British chefs – who imagined they could be so successful?
By Chandos Elletson, filmmaker to Roux Scholarship & founder of The Chefs Directory
There was once a time when British chefs were considered inferior and incapable of ever comprehending true gastronomy. You’d think this was way back in the mists of time but you’d be wrong.
As recently as thirty years ago Andrew Fairlie, the winner of The Roux Scholarship in 1984, wrote to a number of senior French chefs asking for a job at their restaurants in France. Only one replied. The answer: non merci.
The reason for this was not rudeness or indifference but simply a matter of image. The idea of a British chef was somehow impossible to imagine even as a junior member of a team.
It is only when you understand this cultural background that you can appreciate just how radical The Roux Scholarship was when it first launched in 1984.
The goal of the Roux Brothers, Albert and Michel, was to enable a new generation of chefs from Britain to train in what were then the greatest restaurants in the world.
What they envisaged was that the chefs would return and start their own restaurants and slowly begin to change the gastronomic landscape of the UK.
30 years later you could say that their dream has come true. British chefs are now recognised internationally and many of them have risen to the top.
The Roux Scholarship is unique. It is a competition for chefs under 30 who are working as chefs in the UK. The competition element is tough. It is based on technical skill, a strong palate and deep appreciation and understanding of the history of classical cooking.
However, the competition is only the start. What happens next is what really matters. The winning prize is a 3-month stage at any 3 Michelin star restaurant in the world. All expenses paid.
So, the winner is really very special because this is when the Roux family really come out to bat. Where you choose to go is really up to you but the family will help you to find somewhere that matches your skills and ambitions.
Don’t think for a minute that this has always been easy. The brothers had to convince their colleagues and friends in France and beyond that a Roux scholar was worth taking. After all the winner was representing their name and everything they stood for. This in itself was a gamble.
They also had to convince the chefs who agreed to have a scholar that they would give them a good experience. This is where the scholarship part of the title was born. The winners are not just winners but students who are going to go on a journey of learning and discovery. And this is what makes the whole thing so exciting.
All the scholars I have spoken to agree that the stage was a life-changing experience and enabled them to see up close the inner workings of the greatest restaurants of their day.
This new horizon gave them a chance to see the world of chefs and food in a new light and ultimately decide which way they were going to take their career. This world, though, used to be Europe because that was the only area covered by the Michelin map.
However, all that changed when Michelin broadened its horizons and began to look more closely at restaurants further afield.
The 2009 scholar, Hrishikesh Desai, broke new ground by travelling outside Europe for the first time to spend a stage at The French Laundry in California under the tutelage of Thomas Keller, 3 Michelin stars in the USA guide.
A year later the winner, Kenneth Culhane, went to New York to work with Jean-Georges Vongerichten at his famous restaurant 3 Michelin star Jean Georges.
As the Michelin guide has opened up the rest of the world so The Roux Scholarship has kept up by offering the scholar every worldwide opportunity.
But what’s fascinating is that the draw of Europe and in particular France and Spain is still strong with the last three winners choosing to stay local.
In 2011 Mark Birchall went to Spain to El Cellar de Can Roca and for the last two years the winners have been in Paris: Adam Smith chose Le Meurice Hotel under Yannick Alléno and the 30th winner Paul O’Neill did his time with Pierre Gagnaire.
I have been fortunate to visit some of these restaurants with the scholars and Michel Roux Snr to witness the scholarship in action in my role as filmmaker.
It is clear at this very senior level that the Roux philosophy of technique, taste and a respect for history are at the root of other great restaurants. Indeed, they are essential for the progression of every chef.
The Roux Scholarship is not easy and requires a good deal of effort not just from individual chefs but also from employers and executive chefs. Chefs need to practice, to travel to events and to spend time studying. This can only happen with the approval of and backing of those above them.
It is worth noting that despite the time away and the new environment the vast majority of scholars remain loyal to their restaurants for a considerable amount of time after winning.
What the scholars bring back with them in terms of learning and experience is invaluable to their brigades and the more closely the whole team works with their chosen entrant the better they fare later.
Watch Chandos latest film of Paul O’Neill at Pierre Gagnaire.
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