Food critic Richard McComb was ringside as Birmingham chef Adam Bennett, of Simpsons, went up against the continent's heavyweights at the Bocuse D'Or cookery contest.
An extraordinary thing happened inside the cauldron of Hall 5 at Brussels Expo late on Wednesday, March 21, 2012.
Culinary history will record that a Birmingham chef, at his first tilt, was judged to have cooked the best meat dish in Europe.
Adam Bennett’s truffled blue legged chicken with mushrooms and tarragon trumped the apparently untouchable Scandinavians and the Spanish, the darlings of modern gastronomy. France, the motherland of classic cuisine, was knocked into a chef’s cocked hat.
It is difficult to over-state the importance of Bennett’s triumphant efforts at the European qualifier of the Bocuse D’Or, the world’s biggest and most prestigious chefs’ competition. Ten years ago – hell, who am I kidding? a couple of years ago – it would have been unthinkable for a Birmingham-based chef to represent the UK at the catering industry’s premier global contest.
If you said Bennett would finish 6th in Europe, qualify for the world final and pick up the prize for the best meat course along the way you would have been led to the nearest professional kitchen’s walk-in freezer, told to pull yourself together and shut inside. Yet that is what Bennett, head chef at Simpsons in Edgbaston, pulled off. He kept a cool head amid the mayhem and madness of the noisiest cooking competition imaginable, battling against 19 other top chefs in a televised five-and-a-half hour cook off in front of a live, partisan audience. The atmosphere was a bewildering mix of World Cup-style euphoria, Eurovision Song Contest kitsch and X Factor hysteria.
Because the Bocuse D’Or is cooking, but not as we know it.
Ten chefs competed on Day One in Brussels, the other 10 on Day Two, launched into action at 10-minute intervals. Bennett cooked on the first day of the event. He was sandwiched between the Swedish and Dutch representatives in kitchen number nine and came under starter’s orders at 11.20am.
Around this time, the show’s compere, American Angela May, doing her best to whoop up the audience, bellowed: “Let me hear you all make some noise for ICE-land!” Iceland, one of the dark horses, had already kicked off first.
May walked along the cooking stations, interviewing the national team coaches, keeping for the most part remarkably cool. One of her few slip ups came when she admired the preliminary work in the French kitchen. “It think their theme this year is eccentric,” she told the hall. May checked her notes. “Oh, no, that’s CON-centric.”
At 12.20pm, May swooped on the UK kitchen, which proudly displayed the logo for Coventry City FC. Bennett, who is clearly an eternal optimist, was working on his roulade of chicken as the presenter looked on in quasi-sexual awe.
“It’s beautiful... the way he does that. It’s so uniform,” purred May, who looks like a catwalk model but can deploy the vocal dexterity of a drill sergeant.
“He is so deft with his hands. Look how easily he does it.”
As a TV camera zoomed down on Bennett’s haute cuisine sausages, transmitting the dramatic pictures on to the big screen, Nick Vadis, the UK coach, said: “No pressure, Adam.”
Relaxing into a forced smile, Bennett quipped: “It’s the first time I’ve done this.”
What the chef didn’t disclose was that he had left the baby leeks for his chicken course in the fridge at Simpsons. It was left to the restaurant’s executive chef, Luke Tipping, to deliver them on the morning of the competition after hopping on a dawn Eurostar service.
“Apparently, they couldn’t find any baby leeks in Brussels,” said Tipping as he joined Simpsons owner Andreas Antona and fellow UK supporters in the spectators’ grandstand.
What would have happened if the vegetables hadn’t arrived? “I suppose they’d have had to use ordinary leeks,” said Tipping. Unthinkable.
Vadis, executive chef for Compass Group, is one of the UK team’s key Mr Fix-Its, helping to get equipment and kit sponsors. On the day of the contest, it is his job to keep Bennett on track, offer encouragement and shield the chef from idiots like me.