The HRC team & International Salon Culinaire Project Director Andrew Pantelli, sat down with Ruth Hansom, Head Chef at Pomona's to discuss her experience competing at International Salon Culinare and why young chefs should enter.
Q: Can you tell us about your background at Pomona's?
I’m Ruth, I’m currently at Pomona's. I started the industry through a competition called Future Chef which is for under 16s so there’s a school heats, local heats, regional heats and the national final. I got through to the national final and at that point I still wanted to be a doctor and cooking was a bit of a hobby. Frederick Forster was one of the judges and at the end of the day gave me a business card and said, “if you ever move to London, give me a call” and I think that really resonated with me. So I did just that, found a flat on gumtree, applied for Westminster, told my mum I was leaving and she was like “okay, probably will be back in a couple of weeks so I’ll let you go” but it wasn’t, so I gave him a call and he gave me a job the next day working evenings and weekends around college. From then I moved to The Ritz. I started my work academy diploma and stayed there for a couple of years, so it was 5 years in total. Since then, I’ve done quite a few competitions in National Chef, World Skills being kind of one of the biggest ones, obviously Hotelympia, Wessex Salon throughout the year as well just to kind of keep it busy. And then did Million Pound Menu so I decided to leave The Ritz to do a bit more of my own style of cooking, still with a lot of things that I learnt from the Ritz. You learn everything there, it’s insane foundation.
Q: What do you love most about being a chef?
I love the most being a chef that you learn something new every day. Obviously, the food side of things, we’re always eating. But you learn something new every day. We’re always learning from different people. It’s kind of creating like a family and there’s chefs that know each other across the world and you’ve always worked with somebody who’s worked with somebody. But from that, people do tend to travel and then bring it back so whenever you meet somebody and do competitions as well, you learn crazy new techniques that you’d never think of doing that have come from different parts of the world but you actually don’t have to travel. You can just stay here and let everyone do it.
Q: What do you foresee to be the biggest changes in food in the future?
I think the biggest changes in food will probably be, well, it’s starting already we’re coming back to more classical things. We went very casual, very relaxed, a lot of high street chains but we are slowly coming back to those classical things, stepping away from gastronomy. I mean it’s not changes – coming back from what was.
Q: What are the biggest challenges for chefs today?
The biggest challenges for head chef are definitely finding other chefs. I think it’s something that we need to address as a whole industry that we’re not very appealing to young people anymore because of the hours they’ve got to work in, the conditions they’ve got to work in. It is changing but it’s very slow and obviously that is why not many people stay in the industry, so we need to have more incentives, we need to be more flexible, especially around female chefs. For example, when I did future chef and continued to supporting it throughout the years, there’s always like 80% of them are female but then you step up to young national chef which is only like a couple of years, that percentage drops and ends up being like 10%. There’s somewhere in that gap in where you finish school to when you go to college where people are thinking “actually no I don’t want to do this anymore”. Whether it’s because it becomes hard or they look at it and think “right, I can’t do this and have a family”, I don’t know but there’s something there.
Q: Where do you look for inspiration in your dishes?
Inspiration I think you get from anywhere so like chefs that you work with massively. Instagram is a massive one now because you can kind of be inside of any restaurant in the world and see the dishes they’re doing. Obviously going out to eat is a big one. Books, classical books. So everywhere, it’s all around.
Q: What are your 3 pieces of advice for young chefs entering the industry?
It’s going to be hard work. I think it’s really glamorised and kind of programs and things which is something we’ve done to ourselves. It is going to be hard work, but it is so, so rewarding. At the end of the day, even just seeing the guest smile and having the guest come to you and say, “that was delicious”, at the end of the day that’s why we’re here. It’s an industry that’s going to be tough but just stick it out, ask lots of questions, that’s a big one, and be a sponge. Always write everything down because you’re never going to remember every single thing. I’ve got scrapbooks at home with so much random stuff. Don’t be scared to ask people questions.
Q: Can you just clarify the competitions you’ve entered personally?
So I started out with Future Chef, it’s not really chef-y but it does kind of introduce you to the industry and Michelin star judges and things and at that age everything is like wow. From then I did Master Chefs of Great Britain’s Young Chef of the Year, so I won that in 2013 and 2014. From that, Young National Chef of the Year which I did four times before I finally won. Throughout I did Wessex Salon, so the small ones are really important as well.
Q: How has entering the Salon and competition in general helped progress your career?
I think competitions definitely help progress your career. One, your confidence which is a big thing in the kitchen. As kind of young chefs, you are sometimes timid because there are big characters in the kitchen and for the first couple of years you are quite… so going into competitions actually gets you used to being in that environment. Also, you make lots of friends which is good. Being a chef you’re generally quite isolated from social groups and if you’re friends with other chefs that does help so you’ve got work plans. And then briefs. So, every time you get given a brief for a competition, it might be something new. I remember the graduate awards I got given and had to do something with a whole leg of lamb. I thought “I haven’t bloody done that before” so it pushes you to go out and learn new things and not things that you’re doing everyday so obvious broaden your skill set.
Q: Which competitions do you like best?
I like different competitions for different reasons so as I said, the little short ones are good to test your little skills. When I was at college especially, am I on par with my peers at knife skills, at fish filleting or do I need to work on that. It helps you to set things. But then obviously the bigger ones, it’s nice for you as a young chef to be able to do your own menu when you’re in a restaurant where you’re not really cooking your own food, you’re always cooking someone else’s and to actually test the flavours that you put together and whether you can do it by yourself and not within a team.
Q: Do you think there’s still room for static competitions as well as the live competitions in today’s industry?
I think there is still room for static competitions. Obviously how things look is very important. It’s the time I think for a lot of restaurants is really difficult. If you got to the contract catering side, they do have a lot more entries and the one big thing is the time. I went to one, the culinary Olympics in Germany to help with their start host. And you’re doing these things overnight. You’re there kind of at 2/3 o’clock in the morning dipping them ready to take to the show. You’re not going to be able to do that if you’ve been kind of working at the restaurant for 8am to 11pm.
Q: Do you look at competition accolades on a chef’s CV when you’re hiring?
I don’t really look for accolades. For me, personally I like to hire a lot of junior chefs. You can kind of help them see their career path. If you hire lots of people who are already up there, you’re going to struggle to keep them because you can’t give them a career path. If they’ve got them then that’s great and obviously, they know what they’re doing but for me personally I prefer to hire people from a bit lower down.
Q: Why do you think competitions are a motivational tool for the whole kitchen?
I think the whole team behind the kitchen if someone enters a competition, they get behind them and it’s a really nice feeling that they will give you a dish to taste and the run up to the competition and the whole kitchen gets in and tasting it. You do then get a lot of “Oh I would do this…” and you’re like “I don’t know what to do!” but it is nice for everyone to kind of come together and then celebrate if there’s success.
Q: What does winning gold mean to you?
Well, I’m very competitive so winning a gold is kind of the only thing I would accept. If it wasn’t gold I would be in a bit of a sulk for a few days. But again, if it’s not, it does give you that determination to go back again and just constantly keep improving.
Q: When one of your team is entering the competition, how do you structure the training for them?
Obviously if somebody enters from my team, I do help them. You have to be careful that you’re not dictating what they’re doing so it’s very hard. You have to help them with the whole process of entering if they’ve not done it before, somewhere along the lines and help them fill out entry format, make sure they’re doing time plans correctly. World Skills was probably the most clinical competition I’ve done but I always take the things that I learnt there so you do have your bins, your waste, your recycle. You never put your cloth on your side because if you bend down, it’s going to touch the floor and you get points deducted. It sounds super, super crazy but these are the kind of things that people look for and then if you go to competition in the UK with all these little bits of knowledge it just sets you above. So, we’ll come in before or after their shift and do at least 2 run throughs. Not too many I think if you do too many run throughs, you get too confident and then when you go on the day and you don’t have that adrenaline kind of deed.
Q: What are the classic errors chefs make in competitions?
Doing too much. You want to go and blow people away, so you think of all these crazy things and it ends up being too much. The judges say at the end of the day that they just want some good cooking, just something super simple, which is a lot I learnt as a young chef. I think the first year I did it, I tried to do way too much and so then kind of stripped it back and then actually won with the last year I did it which had like five elements on the main plate.
Q: How would you suggest chefs to choose the right competition to enter?
I think that you can kind of obviously get advice from chefs who have competed before but if you go onto websites such as the Craft Guild, if you go onto the competition list and you look through the competitions there is obviously a gradual so it does start with the Future Chef, and goes onto Wessex. I think if you just follow their list and order that it gives you on that website is a good one. All the way down to National Chef.
Q: What would be your key tips for people competing in International Salon Culinaire next year?
A key tip would be to be prepared. Obviously, you’re not in a proper kitchen, it’s a pop-up kind of thing so you need to be prepared, take everything, write a checklist so you’re packing it the day before and you’ve ticked everything off. Things that you can think about prior instead of when you get there, do all of it. There will be people walking around so maybe practice in a noisy environment. Don’t practice somewhere where you can hear a pin drop because it’s not going to be like that.
Q: Why should chefs attend HRC?
I think chefs should attend HRC because you get massive, massive contacts from it. If you compete there, it’s obviously a great grounding to put onto your CV but it’s a good thing to have. It boosts your confidence if you win. There’s a lot of competition to enter so you can enter more than one. It’s not a “if I go for this day or go for a half an hour competition and if I don’t get it, I don’t get it.” You can try lots of different things. There’s also lots of stands, lots of things going on. There’s master classes you can go watch, talks from Michelin star chefs so it’s a great day. It’s not just a competition, it’s a whole rounder.
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 Ruth Hansom here.