The HRC team & International Salon Culinaire Project Director Andrew Pantelli, sat down with Adam Smith, Executive Chef at Coworth Park to discuss his experience competing at International Salon Culinare and some advice for young chefs looking to enter.
Q: Can you tell me about some of the competitions you’ve been involved in?
Competitions I think personally in my earlier days played quite a big part in my progression. I think I was encouraged a lot by the chefs that I worked for to be involved in competitions. My first couple that I did were an absolute disaster, but you learn and actually, I really enjoyed it. I think the thing for me at the beginning as well was actually because I didn’t do so well at the couple of the early ones, I was then more determined to go ahead and do what I had. Much of the success a little bit later – not later on but took a little bit of time. But they’re key part of being able to develop and understand yourself. It’s a different sort of pressure, there is people who can perform in a kitchen amazingly but if you put them in a competition it doesn’t work. And there’s other way round. There are people who perform amazing at competitions but as soon as you put them in the industry it’s the opposite. I think it’s finding that balance. They’re something that I have enjoyed in the past. There’s sometimes where I enjoy it more. I think time is key. I think it’s also important that people like myself, and other head chefs and executive chefs are getting people in the industry and giving them the opportunity and actually encouraging them to take part in it because it’s a key part of learning. You can take so much from a 20 minutes, half an hour competition. You can learn so much as a young cook coming into the industry that it can be a vital part of your progression.
Q: Do you remember the first time you competed at Hotelympia and how you got on?
I remember it vividly because it was my first competition. I believe it was a 20 minutes fish class and it was at the ExCel centre. I took a taxi from work to get there. Didn’t know where I was going, I think I must have been about 17, 18. As it started, people telling me “make sure you get everything out hot, and it’s cooked nicely”. And I did some really, really schoolboy errors. I put my plates under the Salamander was one of the first things I did. I remember doing a turbot dish with a lobster ravioli.
I was using a mandolin because I think I had marinated kohlrabi on there so I cut my finger first of all on the mandolin. Then I was making the pasta – I wrapped my finger up, put a glove on. As I poured the pasta out, I poured it out in the oil so there was a big flame that came up at the front of the stove. One of my sous chefs was chef de partie and they were watching me so they were all cheering me on and they’re like “Adam, your plate!”. I pick up my plate and it’s smoking hot from under the grill because it had been up there for too long. Blood from my hand did get on the plate. I ended up getting it out and got a bronze medal for it but I think it was just one of the most stressful. I’d love to watch it back now because I think it would make good TV! I learnt a lot from that and actually, that’s a story I tell all the young guys I work with now, who, when they’re going to competitions. Not that it doesn’t matter but you’ve got to do everything once for the first time and I think after that first time you can take massive learnings and go forward. I think actually, my next competition I got a gold best in class. That was solely because of the fear that I had installed into myself and the learnings I had taken in how to organise myself. The nerves obviously I think played a big part in the beginning but the more you do something the more comfortable you become with it and the less nervous you are.
Q: How has it helped your career progression?
I think taking part in competitions can help in lots of different ways. I think organisation is a really good one. It helps you to be organised. It helps you to understand how you work and have a bit of an understanding and flavour is key, I think. Some people sometimes get too worried about doing something different and I think I did this a lot in my younger days was trying to do something different because I thought that’s what people wanted to see virtually. Having now judged lots of competitions, what always wins is the one that tastes the best. That bit of sauce that’s a little bit out on a hot plate is negligible when something tastes amazing and that will always win through. The plate of food that looks presentable and tastes the best will always win hands down. I think that is something that is the biggest learning but also plays in your career. I think that works in a competition, a hotel, a restaurant, a pub or contract catering, whatever part of the industry you’re in, it’s about producing the best, tastiest piece of food that you can.
Q: What kind of competition do you like best?
Personally, I’ve always been more into the live cooking competitions. I have done a little bit of static work with the English national team but I’ve always been into live cooking because that’s what I do every day, that’s what I enjoy and that’s where I feel comfortable so that’s the sort of thing that I enjoy. I just enjoy the buzz of the competition like that pressure that you put yourself under for that period of time is a real adrenaline rush I think and that’s what I enjoy in it.
Q: Do you look for competition accolades on a CV when hiring?
When we’re recruiting, it wouldn’t be something that I’d actively go out and look for if someone has to have competitions on their CV but if someone has it, I think it’s a good sign that they’re dedicated and passionate. If someone’s putting in their own time and their own effort to put themselves out there to take part in competitions, I think that always binds well with their commitment. I think it’s good if I was interviewing someone and they’ve done that then for me, that’s a positive thing. It’s something that everybody that comes to join us I would encourage them if they want to do it. I would never force anybody to do it but it’s something that I would actively encourage. Each time of the year when different competitions come around it’s always something that we ask around. Especially the people that we feel have the ability and have the chance of enjoying it. There are some personalities that would never enjoy it because they don’t like to be in the spotlight and that’s absolutely fine, but we try and encourage people to take part in them.
Q: Do you find competitions to be a motivational tool for the whole kitchen?
A brigade, a kitchen is one big team, I think that is the success of any great restaurant or hotel. So when we have guys that take part in a competition and they do well, it’s a great boost for the morale of the kitchen and it’s a good thing for everyone. Not just that one person who’s on the right path but that person’s a reflection of what we do every day. And all the best kitchens and all the people who’ve done great in competitions generally they come from a great kitchen, a great stable. And I think that is a very positive thing for the rest of the team to be able to see and it might inspire them to take part in things in the future, so I think it is always a good thing for morale in the kitchen. It gives a new confidence which I think is a good thing.
Q: Why do you think there’s still room for static competitions and live competitions?
I feel that there has to be room for both static and live cooking competitions. Live cooking is something that I’ve always been more predominant with. I’ve dabbled very slightly in the static thing but it’s not my expertise. It’s a craft, it’s a real skill, it’s a real craftmanship and actually, the reason why I don’t do it a lot is because I can’t do it as good as what other people can. It’s a real, real skill to be able to do the static work well and I think we need as an industry to keep pushing that to make sure that we get young people again excited by it and get them involved and keep that live. It’d be such a shame if we lost that element of our industry. We need to keep pushing that forward and help people to get involved and I think it's one of those where if people are given the opportunity to do it and get excited by it then hopefully it can have a bit of a revival.
Q: What does winning mean to a young chef?
Winning for a young chef is a big thing. I learnt a lot from losing. I remember there was a couple of competitions where... I won’t mention names but some of them are still judges now and I remember in the pub after one of the competitions and having not won I think it was my second or third time I had done it and I burst into tears talking to them over a beer when I was about 18 or 19. But that holds a real, real significance to me and that drive to want to win. Competitions are very friendly things, they’re something to be excited about but also, you want to prove that you’re better than the other people on that day in that room. I think there’s that feeling for that one day that you were better than everybody else that was there is a great thing and can build confidence. I think it’s very important to always be humble but also you have to have confidence in what you’re doing in yourself. Confidence breeds more confidence so if you start to win things and you get more confidence in yourself, the chances are you’re going to have a better chance in your next one to win again.
Q: Is there any particular type of people in your team you would push to enter competitions or is it anyone?
I would encourage anybody to enter a competition, I think. In this industry there’s so many competitions of different shapes, structures and sizes that I think there is something for everybody who wants to be part of it. Like I said, I think it’s important in anything that that person wants to do it because if they don’t, you can’t force somebody, and they can never be 100% committed. But I think there is something for everybody, it’s just finding the right thing for them.
Q: How do you structure the training for chefs who’s about to enter a competition?
If one of the guys in my team was to enter a competition, I tend to work with him myself. I think it’s a balancing act. Again, I think it’s important that person wants it, that person has to commit, that person has to be the driving force. It would never work if it was me driving that person to do it. That person themselves have to put themselves forward, that person has to come up with the ideas. I will always be there to help them, support them, give them advice on what they’ve done, if they need support logistically, getting there on the day if we can help with stuff like that. Or being there on the day to help mentor them or as they’re going through the training. But again, that person who’s taking part has to own a bit of it. They have to want to do it, they have to put the effort it. And if you don’t put the effort in, you’re never going to succeed. It’s not an easy thing because you’re competing against a number of other people who have given up their own time, who have put the extra effort in, who have done the extra things. I’m a great believer that hard work will always pay off, so it has to be a balancing act.
Q: What are the classic errors that chefs make in competitions?
One of the classical errors that people make and again, very cliché, is that people don’t taste what they’re cooking. They don’t taste, they don’t season things. People get into a panic and they’re too busy worrying about this ‘swipe right’, all these dots of puree when you actually just need to taste your food. Make sure if you’re cooking something that needs to be in salted water, it needs the water seasoned. And these are things that are basic cooking techniques that you do everyday in the kitchen and wouldn’t think twice about it. Under that different pressure in a competition, people forget it very quickly. I think it’s as simple as that: taste and season it.
Q: What are your 3 key tips for people entering Salon Culinaire next year?
Find the right class for you, find something you’re excited about, find something that you feel challenged by but also comfortable to do. I think try to be yourself, don’t try to do something that you’ve never done before, don’t try to be wacky at it. If you’re working at a great hotel, great restaurant, great pub, play to your strengths. Do what you do every day and do well. Put your own twist on it. Make it yourself, you don’t want to copy something straight out of there but play to what you’re strong at and then that would help you succeed. I think the third one and probably the toughest one is to stay calm and just to think about it and think clearly. That pressure on the day, especially if it’s your first time. I think that pressure can sometimes get the better of you and it did of me, and I think it will with people in the future, but I think controlling yourself quite often on the day is the biggest challenge. But I think that also comes with experience, until you’ve done it, you just don’t know.
Q: What changes do you think should be made to competitions in the future?
I think there are competitions for everybody. I think as an industry we need to make them into something that’s more accessible. Although that person taking part in it has to be dedicated and has to want to put the effort in, sometimes we make it very difficult for that to happen. Whether it be time, whether it was supporting them to get there, whether it be once you get there knowing where to go. It sounds trivial but it’s quite a daunting thing when you turn up there for the first time, you’re on your own, you’ve got your big box of ingredients, you’ve got your bag on your back, you’ve got your knife under your arm and you don’t know where you’re going. I think as an industry, from the organisers of the competition to the chefs back at the hotel and that where the people are working at restaurants has to try and support and encourage it. Support it in ways of giving people the time and giving them the support of what they can to succeed. We know from history and in a lot of competitions, the same name and the same places pop up of winning all the time and that’s because these places have got that right already. We just need more of them.
Q: Why should chefs come to HRC next year?
For me, I’m still very young but have been around for a while in the competition scene. I think it’s an important part of the industry. It has been for many, many years. For myself, coming through college and listen to lecturers and listen to older people in the industry who talk about winning medals back in the 70s, 80s, back in time gone by. I think it’s an important part to keep alive. I love classics so I love the historical part of cooking and I think it’s a real shame if something like HRC was to disappear, so I think we all need to support it. And also, it’s a great networking event. There’s always lots of people there to talk with. It’s great to support young talent. We’re sitting here talking about everybody struggling with recruitment. Well, where better to recruit to just network with young people. You’ll find or come across people or they’ll come across you who give them opportunities in the future when they’re looking for the next opportunity and think “oh I met so and so at Hotelympia” or “I follow them on Twitter or Instagram” or got their business card or whatever. So, I think it can be a real tool, a real handy tool for people to go and just take part and support the actual show itself but also help you as an individual, as a chef and as a team.
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 Adam Smith here.