Birmingham chef Adam Bennett talks to food critic Richard McComb about taking on the toughest challenge in global gastronomy.
If you have trouble sleeping at night before hosting a dinner party, spare a thought for Adam Bennett, head chef at Simpsons in Birmingham.
Bennett has been selected to represent the UK at the Bocuse D’Or, unquestionably the biggest cookery competition in the world. He will be going into battle against the finest fingers, palates and brains in the gastronomic stratosphere.
Is he scared? Unfortunately, it’s a lose-lose scenario. Because if Bennett wasn’t scared, he’d have to be mad.
“I feel the pressure but it is interesting to see what that pressure does to you. It is like sport. The ultimate pressure brings out the ultimate performance hopefully,” says Bennett.
The sporting reference is well made for the Bocuse D’Or is the Olympics of haute cuisine – with a smattering of the Oscars thrown in for good measure.
Competitors are tested for creativity, technical finesse, presentation and the exquisite taste of their food in a nerve-shredding cook-off against the clock.
The bi-annual competition, founded by the legendary Paul Bocuse in 1987, takes place in the French chef’s home city of Lyon at the massive Sirha (Salon International de la Restauration, de l’Hotellerie et de l’Alimentation) show. It is judged by the elite of the elite, three-star Michelin chefs such as Thomas Keller.
The next contest sees 24 of the world’s top chefs go head to head in January 2013.
But first for Bennett is the small question of the European qualifier, which takes place in Brussels next March. That’s less than five months away and the eliminator will be tough, featuring the top three (all Scandinavian) countries from the last Bocuse D’Or final.
Bennett, aged 44, who was “born, bred and buttered” in Coventry, was selected as the UK entry by the Academy of Culinary Arts after a final four-hour cook-off against Martin Hollis, resort kitchen manager at Gleneagles hotel in Scotland. This was preceded by another cook-off at The Ritz.
Bennett and Hollis were judged on a saddle of lamb stuffed with a mousse of foie gras and had to serve the dish with three garnishes of their choice.
Bennett shows me some pictures of his winning platter, consisting of six portions of lamb. This is extreme cooking, cooking as high art, insanely intricate and requiring a masterly technical ability. And the food has got to taste as good as it looks, arguably better.
To give an indication of the level of detail, these were Bennett’s garnishes for the UK cook-off: a beetroot fondant with hazelnuts and a warm beetroot jelly; artichoke heart with lettuce and warm pea mousse; and a foie gras bon bon with morels and butternut squash. The dish looks utterly exquisite, but that goes with the Bocuse D’Or territory.
It’s not a bad achievement for a lad who did a City and Guilds in craft catering at Henley College, Coventry.
Bennett recalls how he fell in love with fresh produce when he accompanied his grandfather to his allotment. “I can still smell the tomato vines in his greenhouse,” says the chef. “I think it was my first step to getting interested in produce.
“That led to wanting to work with food.”
The country house circuit was booming in the 80s and Bennett joined The Ettington Chase in Warwickshire. But it was as a 21-year-old that his eyes were opened when he joined The Dorchester. Bennett maintains the range of catering outlets at a five-star hotel offers unbeatable training for a young chef.
He went on to work at Warwickshire’s Mallory Court and Chapel House Hotel, admitting that stayed too long at the latter.
He eventually decided to give himself a “kick up the backside” and did a series of stages at Michelin-star big-hitters such as Gordon Ramsay in Royal Hospital Road and Guy Lassausaie in Chasselay, France.
Bennett then stepped into the sous chef shoes vacated by Glynn Purnell at Simpsons, then in Kenilworth, and was subsequently appointed head chef, under executive chef Luke Tipping, when Simpsons decamped to Edgbaston and continued its knack of picking up Michelin stars.
It is down to the Simpsons connection that Bennett finds himself taking on the biggest challenge of his career.
Earlier this year, the restaurant’s owner, Andreas Antona, was returning from the Bocuse D’Or in Lyon, in which the UK finished 13th, when he found himself sitting on a plane next to Brian Turner, president of the Academy of Culinary Arts. Turner said he was looking for candidates for the 2013 competition.
“I’ve got the man for that,” said Antona. All he had to do know now was broach the subject with his head chef.
Bennett says: “He told me when he got back from Lyon but I thought he was joking at first. I didn’t know much about the competition. I didn’t think I would ever have a go at it. I knew it was a very big deal and renowned as the biggest chef competition there is.
“I started to find a few things out and the more I found out the more daunting it looked. But I think it is good to do things that scare you.
“This is probably the scariest thing I have ever done. But I think it brings out the best in you and focuses the mind.”
Bennett’s sous chef for Brussels, and hopefully Lyon, has yet to be announced. Chefs are only allowed one assistant who must be aged under 22.
The partnership is crucial as the two chefs will only have five hours and 35 minutes to prepare a fish platter and a meat platter, both comprising 14 portions. For Brussels, the chefs must use fillet of sole and shrimps and the meat will be French poulet de Bresse. Everything else is a blank canvas.
Scandinavian countries, which have dominated the competition in recent years, invest heavily in their Bocuse D’Or chefs, supplying them with the best equipment and giving them time away from their kitchens to practise, practise and practise.
The competition is a matter of national honour and brings huge benefits to the restaurant sector in the winning country.
Let’s hope the UK, and most significantly sponsors, get behind Bennett’s tilt at the world crown.
Bon chance, Chef.