“Just go for it, don’t give it a second thought. The entry process alone is not something you do very often at all, so it challenges you from the get-go. ”
Oli Williamson was crowned Roux Scholar 2020/21 at a prestigious award dinner in London in October 2021. It had been a long wait, not least because the competition had been postponed for 18 months due to the the Coronavirus pandemic, but also because, for Oli, it was the culmination of years of hard work that came together for him to excel in one of the toughest finals ever.
Oli grew up in North Norfolk where his dad was a keen cook and popular TV shows at the time were The F-Word and Jamie Oliver's Naked Chef, which first sparked an interest in food. Around the same time, he got his first summer job in a café in Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast where he helped with the washing up, pulling Mister Whippy ice creams and cooking jacket potatoes and gammon egg and chips. Oli continued with part-time jobs in catering during his studies and then, aged 18, he went to work for the one-star Michelin restaurant The Neptune in Old Hunstanton. Working alongside Kevin Mangeolles the chef-owner, with just the two of them in the kitchen, Oli learned a huge amount before being encouraged by Kevin to travel to Australia for a year on a working holiday. The chance to work with high quality Chinese and Thai food was a real inspiration to Oli, along with the new ingredients and flavours you don't see in the UK.
On his return to Norwich, Oli took up his first more senior role at Roger Hickman's restaurant, as sous chef and led a small team. Then, in 2014, being keen to learn more and move up the ranks, he moved to Cambridge. Oli took the role of demi chef to partie at Midsummer House, eventually working up to senior sous chef. Here, he learned a huge number of classic skills from Daniel Clifford, including how to turn an artichoke and cooking a beurre blanc - two skills he had to revisit in the Roux Scholarship final.
Oli's next move came through a connection to Roux Scholar Ian Scaramuzza, a role at Benu in California. While he was waiting for his US visa however, Oli worked with Ian on Dan Barber's WastED pop-up residency at Selfridge's, which aimed to raise awareness of food waste, making dishes from ingredients that would usually end up in the bin. The project also ignited Oli's passion for reducing both food waste and plastic usage in the kitchen.
His role as chef de partie at Corey Lee's Benu was Oli's first experience of a three-Michelin star kitchen and he was grateful for the experience of working once again with Asian flavours and ingredients but also to see how the kitchen's different station each had a complex system of their own. The year-long role gave him a valuable insight into how crucial it is to manage different people's roles within those systems and to see how it all comes together when you eventually manage the entire kitchen. His time in California also introduced him to other cuisines done well, such as Mexican, and he had the opportunity to travel and see more of the country in his time off.
Corey Lee then recommended Oli for the role of head chef at The Clove Club in London working for Isaac McHale and so, without any trial, Oli returned to the UK in May 2018 to take up the role. His previous experience all came together as he led and managed the brigade, the processes while also learning about different produce such as fish which he hadn't cooked before.
Despite having had an impressive career to date, Oli recognised that his skills in pastry were lacking and so to gain the experience he felt he needed to properly lead a kitchen, he took a sideways move to work with Alex Dilling at The Greenhouse as head pastry chef in October 2019. Alex supported Oli's application for the Roux Scholarship, and although the restaurant closed in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, Oli and Alex became firm friends and worked together in pop-ups and private work over the subsequent year and Oli continued to develop his pastry skills.
In December 2020, Oli took the role of sous chef at The Fat Duck in Bray and in January 2022, just a few months after winning the Roux Scholarship, he was promoted to Head Chef. His new role allows him to continue to develop his management skills and build on his incredible experience to date, which will be furthered, no doubt by his Roux Scholarship stage... of which news will follow!
What did you cook in the final?
We were given two dishes which were in honour of Michel Roux Snr and Albert Roux. The eggs Albert was an artichoke heart filled with smoked salmon, trout and truffle, topped with a poached egg and adorned with a slice of smoked salmon. The second was Little flans with snails in green coats, and this was snails and a herb soufflé baked in a tartlet with beurre blanc sauce. I bought Escoffier [Le Guide Culinaire] to prepare for the finals and also I was looking at the skills to be a Roux Scholar on the website, and it did actually help me as I’d looked at savoury soufflés, even though I don’t make them very often. With the butchery, I was practising deboning chickens from the back to keep them whole, and so the process of training for the final was exciting, and the chance to learn new skills.
How many times did you enter?
I entered just once. I did want to do it before and I never thought I was ready. I always wanted to do it for the last six or seven years, but then I went abroad and got a head chef job so couldn’t properly apply myself. So maybe this was just the moment. I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity. A lot of people are saying the same thing to me, but if you have the fundamental skills, people should just give it a go.
What advice would you give applicants?
Just go for it, don’t give it a second thought. The entry process alone is not something you do very often at all, so it challenges you from the get-go. You do your recipe entry and you have to think through your dish and create a fool-proof recipe. For a chef, that thought process is vital. So even if it goes nowhere, in simply doing the application, you’ve learned something and that’s quite a big advantage. If you do get through you have to work really hard to put that into practice and work hard to give yourself enough time to cook the dish alongside the mystery box dessert. I think it’s vital for chefs to try it, even if they don’t believe in themselves enough, have a look at the entry form at least. I’d written a lot of recipes before, but with this, you're creating it and cooking it for yourself rather than for your restaurant.
What will you remember most about taking part in the Roux Scholarship?
One of the best things about that day was seeing the Roux Scholar judges walking around the kitchen, then my generation – the finalists, and then the commis helping us out – the future generations. Just incredible to see all these generations of chefs together in one room. I’m going to take my commis out for dinner somewhere to say thank you.
Who are your culinary heroes?
Definitely Daniel Clifford: working with him was my grounding as a chef and I learned all the fundamentals from him. He was the one who said to me ‘You’ve got go to a three-star next and hone the skills you’ve learned here,' and 'Push yourself and never rest on your laurels'. And even now he’s really supportive; when The Greenhouse closed he asked me to film a TV programme with him for Channel 4, so helps support me now. He’s my culinary Godfather. Corey Lee: I’d never seen anyone work like he does. He is so calm. His control and his focus on detail in that restaurant, it all comes from him. He seemed almost God-like. I would say Alex Dilling, too. Even though we worked together for a short time, his palate and the way he presents and thinks about food is amazing. Some of the dishes we did together were so spur-of-the moment, and came together on a whim and he’ll just go for it. Other people are very controlled and they have an idea and won’t get away from it, but being that free can take you places as well. Obviously Heston is a hero too, and people like Ferran Adrià and Rene Redzepi have changed the world of gastronomy. They’re the inspiration for many, many people. It just comes from the power of their minds, it’s crazy.