At 24, Tristan Welch had already fashioned himself an enviable CV. Periods working with Gary Rhodes and Aubergine's William Drabble, plus stints at Le Gavroche and Alain Passard's L'Arpege in Paris, had helped him to hone his style for his first head chef positions. But he was eager to stretch himself further, and so last year he put himself in for the Gordon Ramsay Scholar award.
As head chef of Glenapp Castle, a luxury hotel, south of the village of Ballantrae, Ayrshire, privately owned by Graham and Fay Cowan, he found himself shortlisted for the Scottish regional finals of the competition last summer. He won comfortably and in October took the national title when he served up a near faultless, three-course meal to an eminent judging panel.
Eight months later, back in the comfort of his own kitchen, overlooking 30 acres of magnificent gardens, Welch is still thrilled with his achievement. "I'm extremely proud," he says, grinning from ear to ear. "It has created a lot of excitement around the castle. The local papers seized on the story and we certainly get a lot more non-residents eating in the restaurant now."
The 17-bedroom Glenapp Castle is open from April to October inclusive, which means Welch must work a seven-day week for that period. As a result, he's yet to take the stages he won as part of his bounty of prizes, but hopes to remedy that in January. "I'm planning to go to WD50 in New York and the French Laundry in Napa Valley. Thomas Keller's rated as the best at the moment so I'd really like to see how he achieves his standards and maintains such a tight rein on both his Napa Valley and New York restaurants," he says.
"American restaurants intrigue me. They manage to do high-end cuisine for such large numbers."
Having worked as a head chef for some time before entering the competition (he spent just under a year as head chef at Sheene Mill in Melbourn, Cambridgeshire, before moving to Glenapp Castle in March of last year), Welch had well-developed chef skills. But despite his broad experience (two years with Michel Roux Jnr at Le Gavroche, a year with Alain Passard), he says that the periods he spent in Ramsay's kitchens (also as part of his prize), during the hotel's closed season, have helped him to refine his style of cooking.
"I was struck by the consistency of the cooking," he says. "I found the whole experience fascinating and I relished the opportunity to observe the kitchens during service. Having worked at Le Gavroche myself [as a commis chef and then a chef de partie], it was interesting seeing little Gavroche touches in the way Gordon runs his kitchens." (Ramsay, too, spent his formative years working at Le Gavroche.)
Welch's is food style has been heavily influenced by the masters he has worked with. Le Gavroche formed the foundations of his cooking: "It's where I learnt everything," he says. When Welch was ready for his next move, Michel Roux Jnr and Albert Roux arranged for him to work at L'Arpege. Although Welch treasures his time in Paris and admits that he found his year with Passard as inspirational, he concedes that the kitchen set-up is not how he chooses to run a kitchen.
"It's not run by Alain Passard so much, it's run by a manager in an office, who telephones your section," he says. "Alain Passard is not a hands-on chef. He would stand in the corner and watch."
Working at the restaurant during its much-hyped move to vegetarianism was interesting, says Welch. "It was a total gimmick," he says candidly. "We did great food, but it was about the press. The cuisine was very chichi, but it was still a great honour to cook in his name. I really enjoyed the creative side of the kitchen there. L'Arpege influenced my attitude towards food, it calmed me down." But having cooked such meat-rich dishes at Le Gavroche, Welch always knew that when he had his own kitchen, he could never leave meat off the menu.
It was Welch's simple, clean-flavoured food that stood out on the day of the Gordon Ramsay Scholar competition. His menu - an amuse gueule of avocado bavarois, lobster and five-spice cream, followed by a main course of sturgeon with squash pur‚e, apple and onion salad and caviar and a uncomplicated lemon tart - showed that Welch likes to keep the number of ingredients on a plate to a minimum. "I was trying not to be too clever," he says. "I go for a combination of three main flavours and then concentrate on textures."
"I have a fantastic larder of ingredients up here. We have at least 25 different types of herbs, every single fruit and vegetable under the sun, which we grow in a massive glasshouse. The fruit's unbelievable - peaches, lemons, oranges, kiwis, figs. When you sit down to write the day's menu it's wonderful."
Where are they now
Eddy Rains won the first-ever college scholarship competition back in 2001 when he still had a year to go at Exeter College. Winning the title sent him to Italy, near Ancona, for a week at Il Saraghino restaurant. It also helped him get an introduction (through a contact at his then part-time job) to Stuart McLeod, head chef at the three-AA-rosetted Castle House in Hereford. Now 21, Rains has been there for two years.
Rains has since been busy on the competition circuit. Last year he entered and won the inaugural NZ-UK Link Foundation cooking competition, founded by Providores chef Peter Gordon to foster links between British and Kiwi chefs. His prize included a six-week trip to New Zealand (Stuart McLeod didn't mind, apparently), where he visited and cooked at five different restaurants.
The trip more than left its mark. While there he bumped into several chefs he used to work with at Bindon House in Somerset. These Brits now work in New Zealand, and it all looked so good Rains has decided that's what he will do too. "I plan to go in November to work at Kauri Cliffs hotel," he says.
Gemma Blow When Caterer caught up with Gemma Blow, the first-ever Ramsay Scholar in 2001, she was sunning herself on the East Coast of Australia. "I'm having the best time," she laughs down the phone, the English accent already losing out to an Aussie twang. "I'm on Magnetic Island, just off the coast from Townsville. Before that we did 4 x 4 driving in Hervey Bay, and before Australia I spent three months in Asia."
Try not to be bitter: Blow deserved the time off. She was the youngest winner of the competition at 19, while working at London's two-Michelin-starred restaurant the Square (under chef-patron Philip Howard) where she spent two years flat out: "You couldn't blag it at the Square," she says. "Phil is as nice as pie, but everyone had to work extremely hard."
A trip to Charlie Trotter's Chicago restaurant for a three-week stage as part of her prize, proved the point. "The kitchen only had to cook for dinner service, and not on Sunday or Mondays," she says. "They thought they had a hard life. I was just laughing at them."
It hasn't all been sun and sand down under, though. After she got bored (not because of money - she still had some of the £5,000 prize left to enjoy), Blow got a job at Melbourne's Italian restaurant Cecconi's, a two-chef-hat-rated (Sydney Morning Herald's respected rating system), 400-cover restaurant. She is going back there when she returns from the east coast to start a full-time position.
So does she want her own place? "Of course. If someone else is your boss all your life, what's the point?" she says. "But I'm 22. I'm not heading to be the youngest female chef with stars or anything like that. I've got plenty of time." From the sounds of it, don't expect Blow to be returning for quite a while.
Josh Eggleton is currently struggling with the language in Sicily: "I'm pronouncing everything wrong. I've always been someone who asks lots of questions, but there's only one guy in the kitchen who speaks broken English. I have been going a little potty."
As last year's college scholar, Eggleton, 20, has just completed a week-long stage in Sicily at the two-starred Il Mulinazzo, just outside the capital Palermo. But he was surprised at how down-to-earth the operation is, compared with British Michelin-rated kitchens: "Half the kitchen seem to be in England on their way to Glastonbury, and the other day at lunch we weren't that busy so we had a football match in the car park!"
In the UK, Eggleton heads up a kitchen of four at the Olive Shed in Bristol's docks. The restaurant is the sister operation to the Real Olive Company - an olive and speciality food wholesaler (and retailer). He has been in the job four months, after he finished a year cheffing at the John Lewis department store in Bristol.
"We are a fish and vegetarian restaurant," he explains. "We are informal, not Michelin standard, but we are mostly organic and we are expanding. I want to install a wood-fired bread-baking oven, maybe start an upmarket pizza take-away venture from the oven."
Eggleton sounds like a man with plans. In fact he got into cooking when he decided to bake Victoria sponge cakes to sell to his next-door neighbours to make some cash, aged 11. "I'm always thinking about what I can do next."
He adds: "I plan to have my own place but want to get some travel under my belt first. I will still be learning when I am 50." And what has he picked up from Il Mulinazzo? "Well, they do this candied olive pudding, just chopped olives cooked up in sugar stock. That will be perfect for the Olive Shed."
After winning the college scholarship in 2002, Mark Ruck, who attended Stratford-upon-Avon College, went on to work at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, reaching the position of first commis. Now 21, he has recently left Raymond Blanc's kitchen, but says the experience has been invaluable: "I learnt a fantastic amount with Raymond and Gary Jones. I've never learnt so much in my life as I did there."
He is now working back in his home town of Warwick at a restaurant called Prym's in the evening, while doing other cooking jobs by day, including work at the Royal Show and the NEC. He is also using the time to complete wine courses.
"Basically the plan is to save money to buy a flat which I will then rent out so I can go to France for a year." In France (Paris or the Loire Valley) Ruck hopes to learn French while working at a Michelin-level restaurant. He even plans to have a crack at the main scholar competition on his return.
Long term, Ruck wants to open his own place in partnership with his brother, preferably before he is 27. "But before that, I have to collect as much information and skills as possible."
Welch's tips for competitors - Stick to what you know. Don't try any new wacky flavours combinations.
- Don't be affected by what other competitors are doing. Stay focused.
- Draw up a generous mise-en-place timetable for yourself.
- Put more effort into the dessert than any other course. It's the last thing the judges eat.
- Speak to the judges. They are there as much to help you as to judge you.
- Don't be outdone. Go at it like an animal. Don't help anyone else.
How to enter in 2004
There's just over two weeks left to enter the Gordon Ramsay Scholar 2004 competition. Two finalists have already been found - Gordon Ramsay College winner Jane Mulholland of Tallaght Institute of Technology, Dublin, and New Zealand heat winner Mark Sycamore.
Mulholland won her title after taking part in a cook-off involving a mystery box of ingredients. She fought off the efforts of six other competitors to secure the title and a prize of £2,000.
All seven competitors visited the Institute of Hotel and Tourism Management, Lucerne, Switzerland, to attend an exclusive course designed to complement their existing college studies, including chocolate and pastry-making skills.
Sycamore, meanwhile, won the New Zealand heat of the competition. The Blanket Bay Resort sous chef has dual New Zealand and UK citizenship and was educated in Essex before moving to New Zealand in the 1990s.
The New Zealand heat was closely followed by all three main television channels and the finals were televised by TVI with the winner announced live on the Paul Holmes Show. A television crew is expected to follow Sycamore to London when he competes in the UK finals in London in September.
Mulholland and Sycamore will be joined by eight other finalists at the grand final, which takes place at the Restaurant Show. The eight remaining finalists will be selected from 32 chefs who will compete in semi-finals on 25 and 26 August.
The overall winner will receive £3,000, a brand-new Hyundai car, several stages (organised by Gordon Ramsay Restaurants), a subscription to Caterer & Hotelkeeper (hurrah!) and much more. The final will identify first, second and third-place winners.
Those wishing to enter the competition, should submit the recipe and method for their favourite dish (including a list of ingredients, quantities, preparation, serving details, photographs or diagrams), and a submission in no more than 100 words why it is their favourite dish and where they expect to see themselves at 30. A CV should also be enclosed.
Entry forms, which can be gained from gordonramsay.com, should be sent to The Administrator, The Gordon Ramsay Scholar Award 2004, 1 Catherine Place, London SW1E 6DX or faxed to 020 7592 1229 or e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Deadline for entries is 17 July