In its 28th year, the Roux Scholarship is still the most challenging and illustrious competition for budding professional chefs in the UK. FIONA FORMAN talks to this year’s winner Kenneth Culhane about how winning the competition has changed his life.
Founded by Michel’s father, Albert, and uncle Michel 27 years ago, the Roux Scholarship is a world- renowned competition for chefs, which gives winners access to the kitchens of the most acclaimed restaurants. A life-changing opportunity, previous winners have worked at some of the best restaurants around the world under such legendary chefs as Thomas Keller and Michel Guérard. The competition is an intense test of the chef’s skills. The Roux family sets a theme and entrants send in an appropriate recipe to get through to the regional heats. Then the 18 regional finalists from these heats must cook their recipe along with a dessert created from a list of mystery ingredients given to them on the day. In the finals, the six remaining contestants cook a classic dish with just an hour to prepare beforehand. This year Michel, his father, uncle, and cousin Alain were joined on the judging panel by Gary Rhodes, Heston Blumenthal, James Martin, winner of the first Roux Scholarship in 1984 Andrew Fairlie, and Group Director at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, David Nicholls.
The 2010 winner, 28- year-old Irish-born Kenneth Culhane, is from a contract catering background. A sous chef for BaxterStorey’s client, Level 31 at Barclays in Canary Wharf, he is only the second chef from the contract catering sector to claim the coveted title. Albert Roux says: “I’m particularly pleased that we have another winner from within contract catering. Food is there to be enjoyed, whether it’s three-star Michelin or scrambled eggs. In the future I would like to see more chefs from all catering backgrounds take a place in the final, including hospital and army catering.” A regional finalist in the competition twice before, this was Culhane’s first attempt at the final. The judges faced a difficult decision, Michel Roux Jr says: “The judges deliberated for an extremely long time this year and it was very close. At the end of the day you may feast with the eyes but you get the most pleasure from the taste. And Kenneth’s dish tasted better than anybody else’s.” Culhane’s prizes are extensive – he is set to receive £5,000 to further his culinary education; a week’s paid experience in New York; a trip to Champagne Gosset in Ay and a trip to visit the Caffé Musetti roasting factory in Milan, as well as entry into the elite group of Roux Scholars. We caught up with Kenneth to find out how he won the competition and his plans now he has scooped the top prize.
WHERE DID YOUR LOVE OF COOKING STEM FROM?
My first real memories of food come from my late grandmother Eileen McElligott. She lived on a small farm in a very idyllic part of North Kerry in Ireland. The smell of fresh bread every morning, the picking of wild mushrooms and berries, and the making of jams are fond memories. It’s funny how I spent most of my youth with my grandmother unaware of how those memories would shape my life. It really forged my love for food.
ARE THERE ANY CHEFS THAT HAVE PARTICULARLY INSPIRED YOU THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER?
When I started cooking at the age of 21, I always respected and looked up to giants of the cooking world such as the Roux brothers, Pierre Koffman and Marco Pierre White. As for chefs that I have worked for, the three years I spent at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud under chef Guillaume Lebrun was an inspiration. Guillaume is a master craftsman and an immense butcher and baker, along with having a profound knowledge of the art of French fine dining. I’ve also been fortunate to work for Tetsuya Wakuda in Sydney; his ethos on respecting his staff and his sincere humility towards everybody is a great inspiration. In London I worked for Brett Graham at The Ledbury for a short time when I first arrived. Brett is another inspiration, the food that the team produces there is some of the best in the world. He’s a vastly talented and motivated chef.
WHAT MADE YOU ENTER THE ROUX SCHOLARSHIP?
I have to credit James Carberry as my motivation for entering. He encouraged me to enter as soon as he knew I was coming to London.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR STYLE OF COOKING?
My training is really in the foundations of French fine dining, but my Mauritian wife has had a great Asian influence on my cooking. Every time I visit Mauritius her family introduces me to new techniques and ideas with their immense passion for food, with a blend of Indian, Creole, Chinese and European influences.
YOU TRAINED UNDER FORMER ROUX SCHOLARSHIP WINNER, JAMES CARBERRY. DO YOU THINK THIS PUT YOU AHEAD OF THE COMPETITION?
It’s a really tough competition to prepare for, so having somebody to guide you is really practical, it’s great to be able to confer with someone. James was my lecturer for my BA in Culinary Art at the Dublin Institute of Technology. His philosophy is on the modernisation of the Escoffier classics, so in a way even then he was preparing me for the competition.
YOU WERE PREVIOUSLY A REGIONAL FINALIST, DID THAT SPUR YOU ON TO ENTER THE ROUX SCHOLARSHIP A SECOND TIME?
It’s really gutting not getting through, but as they say, ‘try and fail, but don’t fail to try’.
HOW DID YOU IMPROVE UPON YOUR FIRST ATTEMPT AT THE COMPETITION?
I started to look at revising my classical cooking techniques. Understanding the classics is the foundations of cooking. I also focused on producing well-executed and seasoned food instead of been too fussy on presentation and trying too hard to impress.
WERE YOU ABLE TO CHOOSE THE RECIPES YOU COOKED IN THE COMPETITION OR WERE THEY SET?
For the regional finals it’s your own recipe that is judged. I cooked an old classic dish – shellfish risotto with crab and scallop with a crab velouté made with mussels and razor clams. I finished with a dessert of trio of biscuit with apple compote, Italian meringue and lemon curd. However, on finals day you get a recipe chosen by the Roux family. The dish was fillet of beef en croûte à la Bisontine with accompaniments, a classic dish from the Escoffier era. It can be really daunting at first, but once you get into the kitchen you’re just focused on executing the dish.
HOW DID YOU FIND WORKING WITH THE ROUX FAMILY AND JUDGES?
It’s been a great inspiration to work with them and have my food judged by the Roux family. When I started out cooking I would never in my wildest dreams thought that possible. The judges are all very friendly on the day and want everyone to reach their potential.
WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE YOU FACED IN THE FINAL?
I have to admit that I was spinning for the first few minutes; we had a big workload and I really thought it was not possible. Getting the puff pastry made properly, cooking the beef, making the béarnaise sauce, and making sure my seasoning was spot on were my main focuses.
WHAT WERE YOUR HIGH AND LOW POINTS IN THE COMPETITION?
Not getting through to the finals the first time was a gutting experience, because I put a lot of work into it. Once I’d made it through, it was a fantastic opportunity to meet new chefs, talk with inspirational people, such as the Roux brothers, Andrew Fairlie, Gary Rhodes and Heston Blumenthal. Plus the finals night, which is a fantastic gala at the Mandarin Oriental, was great fun.
DID YOU EVER THINK YOU WOULD WIN?
It’s a thought that I’m sure all the finalists have, and the reason we compete in life, but you can never be certain. It’s such a big competition with no margin for error.
DO YOU KNOW WHICH RESTAURANT YOU WILL BE DOING YOUR WORK EXPERIENCE AT IN NEW YORK?
Yes, I’m doing it at Jean Georges in New York next year. I’ve always wanted to work in this fantastic foodie city and now that the prize is to work at an international restaurant, it makes it very exciting for the winner. I’m really looking forward to it.
HAS WINNING THE COMPETITION OPENED DOORS FOR YOU?
Yes, it’s a greatly respected scholarship and a life-changing experience.
DO YOU THINK YOUR COOKING HAS EVOLVED SINCE THE START OF THE COMPETITION?
My cooking is in continuous evolution – you never stop learning – but I expect that my stage at Jean Georges will have a profound impact on my approach to cooking.
FINALLY, WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
I would love to spend some time working in Mauritius, and at some stage have my own food business. I would also love to have my own restaurant at some point, I’m still learning the ropes, but it’s a major ambition.