Q&A specially prepared to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the CGC Graduate Awards
Nick Sinclair, executive chef at the four star Boutique Brooklands Hotel in Weybridge, one of Surreys Newest and Finest Hotels is considered one of Britain’s top chefs. He was also one of the first chefs to enter the Craft Guild of Chefs Graduate Awards, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and has become a respected, benchmarking tool of a young chef’s talent and ability to take the next step. In this Q&A, we find out how passing the awards with flying colours a decade ago – no mean feat, by any stretch – helped shape Nick’s future.
What sparked your passion to become a chef?
“When I was young, my mum had a private catering business in Ashtead, Surrey, and, from when I was knee high, you’d always find me there, perched on a stool watching with fascination. I, then, got my lucky break. A friend of my dad’s was the financial controller at London’s Royal Garden Hotel where I managed to secure a work experience placement with school which lead on to me being taken on as Steve Munkleys first apprentice.
“Mum and dad had wanted me to stay on at school, which I was loathe to do, so, bright eyed and bushy tailed, I went off to London aged 16. My life changed dramatically. I look at some of my friends who went to uni and many have completely changed their career since, doing nothing like their degree course now. I, on the other hand, have stuck to my path.”
What inspired you to enter the first Graduate Awards a decade ago?
“After working at the Royal Garden for four years, the hotel’s executive chef Steve Munkley, who I admired greatly, mentioned that he was looking to set up an awards scheme for the Craft Guild of Chefs, giving young working chefs a way to prove how far they had come since training and a chance to be verified by the best chefs in the industry, a great endorsement to be able to cite on a CV.
“He was looking for candidates who were dedicated to being chefs and who wanted to make progress in the industry. I was very positive and focused on what I wanted to be, so he asked if I’d be interested in entering. He asked me: “Do you want to get some recognition, Nick and network with important people?” I looked up to the likes of Michelin-starred John Campbell, who was working at The Vineyard, Raymond Blanc at the Manoir and critically-acclaimed Phil Thompson, who featured in BBC Two’s Great British Menu, at the time, and saw this as a great opportunity.
“I had also won quite a few competitions at this stage, including the Junior Cook and Serve and Grand Prix at Hotelympia, so had an idea of the pressure involved.”
Can you remember what you cooked?
“We were given a range of culinary challenges to test our knowledge and skills, including classical recipe tests, and I remember being very keen to demonstrate my fishmongery and butchery skills. I thought I was quite good at both of these.
“The best thing for me was the mystery basket. Generally, I am the type of chef who likes to use their imagination, where possible, and I liked the idea of playing around with mystery ingredients. To this day, if I organise a competition, I’ll throw a mystery basket in. The beauty is, you don’t have to practice it, while, with the other culinary tests, you might spend 10 hours a day practicing, taking away some of the natural skill. It’s adrenalin-charged and you have to think on your feet.
“One of the ingredients was lamb saddles, and, for my final dish, I did a confit onion and sweetbreads risotto with roast rosettes of lamb, which worked really well. There was also a fresh, filleted sole which I served up on silver flats. My weakest dish was the classic pastry test, for which I had to produce a classic pithivier. I knew it wasn’t my strength, and, to this day, I always make sure I have a strong pastry chef in the kitchen with me. Everything is done by recipe or it, generally, doesn’t work. If something goes wrong, you have to start again from scratch.
“When all the tests were over, I looked around at what the others were doing and felt quite confident it would be okay. I have always backed my own skills as a chef and you know when you’ve done alright. However, when my name was called out at the actual awards ceremony, it was a complete shock. We were told only three out of 26 candidates had passed and I was the third to get called out. My whole body went stiff.”
How did passing the Graduate Awards change your life?
“They didn’t have highest achiever at the time, but I was told afterwards that I had got the highest marks, which was a great feeling. One of the award prizes, which has stood the test of time, is the study tour to Luxembourg with Villeroy & Boch, which was absolutely brilliant.
“I also developed a great relationship with the guys from Villeroy & Boch, who invited me to Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons to meet Raymond Blanc and other industry greats.
“I would say the awards opened a lot of doors for me and helped me get where I am today, giving me huge confidence in my ability to shake things up. For instance, since starting at Brooklands a year ago, I have completely changed the whole ethos of the hotel’s 1907 restaurant, which was a solely Italian concept. Renaming it the 1907 restaurant, bar and grill, it is, now, about simple, fresh and modern European food with influences from around the world, using produce from local suppliers. We are, currently, going for our second Rosette too.
“Essentially, the Graduate Awards can catapult you to a difference level. You only have to look at graduate Sophie Wright, who was the UK’s youngest head chef at the age of 20 and has gone on to write two cookery books. It’s great for chefs who thrive on competition.”
The Graduate Awards also recognise excellence in training. Is this important?
“That first year, my executive chef, Denzil Newton, who now works at the Madejski stadium – home to Reading FC – won the Employers’ trophy for excellence in training.
“He was someone I really looked up to and who spent hours after work practicing with me. I now do the same for my staff. Generally, you get great organisers and great cooks. Denzil was the former, pushing me to be a perfectionist. Nothing was ever good enough, which has rubbed off on me. I’m lucky enough to have some great, young guys working for me now, who are really keen and want to learn. I say, “I’ll teach you everything you want to know if you are dedicated. If you just want to do your hours and go home, I won’t”. Simple as that.
“I’m, actually, putting one of my young chefs, Harry Peak, in for the Graduate Awards this year. He started working for me eight months ago and is ahead of his time.”
In your opinion, is there scope to improve or develop the Awards further?
“I think there should be an older category. I have three chefs who would love to do something like this, but who are around 25 and fall outside the age limit of 23. A lot of chefs now come into the industry a bit later and it would be good to recognise their potential.”
Do you have a future ambition?
“One day, I would like my own place. I’ve always wanted to work in hotels as opposed to restaurants, liking the idea of being involved in a whole spectrum of operations, juggling everything from breakfasts to fine dining and banqueting. The politics are also different. So, yes, one day, I would like to be in Steve Munkley’s position, running a five star operation. But, for now, I’m more than happy to play in someone else’s hotel.”
To enter this year’s Craft Guild of Chefs Graduate Awards, download and submit an application form online at www.craftguildofchefs.org, where potential graduates can also peruse a Q&A. For more information, call 020 8948 3870 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The deadline for this year’s entries is 30th April 2012 (chefs do not have to be members of the Craft Guild). Ingredients will be supplied (Chefs must bring own knives and small equipment) and assistance will be given to chefs with special needs.