Food critic Richard McComb was ringside as Birmingham chef Adam Bennett, of Simpsons, went up against the continent's heavyweights at the Bocuse D'Or cookery contest.
An extraordinary thing happened inside the cauldron of Hall 5 at Brussels Expo late on Wednesday, March 21, 2012.
Culinary history will record that a Birmingham chef, at his first tilt, was judged to have cooked the best meat dish in Europe.
Adam Bennett’s truffled blue legged chicken with mushrooms and tarragon trumped the apparently untouchable Scandinavians and the Spanish, the darlings of modern gastronomy. France, the motherland of classic cuisine, was knocked into a chef’s cocked hat.
It is difficult to over-state the importance of Bennett’s triumphant efforts at the European qualifier of the Bocuse D’Or, the world’s biggest and most prestigious chefs’ competition. Ten years ago – hell, who am I kidding? a couple of years ago – it would have been unthinkable for a Birmingham-based chef to represent the UK at the catering industry’s premier global contest.
If you said Bennett would finish 6th in Europe, qualify for the world final and pick up the prize for the best meat course along the way you would have been led to the nearest professional kitchen’s walk-in freezer, told to pull yourself together and shut inside. Yet that is what Bennett, head chef at Simpsons in Edgbaston, pulled off. He kept a cool head amid the mayhem and madness of the noisiest cooking competition imaginable, battling against 19 other top chefs in a televised five-and-a-half hour cook off in front of a live, partisan audience. The atmosphere was a bewildering mix of World Cup-style euphoria, Eurovision Song Contest kitsch and X Factor hysteria.
Because the Bocuse D’Or is cooking, but not as we know it.
Ten chefs competed on Day One in Brussels, the other 10 on Day Two, launched into action at 10-minute intervals. Bennett cooked on the first day of the event. He was sandwiched between the Swedish and Dutch representatives in kitchen number nine and came under starter’s orders at 11.20am.
Around this time, the show’s compere, American Angela May, doing her best to whoop up the audience, bellowed: “Let me hear you all make some noise for ICE-land!” Iceland, one of the dark horses, had already kicked off first.
May walked along the cooking stations, interviewing the national team coaches, keeping for the most part remarkably cool. One of her few slip ups came when she admired the preliminary work in the French kitchen. “It think their theme this year is eccentric,” she told the hall. May checked her notes. “Oh, no, that’s CON-centric.”
At 12.20pm, May swooped on the UK kitchen, which proudly displayed the logo for Coventry City FC. Bennett, who is clearly an eternal optimist, was working on his roulade of chicken as the presenter looked on in quasi-sexual awe.
“It’s beautiful... the way he does that. It’s so uniform,” purred May, who looks like a catwalk model but can deploy the vocal dexterity of a drill sergeant.
“He is so deft with his hands. Look how easily he does it.”
As a TV camera zoomed down on Bennett’s haute cuisine sausages, transmitting the dramatic pictures on to the big screen, Nick Vadis, the UK coach, said: “No pressure, Adam.”
Relaxing into a forced smile, Bennett quipped: “It’s the first time I’ve done this.”
What the chef didn’t disclose was that he had left the baby leeks for his chicken course in the fridge at Simpsons. It was left to the restaurant’s executive chef, Luke Tipping, to deliver them on the morning of the competition after hopping on a dawn Eurostar service.
“Apparently, they couldn’t find any baby leeks in Brussels,” said Tipping as he joined Simpsons owner Andreas Antona and fellow UK supporters in the spectators’ grandstand.
What would have happened if the vegetables hadn’t arrived? “I suppose they’d have had to use ordinary leeks,” said Tipping. Unthinkable.
Vadis, executive chef for Compass Group, is one of the UK team’s key Mr Fix-Its, helping to get equipment and kit sponsors. On the day of the contest, it is his job to keep Bennett on track, offer encouragement and shield the chef from idiots like me.
“Look at her. She’s just nicked one of the menu cards,” said Vadis, spotting a light-fingered member of the foreign press corp raid Bennett’s front counter.
Vadis, UK coach for three years, is allowed to offer vocal support but is powerless to help in a hands-on role. He said: “It is like waiting to have a baby and it doesn’t get any easier. I had butterflies this morning because I feel for them.”
The UK has its own national chef of the year competitions but Vadis said there was nothing to compare with the pressures of the Bocuse D’Or.
“It is about staying ahead of the curve. This contest has morphed into something it was probably never meant to be. It’s enormous,” said Vadis, who always has an eye on the clock.
The biennial Bocuse D’Or, named after legendary French chef Paul Bocuse, was first held in 1987. The final, attracting 24 countries, is always held in the three Michelin star chef’s home city of Lyon.
Twelve countries go through from Europe, four from Asia, three from Latin America (Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico have already qualified), and one each from the USA, Canada and Australia. There are also two wild cards.
Surprisingly, Spain failed to qualify and there was speculation that a nation lauded for famous restaurants such as El Bulli and El Celler de Can Roca might be handed one of the “get-out-of-jail” cards. Germany, who also flopped, will probably miss out on the basis that it would be unseemly to offer backdoor entry to two European countries.
Norway, which took bronze in the world Bocuse D’Or 2011, won the European qualifier in Brussels, which was held as part of the city’s Brusselicious food festival.
The irrepressible Nordic chefs took the top three positions in 2011 and the success was repeated at the Brussels Expo with Sweden and Denmark finishing second and third behind Norway. When it comes to the Bocuse D’Or, chefs from the land of ice and snow are the modern masters.
The question now is can Bennett break the Nordic domination of the contest and snatch a podium finish in Lyon in January? That really would be the stuff of culinary dreams but, as he showed in Brussels, Bennett is capable of sublime cooking.
All the competitors had to create two dishes (meat and fish) for presentation on a platter to the judges. The main ingredients were specified (for Brussels, it was Label Rouge certified blue foot chickens and seven fillets of sole with 1kg of brown shrimp) but the chefs were given free rein with their eye-popping garnishes.
I tried both Bennett’s dishes at his training kitchen at University College Birmingham. I thought the fish, a ballotine of Dover sole, brown shrimps and Cornish lobster was good, but the chicken was in another league.
It accentuates classic flavours courtesy of a central roulade of chicken, a casserole of chicken, cocks combs, veal sweetbreads, morels and barley (totally divine), an asparagus royale with celeriac, a mosaic of leek and smoked quail egg, the mother-of-all foie gras boudins with a Maury wine jelly and a chicken jus with vin jaune and morels.
If he decided to cook it at Simpsons, for a special event, make sure you get a ticket.
Bennett, aged 44, was overwhelmed to take the special prize for the meat course. He said: “I’ve only been doing this for a few months. The object was to qualify and do it in some style.
Getting the best meat dish was the cherry on top. It makes the whole team feel good, which is important. This is very much a team effort. There are all the people at the food college and the people at Simpsons. A lot of people are touched by this.”
Bennett paid tribute to the work of his commis chef, Kristian Curtis, aged 21, who works alongside him at Simpsons. Taking part in Brussels had given them confidence as a team and the motivation to move on to the next development phase, he said.
Bennett will have to devise, and learn to perfect, a totally new menu once the specifications and main ingredients for the Lyon final are announced, probably in June/July.
In the meantime, the UK team will be seeking fund-raising and sponsorship opportunities for Lyon, which happens to be twinned with Birmingham.
An honourable finish, let alone triumph, will require a large investment of time and money. Ideally, Bennett would like six months out of the kitchen to concentrate, which is seen as a bare minimum by the Nordic hotshots, but is aware of the pressures at a successful business like Simpsons.
The cost of ingredients gives the bid for 2013 Bocuse D’Or glory a financial perspective. The truffle used by Bennett in Brussels to decorate and inform the flavours of his smoked quail eggs cost £450. “We used celeriac until we got to the final,” he said.
? Next page: The Verdict and the 12 finalists
Charles Banks, director of global food trends agency The Food People (www.thefoodpeople.co.uk), gives his verdict on Adam Bennett’s dishes for Brussels:
“I thought Adam’s approach was a unique one. He opted to use classic preparations such as ballotines, mousses, jellies and casseroles but fused these with ingredients, techniques and a presentation style that reflects modern culinary trends.
“Trends are brought to life through both the meat and fish platters. Adam brings UK local sourcing to life through use of Dover sole and Cornish lobster in the fish dish.
“Seaweeds are something we are seeing more of and Adam uses it in his seaweed butter to accompany his salpicon of shellfish. Adam’s use of parsley root and cocks combs also reflects a move to maximising ingredients and carcass utilisation.
“Adam also used flowers as ingredients and garnishing in both dishes. Fresh flowers are very much en vogue, both as a traditional renaissance and also the “natural nature” influence from Scandinavia.
“Finally, Adam used a smoked quail egg as garnish on his meat platter. Apart from his unique presentation, the use of smoke as a flavour is popular among chefs, which was further brought to life by the use of smoke in a number of other Bocuse d’Or entries.
“Adam’s platter presentation had soft sweeping lines connecting the elements of the dish and a use of light, bright contrasting colours, all of which were simple and uncomplicated and very pleasing to the eye. In summary, a fusion of cutting-edge and classical elements – something that is not easy to do well.”
The 12 qualifiers from the Bocuse D’Or Europe in rank order:
1. Norway - Orjan Johannessen
2. Sweden – Adam Dahlberg
3. Denmark - Jeppe Foldager
4. France – Thibaut Ruggeri
5. Iceland – Sigurdur Haraldsson
6. United Kingdom – Adam Bennet
7. Swizterland - Teo Chiaravalloti
8. Belgium - Robrecht Wissels
9. Hungary - Tamas Szeli
10. Finland - Mika Palonen
11. Estonia - Heidy Pinnak
12. Netherlands – Martin Ruissaard