Monkfish match dazzles judges

17 June 2004
Monkfish match dazzles judges

The temperature on the Vauxhall Bridge monitor in central London read 33°C - not the easiest of conditions for a cookery competition. But the 10 finalists in the 2004 J Moreau & Fils Fish Dish Awards, sponsored by J Moreau Chablis, which took place last week at London's Westminster Kingsway College, ignored the oppressive heat to pair their chosen monkfish recipe with a glass of Chablis.

Bright spark: Olly Harding
Apart from a couple of blips, they more or less pulled it off. Two ingredients dominated - coconut and saffron - and there were several Thai-inspired creations with intriguing, if not always successful, results. Finalists came from all over the country - from Cullen in Banffshire to Newquay in Cornwall and Banbury in Oxfordshire - and from a range of establishments: country house hotels, local pubs and beach-side cafés. All had one thing in common: they knew little about wine. This was something Westminster Kingsway's head of external relations at its School of Hospitality, Peter Richards, was fully aware of. "I think NVQs and cookery competitions could do more to include wine. It should always go hand in hand with food. At Westminster, we make sure it's part of the diploma," he said. Richards (soon to leave the college to pursue other interests - see Caterer, 10 June, page 12) was master of ceremonies. He said: "OK, so these chefs today did not have much of a clue about matching food and wine, but the interest was there. How long has the industry been talking about a skills shortage? This could be a way of making sure we do something about it." Addressing the judges at the start, Richards declared: "We are looking for the best match with wine, though not necessarily the best dish." Then he invited us to tour the kitchens, where contestants were busy with their prep. The other judges were Charles Metcalfe, associate editor of Wine International magazine; Paul Gayler, executive chef at London's Lanesborough hotel; Master of Wine Jonathan Pedley; and Caterer's own drinks editor. Some of the chefs had brought their own bits of kit, and all had brought their own ingredients. Luke Finne from Finn's restaurant in Newquay, Cornwall, had even bought his fish straight off the boat that morning for his seared monkfish with scallops, spinach and saffron mussel broth. However, too liberal a sprinkling of black pepper divided the judges over this dish. Some felt it brought out the fruitiness of the wine, others that it overwhelmed the dish.
The winning dish
Other contestants' bold moves also presented problems for the judges. Metcalfe described one as "a caper too far", while another judge cited a star anise-heavy rub. "You have to be very careful with aniseed/fennel flavours as they can overpower a dish and certainly overpower wine," warned Gayler. And a very eggy monkfish souffl‚ turned the judges off completely. "Eggs and wine? Never a good idea," said Pedley. But for winner Olly Harding it all came together. The senior chef de partie at the Stoke Park Club in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, impressed the judges with his bright, summery, cinnamon-seared monkfish on black noodles with a yellow Thai sauce. "It looks like the colours of the Lithuanian flag," said Pedley. Gayler thought "a free set of sunglasses with every dish" was the only missing ingredient, although he praised the work involved - Harding had even made his own squid ink noodles. "I'm left with a gentle buzz of spice, which works well with the wine," added Metcalfe. "I haven't done competitions before, but this appealed to me because it's more of a challenge and makes you think harder," said 22-year-old Harding, who wants to open his own place by the time he's 32 - preferably in Cornwall, right by the sea. He is about to take a year off to work in New Zealand. "The fish there is fantastic, and their oceans have fish we don't have," he said. In the meantime, drawing on experiences closer to home, he added: "I think all chefs should know more about wine, and they should work more with the sommelier."
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