. It involved a completely different mindset, more responsibility and leading the brigade from the front. He learnt a lot from this opportunity and it was invaluable for his career.
Cooking is his passion and being a chef is a vocation with a difference. Nick finds it creative and rewarding and that it’s a job that has a special edge to it. He loves seeing ingredients at their best and meeting individuals that share the same love of food and cooking as him. With NCOTY, he relishes the incredible opportunity to cook alongside like-minded craftsman up and down the country. It feels like a natural progression for him to take that step forward and push towards a higher platform. He finds the knowledge he gains about himself, his abilities and the wider industry is all there in this competition. Having already competed in two finals he has learnt so much already from NCOTY which also helps those he works alongside. He wants to inspire other chefs as much as he is inspired by others. Winning the title is his ultimate goal as it takes the very deepest commitment; to succeed is his dream.
Always knowing he would enter again this year, Nick’s entry was well underway before lockdown so he only needed to make some tweaks. However, he did have to finish it at home and was short on equipment for some of his dishes, so he had to invest to help him complete it. Thankfully, he managed to source ingredients and get them delivered but admits: “It was a very weird time as you can easily take for granted the most simplest of things. COVID-19 has made us all realise how sometimes you just have to be adaptable.”
When COVID-19 started, Nick’s main focus was to keep positive for his family, brigade and friends. It was a very uncertain time and Nick found it difficult not being in the kitchen. His wife has been a keyworker throughout, so he has had to turn his hand to teaching at home for his two boys. This has definitely kept him busy! However, he also used the time to learn new skills and support all those around him.
When he created his second stage dish, which summed him up in a few bites, Nick looked at his dad for inspiration as he fondly remembers the great food he cooked for him as a child. On Fridays they would have fish and one of Nick’s favourites was skate cheeks which he used to call skate eyeballs. It was a simple, humble dish and felt like a real treat. Nick’s grandad was a fishmonger in Bethnal Green and this was a dish that summed up his memories. He chose to do cod cheek which was cooked in a batter made from a beautiful local beer brewed in Billericay called Sun Corner Gold. To the cheek he added fresh summer peas, pink fur potatoes and some wilted samphire which he adores. The dish was finished off with a rapeseed Hollandaise which added a beautiful flavour and fresh mint to make a sauce Paloise which worked magically with the whole dish. Nick loves recreating classics.
Simply put, winning the title later this month would mean everything to Nick as this year has brought a huge amount of challenges for everyone. The hospitality industry has had to tackle so much in facing the onslaught of the coronavirus, but its resilience at these times of difficulty have been inspiring. Nobody has been willing to lie down in defeat and chefs have faced it head on, adapted and become stronger. For Nick, it has felt more poignant than ever to be part of NCOTY this year. No words can explain how proud he is to be in the final ten and not be held back by this pandemic. He said: “To win NCOTY is very special, even in the most normal of circumstances, but to succeed this year and hold that trophy would be unforgettable.” He always remembers his dad telling him to cook from the heart and to love what you do. Nick believes to be successful you need commitment, dedication and a willingness to learn. You also need to be a team player, resilient and patient as chefs will make mistakes but the best chefs learn from them. He added “Being a chef is a job that you will always be learning and evolving from and that journey you take to get to the top you won’t ever forget.”
Three words Nick would use to describe his style of cooking are considered, classical and refined.