Meet the NCOTY 2020 Finalists

Nick Edgar

Nick started cooking at the age of 15 in a local pub and then went on to Aylesbury College to do his NVQ 2. Whilst studying, he was also a kitchen porter and trainee chef at The Sir Charles Napier restaurant. On completing his NVQ, he took a three-year apprenticeship at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons with mentoring from Raymond Blanc and Gary Jones. 

After completing this apprenticeship, Nick was promoted to demi chef de partie, a position he held for a further 18 months. In 2005, he was lucky enough to win the William Heptinstall Award 2005 and used the prize money to travel and stage around the USA. It was an incredible experience with Nick spending time at WD50 in Manhattan and Charlie Trotters, TRU and Alinea in Chicago. On his return to the UK, he worked at Michelin starred restaurant, Juniper in Manchester as a junior sous chef. Eighteen months later he worked with Adam Simmonds at Danesfield House before returning to Le Manoir as a junior sous chef. The role of head chef was given to him in 2012. 

Nick made a bold move to the North in 2015, leaving Le Manoir to take on the position of head chef at The Samling restaurant in Cumbria. Within nine months of being there, the restaurant won a Michelin star and 3 AA rosettes and Nick received Cumbria Life Chef of the Year Award in 2017. His current role is at The Ryebeck Hotel in Windermere where he is head chef.   

What Nick loves most about being a chef is the fact he can work hard and push himself every single day. Whenever he leaves work, he has a real sense of achievement, whether that’s through creating a new dish, guest comments or developing the next generation of chefs. He loves the freedom he has and the ability to express his personality on a plate.

Nick wanted to be a chef from the age of four. His dad was a baker by trade and so Nick would love watching him working and sampling the delicious things he would create. When Nick was about 10 years old, he loved watching CHEF by Lenny Henry. This really inspired him to work at a beautiful restaurant, cooking delicious and stunning food like it was portrayed in the TV show.

Whilst his dad massively influenced his decision to become a chef, Nick says the most inspirational influence in his career, without a shadow of a doubt, is Gary Jones. From day one walking in to Le Manoir, at the age of 17, he helped develop Nick and pushed him to be the best he can be as a chef and a person. Nick told us: “Gary has always been there as a mentor and a father figure. Even four years after last working under him, he still inspires me and every time I create a dish or talk to a junior member of the team, I think back to what was said to me or what he would say if he was stood next to me now.”

The most memorable day of Nick’s career was when he received a phone call from Rebecca Burr at Michelin inviting him down to London for the first ever live unveiling of the Michelin guide. It was a great personal achievement not only for him but also the team that had worked through some long, tough days to achieve what they did in such a short time. On the same day, Nick found out that one of his chefs had just been offered a job at Restaurant Sat Bains, which for him was a very proud moment. Nick said: “She had joined me just nine months earlier having worked at a Best Western hotel cooking scampi in a basket and now she had been offered a job under one of the best chefs in the UK. As any head chef will tell you, that’s as good a feeling as winning any accolade.”

Nick entered The National Chef of the Year this year because a couple of months earlier he was helping mentor his sous chef through the North West Young Chef of the Year competition. They were doing lots of late nights practicing and Nick was pushing him very hard to ensure he would do his best. One night the young chef turned around and said that Nick should practice what he was preaching and enter NCOTY, so he did. Nick also feels he has a little unfinished business with the competition, having made the final in 2014 and coming third. Nick felt that this year the time was right to push himself again.

When Nick found out he had made the final, he was having dinner with his family in Paul Ainsworth’s new restaurant in Cornwall, The Mariners. Nick knew there was going to be a Twitter announcement and he had a lovely surprise and huge feeling of relief when he saw the tweet with his name on. He got straight on the phone to his sous chef to break the good news to everyone at the hotel.

Thinking about taking the title, Nick commented: “Winning would be a fantastic achievement. I’ve achieved a lot in my career but to add the title would be another great accolade for both me personally and the team at the hotel. To succeed as a chef, it’s been all about sacrifice at an early age. I’m so glad I worked hard when I was younger, when I had the energy and ability to absorb knowledge like a sponge. Now it’s about finding challenges to keep being a chef as interesting and as exciting as I did the day, I first picked up a knife. This is a hard challenge but surrounding myself with young, hungry, talented chefs really helps.”

The three words that describe his style of cooking are flavour, texture and acidity.

Mehdi Lahmadi

Mehdi started his apprenticeship when he was 15 years old in Marseille, France where he was born. He was working in a very small restaurant but wanted to go and learn about fine dining so moved to a restaurant called L’Abbaye De Sainte Croix in Salon de Provence. This is where he truly learned everything about what it was like to be a chef. It set the foundation and gave him a basis of how to do things right, so this place always felt like home. 

After a while, Mehdi wanted to see something different, so he went to Alsace to learn another way of cooking and expand his knowledge. Two years later he came to England and started working at Cliveden House Hotel. He met some great people there and it enabled him to get to know more about English cooking. After an 18-month stint, he worked in various London restaurants before going back to France to work at the Jiva Hill Relais & Chateaux near Geneva. This was one of the greatest places he had the chance to work in. His next move was to Switzerland, but he always had this idea of coming back to England. Mehdi was waiting for the right occasion so when he was given the opportunity to work for Adam Smith at Coworth Park it just felt right. Mehdi was inspired by Adam’s cooking, what he’s achieved in his career and the way he was doing things on a different level.  

Mehdi loves being a chef as the job provides so many different possibilities and opportunities. He told us: “You are never bored, you’re always doing something new, always pushing yourself to do better and every day is different from the day before. That is what makes it so interesting.”

Even as a child, Mehdi knew he wanted to be a chef as he came from a family with great home cooks. All the women in his family cooked a lot, especially his mum and grandmother. They would always have a big family dinner on Sunday where everyone would help cooking. It’s always been a big part of his life. 

Mehdi says everywhere he has worked so far has taught him something and made him the chef he is today; from the first bistro in Marseille where he learned basic cooking skills to Coworth Park today. If there was one chef he had to choose as his main influence, it would be Jéremy Picanol at L’Abbaye de Sainte-Croix who really put him on the right path. 

His incentive to enter The National Chef of the Year was to prove to himself that he could still do it commenting“You always wonder if people are going to like your cooking, you never know how it’s going to go or if what you present is going to be good enough so I thought this was a good opportunity to see where I was standing.”

When he heard his name called out, he admits he was surprised as he never expected it. Even if you are happy with the dishes, it doesn’t mean the judges will like them. He is so grateful to the chefs at Coworth Park who supported him and his fiancé Laetitia.  

Winning would mean everything to Mehdi and prove that no matter where you come from or where you’ve worked, you can still achieve whatever you want to do. He believes to succeed as a chef you have to love what you’re doing and have the passion as well as a will to succeed.

The three words Mehdi would use to describe his cooking are eclectic, flavoursome and complexity.      

Derek Johnstone

Derek started cooking at 16 years old after enrolling in a general catering course at Glasgow’s College of Food Technology. In 2008, he became the inaugural BBC MasterChef The Professionals winner which gave him the opportunity to work at Le Gavroche in London under the guidance of Michel Roux Jnr. He continued to work for the Roux family for six years. During this time, he carried out work placements in other Michelin starred restaurants including De Karmeliet, the 3 Michelin star restaurant in Belgium. In 2017, he accepted the position of head chef at Borthwick Castle, a 5-star exclusive hire venue near Edinburgh.

Derek just loves being around food and other people who are equally passionate about it. He looks forward to the change in the seasons when they get to reinvent their dishes and recipes year after year. He also really enjoys developing young chefs, helping them improve and guiding them through their own careers.  

For aslong as he can remember, Derek has always wanted to be a chef. As a young boy, he loved watching programmes like Ready Steady Cook and MasterChef and he never thought of doing anything else. 

Working for both Michel Roux Jnr and Albert Roux OBE was hugely inspirational for Derek and he learnt and developed enormously during his six years working for them both. He told us: “The most memorable day I have had at work was when I returned from London after winning MasterChef The Professionals and my executive chef and the whole team where waiting for me to arrive back. The support and guidance they gave me will be something I will remember forever.” Derek entered the competition last year as he felt it was the correct time in his career to put himself forward for such a prestigious competition. Finishing third gave him even more motivation and confidence to return and compete once again.

It would mean a lot to him to win this competition. It is such a tough competition to succeed in and he would be honoured for his cooking to be recognised by such a highly regarded panel of chefs. To succeed as a chef, Derek believes you need perseverance, talent, hard work and commitment. The three words that most describe his style of cooking are delicious, simplistic and dynamic.

Marc Billings

Marc’s career started at aged 15 with an apprenticeship at a well-respected hotel in Warwickshire under the watchful eyes of Adam Bennett, who is now chef director of the Michelin starred 'The Cross' in Kenilworth. This apprenticeship ran alongside attending North Warwickshire College. After a two-year apprenticeship, Marc decided to work in the Cotswolds. Country house fine dining was still a popular scene back in the ‘90s and this apprenticeship foundation gave him a solid platform to work from and held him in good stead.

Marc worked at various hotels and restaurants before deciding to focus his attention on cooking as a restaurant chef. A reunion with Adam followed and the chance to work for the much-celebrated, Andreas Antona.

Over the last few years, Marc has worked at a variety of venues but is now based at a 17th century stately home called Prestwold Hall, working for Maverick venues. The ethos of the company is to produce high class food and service to clients in exclusive venues. They are a fantastic company to work for with great values and ethics. It has a real family feel and he loves the people he works with. 

The thing Marc loves most about being a chef is the cooking and handling of great produce. He feels it’s also one of the few crafts where you get to see the whole process from start to finish. He commented: “Within our industry it’s always the people who make it what it is. I've worked with some real colourful characters.”Looking back, Marc admits he didn’t always want to be a chef. As a young boy he would have loved to have been a striker for Coventry City FC. However, his school home economics teacher, Mrs Tomlinson, set him on a path from which he’s never looked back. There have been many people that have inspired Marc at different stages throughout his career. From celebrated chefs like Anton Mossiman, who in Marc’s opinion was a chef ahead of his time and Marco Pierre White who he describes as pure rock and roll, through to employers, colleagues and family members, like his grandma. These days his inspiration is his wife and children.Marc describes the most memorable day at work as his first day as a head chef, as he said it is what all chefs aim for. He commented: “I entered National Chef of the Year for various reasons. Not for gains or glory, though I would dearly love to take Kuba’s crown, but more of a mountain that I felt was worth climbing. Hearing my name called out as a finalist was bonkers. There was so much talent on display in that semi-final day in Sheffield that I wasn't sure of my chances. So, to hear those words was sweet music. Only the best get to know what winning NCOTY feels like and I am up against nine hugely talented craftsmen. I am going to have to use everything I've got and then some if I am to triumph.”

Marc believes that to be a successful chef it requires a holy devotion and an almost single- minded approach to master your craft. If he had to describe his style of cooking in three words it would be seasonal, considered and diverse. 

Nicholas Smith

Nick started his culinary career at Southend College where he focused on learning and absorbing everything and disliking nothing, achieving his City & Guilds qualifications.

His professional journey started with him working in London at Le Pont de la Tour, The Arts Club Dover St and Chinon, all of which provided him with 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.

As a chef, Nick loves the accomplishment of crafting something in its beautiful raw form, using all his skill, knowledge, love, passion, respect and pure desire, into a brilliant work of art for others to enjoy. That for him is what brings and drives him to truly love what he does. He feels the rewards are more than worth the hard work you commit to. 

Growing up, Nick never really had any idea what he wanted to do, but luckily for him just at the point he was 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 he was hooked. His dad inspired him with his experiences, and Nick was excited and driven to pursue this career even more. Thankfully, he’s never looked back.

As well as his dad, Nick’s inspiration has come from all the passionate individuals that he’s had the opportunity to work alongside. He’s also inspired by the amazing cooking books he has collected in the past, from some of the best chefs in the world as well as the restaurants he’s been lucky enough to dine at.

There have been so many memorable days that Nick has experienced in the kitchen, but one that stands out for him 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 was a completely different mindset, with more responsibility and leading the brigade from the front. He learnt a lot from this which has been invaluable for his career.

When it comes to The National Chef of the Year, Nick is chasing a dream and setting himself up for the biggest challenge of his life, building the confidence to show his abilities to a Goliath audience. He said: “I have come to learn so much from NCOTY, that it is not just a competition, it is a growth of learning, raw commitment, pushing yourself and inspiring others. Taking the knocks and getting back up from them and being a better chef for it. This is a competition of a lifetime, the chance to be a part of something special and something that can’t be missed.That moment when you hear your name called out is unforgettable. Every chef in that room is waiting and praying to hear their name called out alongside their commis, who has equally shared that anticipation and sacrifice to get to that stage. Knowing how much time and effort has been spent honing and practicing those dishes to get accepted in that final 10, is something that is exhilarating and scary all at the same time.”

Nick feels that to win this competition, goes beyond the final day on the 1stOctober 2019, it’s about the legacy it leaves and how you support the industry. He’s watched, listened and learnt from this to understand the expectation of being granted such a title. It is a huge responsibility to take and to become the next National Chef of the Year would be a monumental dream for him and for all that he has shared this journey with. 

To succeed as a chef Nick believes it takes a huge amount of belief and a real desire to love, understand and immerse yourself into this amazing craft. Chefs should be adaptable, always cook from their heart and accept it is a continuous education for yourself and others throughout your chosen career.

The three words Nick would use to describe his style of cooking are fervour, adroit and considered. 

Steve Groves

Steve has worked at Roux at Parliament Square for the past nine years, as sous chef for the first three years and head chef for the other six. Before this he was at Launceston Place for three years. He loves working as part of a team to deliver the best experience possible for all guests and particularly enjoys the creative side of the job and seeing young chefs come through his kitchen and helping them to develop. 

When he was younger, Steve wanted to be a firefighter. However, he went to catering college as something to fall back on if the firefighting didn’t work out! He found he loved catering college and decided to pursue this as a career. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however, and there was a time about 14 years ago when he was set on leaving the industry to join the police or fire brigade. Instead, he moved to London to test himself at a higher level.

When it comes to who has inspired him, Michel and Albert Roux are a great source of inspiration and having the chance to work with them has been incredible for Steve. The Roux history, knowledge and dedication to constantly evolve is always inspirational. 

His most memorable working day was his first day as head chef at Parliament Square as he saw it as a huge privilege to have this role and lead such a great team. Steve has intended to enter The National Chef of the Year competition for the last few years but never managed to make the time to enter. He only made it this year because the deadline was extended! He had told himself that he had to make the time to do it and prepare properly telling us: “It’s a great competition and you only have to look at the past winners to see the quality of chefs that enter. When I made the final, I felt mostly relief! I was happy after the cook-off but almost straight away a bit of doubt started to creep in, then by the time it was announced I had no idea whether I’d done enough. I didn’t really see what anyone else had done as I was just focussed on my dishes. To win NCOTY would be incredible, it would be a very proud moment and to have closer ties with the Craft Guild of Chefs and help develop the next generation of chefs coming through would be great.”Steve believes that for a chef to succeed it takes hard work, dedication and the ability to listen and adapt. For him, there is no substitute for having a solid grasp of the classics as that foundation gives a chef the tools to go off and create with modern tastes in mind.

The three words that Steve would use to describe his cooking style are flavourful, classical and simple. 

Harry Kirkpatrick

Harry’s culinary career began when he started washing pots and pans at the age of 16, before being inspired by the head chef of his local village pub, Matthew Roberts, to pursue a career in cooking. He got an apprenticeship with the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts where he did two and a half years at Claridge’s Hotel, London as an apprentice and then a further two and a half years after graduating with distinction. After that he worked for a year at Eleven Madison Park, New York, which was voted the top restaurant in the world at the time. He joined Trinity Restaurant in Clapham a year and a half ago. 

The thing that Harry loves most about being a chef is making people happy through food, seeing the reaction on someone’s face and knowing you’ve made an impression on them. However, he didn’t always want to be a chef and isn’t sure what he did want to be when he was growing up, but he couldn’t be happier with how things have worked out. Harry has cooked alongside so many amazing individuals and is grateful for everything he has been taught. When thinking about his most memorable day at work, there’s been a few, but working at a restaurant which was then voted number one in the world was up there. 

Harry entered The National Chef of the Year because he really wanted the challenge of pushing himself in a new environment, under different pressures that he’s not used to. He’s extremely proud and excited to push on in the final. He told us: To win a competition of this level would mean the world and certainly would be career changing.”

When thinking about what chefs need to be successful, Harry feels it is graft, patience and professionalism. The three words he would use about his style of cooking are honest, seasonal and identity.

Ben Boeynaems

Ben started working in kitchens even before he left school, working at a local 2 rosette hotel on weekends and an amazing butcher in Hampton Court. The moment he finished school he was offered a full-time job and an apprenticeship placement. After this, he went to work for the Gordon Ramsay Group at Petrus and was part of the opening team at Claridge’s Hotel. Ben then worked at a restaurant called McClements in Twickenham before moving on to work for Eric Chavot at 2* Capital Hotel. He was also part of the opening team at Galvin at Windows with André Garrett, Chris Galvin and Bryn Williams. His next move was to work for Shay Cooper at the 1* Bingham in Richmond leaving there as sous chef to go The Goring Hotel. He was head chef when it was awarded 1 Michelin star, a time which he describes as his most memorable working day.

Ben is currently working as head chef of the Zetter Group, looking after the food offering for the three properties in the collection. The diversity of each day has to be one of the best things about being a chef for Ben. From creating dishes, sourcing the best ingredients, discovering new techniques, training, mentoring and developing a team, but ultimately doing something that he loves. He wanted to be a chef for as long as he can remember.  Ben credits his parents for being the greatest inspiration for his working life because without instilling their work ethic and discipline he would not have had the foundation to do what he currently does. The National Chef of the Year competition is something which Ben has always wanted to do but for one reason or another never entered. This year he felt ready to compete. When his name was called out as a finalist, Ben said it was an amazing feeling and still hasn’t truly sunk in. Winning would be an incredible achievement and without doubt, a career defining moment for him. Ben says to succeed in this industry you need to have tenacity, determination, focus, discipline, work ethic and passion. The three phrases he would use to describe his cooking style are ingredient-led, seasonal and classic-based.  

Fraser Bruce

After years of travelling, Fraser returned to the UK to be formally trained at Leith’s School of Food and Wine. Following stages at Racine in Knightsbridge with Henry Harris and Rick Steins’ Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, Fraser fell in love with Cornwall.  He worked summer seasons in the well-known Porthmeor Café, in St Ives, and then in a high-end chalet throughout the winter. Now, he is running a country dining pub in St Ives in Cornwall named The Halsetown Inn.  It’s located in a beautiful area, abundant with amazingproduce and they try to use the best locally sourced and seasonal ingredients to create a modern British menu.

Fraser says it takes a lot of personal sacrifice to be a chef, with the long and unsociable hours so you need to have a love for it; the whole kitchen environment, the ups, the downs, the good services, the bad ones. He added: “It’s stressful but I couldn’t ever imagine getting up and going to work in an office, for example. You meet some crazy people working in this trade but end up loving them, I think it’s quite unique in that way.”Growing up, Fraser never thought he would be a chef, but he has always had an interest in food. His mother was a great cook when he was growing up and she introduced him to different cuisines. As a child, Fraser played football for a couple of professional clubs so that was where he thought he would end up. Then he moved away and fell in love with surfing, which pretty much shaped his whole life in terms of where he wanted to live. He fell into the industry whilst travelling as he saw it as a way to fund his life at the time.Adam Handling has always been a chef which Fraser has looked up to and would love to work with, as his style of cooking is how he likes to cook. In his career, Cameron Jennings of the Porthmeor Café in St Ives has been the most important and influential person, without a doubt. Cameron has taught Fraser so much about working in this industry, work ethic and management. They are still good friends and he can rely on him for advice and help at any time whether it’s work related or not. Fraser entered the competition last year and made it through to the semi-finals which coincided with the due date of his first child.  It was a time in his life where all the focus should have been on his partner and she should have been relaxing, but instead she devoted all her energy to help him compete, right down to even being his kitchen porter as he practiced when she was nine months pregnant! They packed the van ready for every eventuality to drive to London in case she went into labour, even looking at what hospitals were near to Le Cordon Bleu where the semi-final was held.  It’s something that Fraser won’t forget.Entering last year and reaching the semi-finals was a massive achievement but Fraser was gutted not to progress. His interview with Gary Jones after his heat gave him real confidence and assurance in what he’s doing professionally, even though he didn’t reach the final. Having had the opportunity to cook for some of the best in the industry, it truly inspired him to push himself and enter again. Fraser feels there is no better way to receive constructive criticism than from a group of Michelin-starred chefs.Fraser was shocked to make the final this year as he didn’t expect it. He had made a couple of mistakes and hoped he might have still scraped through as a high scorer but to actually win his heat made him very happy. He commented: “To win National Chef of the Year would be amazing. However, to simply be cooking at this level both for the judges and alongside some well-respected chefs I’m already happy. I’m just going to enjoy the experience and see what comes from it.”

To succeed as a chef, Fraser feels you must be dedicated as it takes time to learn not just how to cook but how to run a kitchen. Managing people and a team becomes just as important as the food you want to produce.Local, seasonal and sustainable are the three words that Fraser would use to describe his style of cooking. 

Karl O’Dell

Karl O’Dell started working as a commis chef at Colette’s at The Grove where he stayed for six years working his way up to junior sous chef. His next career move was to The Artichoke as sous chef before he moved to Petrus as senior sous chef. He is currently working at Texture where he is head chef. 

The element of his role that he loves most is the absolute freedom to be creative. However, being a chef wasn’t something that Karl had always wanted to do as in his school days he dreamed of a career in sport. 

When thinking about the chefs who have inspired him the most, he says it’s Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White who have influenced his culinary career. 

To succeed in both the competition and in your role as a chef Karl believes that you need commitment, drive and passion. If he was to win The National Chef of the Year, it would be his greatest career achievement to date, and he felt very relieved to hear his name called out as one of the ten finalists. He’s delighted to still be in with a chance of taking the title. He entered this year as he really enjoys the whole experience having already made the final a few years ago. 

The three words that Karl would use to describe his style of cooking are light, creative and sharp.


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