The pressure is on for two local chefs as they prepare for the Bocus d'Or. Richard McComb joined them in the kitchen.
How do you fancy spending your birthday cooking for five-and-a-half hours before dissecting the fruits of your labour with an unforgiving forensic examination?
That is how Adam Bennett spent Monday, cooking against the clock, in the pursuit of culinary perfection.
It might have been Bennett’s 46th birthday but he and sous chef Kristian Curtis are in countdown mode for the toughest cooking competition in the world.
All celebrations are on hold.
Next week, the duo will represent the UK in the celebrated Bocuse D’Or in Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France.
The biennial contest is named in honour of the world’s most famous chef, 86-year-old Frenchman Paul Bocuse, who attends the event.
The Bocuse D’Or is a food version of the Olympics, the Eurovision Song Contest and the Oscars rolled into one and pits the finest chefs from five continents against their international peers. It acts as a showcase for the latest developments in world cuisine and reflects the rise and fall of geographical eating trends.
It is no coincidence that new wave Scandinavian chefs dominated the podium last time out.
Denmark, home to Noma, reputedly the world’s best restaurant, went home with the Bocuse D’Or trophy in 2011.
Second and third places went to Sweden and Norway respectively. The UK will be hoping to improve on its position last time when it came a disappointing 13th.
On the banks of the River Rhone, Bennett will be involved in the mother of all cook-offs.
Twelve countries go into battle on Tuesday, January 30, while another 12 countries, including the UK, cook the following day with the result announced that evening.
The UK had to get through a tough European elimination in Brussels to qualify for Lyon. The top places in the Bocuse D’Or Europe went to (wait for it): Norway, Sweden and Denmark.
I join Bennett and Curtis for one of their final practice runs.
They are running late because Bennett suffered a flat tyre on the way to their training kitchen. “Hopefully, that won’t happen on the day,” he says with a wry smile.
The Bocuse D’Or, launched in 1987, is so big it is streamed live round the world and a recording of last year’s Brussels cook-off is playing on a loop on Bennett’s laptop as he and Curtis go to work. The sound-track is designed to get the chefs in the zone for Lyon, where every swirl of a spoon and peeling of a carrot is captured by TV cameras and picked out in an incessant commentary.
I am in an odd position writing about today’s run-through because I am sworn to secrecy about the wild preparations and elaborate garnishes that evolve before my eyes.
The thing is, it’s meant to be a surprise and the last thing you want to do is give another team the heads up. Bennett won the prize for the best meat course in Brussels so he’s not short of technique and clever ideas. So I’m saying nothing.
During the final, the 24 teams have just over five-and-a-half hours to produce two main courses: a fish dish and a grand meat platter. Everyone knows what the main ingredients are. This year the fish comprise turbot and blue lobster and the meat is Irish fillet of beef.
The chefs can do whatever they like with the feature ingredient but everything else, specifically the three garnishes that must accompany each course, are up for grabs. Except the competition is French-run, so it gets complicated.
In a break with tradition, two of the fish garnishes must be selected from the equivalent of a ‘mystery basket’ in Lyon the day before the competition.
The move is designed to add spontaneity – and a degree of fear – to the already tense proceedings. For the meat course, chefs must also incorporate at least one of the following into their platter: oxtail, ox cheek and beef blade. The UK is using two, but I can’t say which.
What I can say is that Bennett is preparing to impress with flourishes that pay homage to iconic English foods.
As I look on, Bennett, who like Curtis works at the Michelin-starred Simpsons restaurant in Birmingham, removes the white meat from two raw lobsters. The shellfish have been dropped in boiling water then rapidly chilled on ice to make the flesh slip out. The chef asks a kitchen porter to put a mixing bowl in the freezer.