The HRC team & International Salon Culinaire Project Director Andrew Pantelli, sat down with Gary Jones, Executive Chef at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons to discuss International Salon Culinare and the importance of competition cooking for chefs and offer some key tips for chefs thinking about entering competitions. Here is what he had to say…
Q: Tell us about your background at Le Manoir Aux Quat Saisons.
I’m Gary Jones, Executive Chef of The Le Manoir Aux Quat Saisons, which is Raymond Blanc’ baby in Oxfordshire. Fabulous place. The Manoir has been around for 35 years and I’ve seen 23/24 of those years coming up. It’s an amazing place; an amazing training ground for young chefs to raise their skills. It’s what Raymond’s philosophy is all about, it’s what the Manoir does and you’ve seen over time we’ve raised 5 Michelin star chefs, 5 or 6 Young Chefs of The Year and 3 or 4 National Chefs of The Year and lots of our guys compete in competitions which I think is essential growth of any chef.
Q: What do you love most about being a chef?
The food. From every single aspect of the food, from the selection of the seed into the gardens. In terms of the selection of the seed, how it grows, the soil it grows in. I think the knowledge of the seasons is quite essential and then what you do with that ingredient, how you treat that ingredient, the reverence, respect to the final plate, to the enjoyment of the guest. It’s the main thing I guess is giving pleasure through food, which is a fabulous thing.
Q: What do you see as the biggest changes in food going forward?
With Brexit on the horizon, for every product we grow ourselves, we import six, and we have empty fields so for me, youth, this is a massive opportunity to start putting things back into our fields. Not rapeseed subsidies for growing rapeseed because we are inundated with that. What do we import now, what can we grow?
Global warming, we are getting warmer, polytunnels what can we grow. How can we sustain ourselves and be a little more self-sufficient? That will get Britain back to where it needs to be, and I think we have to take those opportunities because they are varied and massive. So, in terms of food lets see what we can grow. If we don’t take these opportunities food prices will rise, restaurant prices will rise, customers will dwindle, business will faulter and all of those things, so great opportunities - let's grab them!
Q: What are your three pieces of advice to give to young chefs, what would they be?
You’ve got to be patient. Be patient with yourself, every day is not going to go perfectly. There is not a day goes by when I don’t make a mistake or Raymond Blanc doesn’t make a mistake or anybody. Why? Because we are human. Allow yourself to make a mistake and not crucify yourself or beat yourself up, because you haven’t got experience when you start off, you have got to allow time to gain that experience. When it comes to competitions, a lot of the guys that win eventually didn’t win the first time around and they come back stronger, because you learn more from a defeat than you do from a win.
If you are struggling, speak up. There is a lot of things about chefs bottling things in now and appearing to be strong. You know if you are struggling you have got to speak up to your senior guys in your kitchen, speak up and express that, don’t walk away from it.
Ask lots of questions, because the more you ask, the more you gain. And also taste everything and eat out when you can. When your budget allows, try and eat out as much as you can but taste every single thing in every single combination of everything single thing. From when it comes out of the garden to as you apply the heat process to see what that process does to flavour and taste because that’s the most essential thing. Thing is if it looks beautiful and it doesn’t taste of anything, you are wasting time so taste every single thing and understand the food.
Q: Why do you enter your team into competitions?
At the Manoir, we enter guys into competitions for a number of reasons, but the main one is to the see the growth and it's fabulous to see the acceleration and maturity it brings. If you give yourself constant steady pressure at something, it will improve you. You don’t want to give too much pressure but you have to give constant steady pressure and we’ve been in a situation where guys have really tested themselves. There’s the Graduate Awards which really sets a bar, then there is the Awards of Excellence and the Young Chef of the Year and The National Chef of the Year and Salon Culinaire and all of those are brilliant stepping stones for the guys.
You learn more about yourself, you will see more evolution of chefs, it's an accelerated evolution of the chef to compete against your peers, I think it’s a wonderful thing and it also creates friendships as well within the industry - I think it’s a brilliant thing. You can’t not learn something about yourself but also about the industry if you compete, which is a great thing and that is what I urge every kitchen should be doing. Putting guys through for the competitions is essential to the growth of that brigade.
Q: When recruiting chefs do you look for competition accolades on their CV’s?
So when we recruit, if guys have done a competition in their history then it tells me a lot. It tells me that they want to be better, they want to exceed what they are capable of and test themselves against their peers again. It shows that this person is serious about their work. It shows the professionalism and that they are serious and that they want to develop and those are the type of guys you want in your team that have done competitions and pushed themselves and given themselves steady pressure to evolve their skill level. So yeah, absolutely if I see that on a CV it intrigues me more and I want to know more about that guy and would like them in my brigade.
Q: As an executive chef how do you structure training for a competition?
I think it’s giving enough time, if you are going to do these things it can’t be last minute if you do them, you have got to do it well, don’t do them or do them well. So that’s the thing its structure, pace and allowing your time, again the competitor enough time to raise skills and be confident. You know they have got to go there with a certain about of confidence in themselves their own ability to go and have impact on the day.
Q: Do you think it’s also important for more experienced, seasoned chefs to take part in competitions?
In terms of the age groups competing, lots of youngsters do compete for sure, but also it's important for the senior guys to get involved as well. I was delighted that in National Chef of the Year this year we had people entering who have already earned Michelin stars which is a fabulous calibre to start with and when you see people like this entering you think "okay then, maybe I should give this a go because it is a fantastic title so to win those titles, to put yourself up against your peers and succeed and even evolve yourself, develop yourself is fantastic." So yeah, I think more senior chefs should be doing these things and we have seen recently that that is starting to happen and that’s a great thing.
Q: Any key pieces of advice for anyone considering entering a competition?
My general advice would be to anybody looking to enter a competition would be to go for it, have a go, enter yourself with the support of your chef, you have got to have some support there for sure, but you can't fail to lose. You don’t have to win the competition to gain anything if you enter yourself in a competition you will gain in so many ways so it’s really good for confidence, really good for evolving your own skills and seeing what other people are doing. You know you will learn so much more about yourself and the industry and everyone around you, so my advice is to go and give it a go.
If you are a chef and would like to the chance to compete at International Salon Culinaire in March 2020 you can find out more and apply here.
View the full interview with Gary Jones here.