England recently returned from the World Culinary Olympics in Germany with 10 awards, including a first ever Gold in the team event. It consisted of a 110-cover hot kitchen challenge, where each team prepared a three-course meal focusing on their national specialist food. England coach, Nick Vadis, tells FEJ what it took to finish top of the tree.
You’ve been involved in six Culinary Olympics dating back to 1996. What has been the biggest change over the years?
There is a lot more emphasis now on sustainability. Waste is a huge topic at the moment because cookery competitions have been criticised in the past about where all the waste goes. To give you an example, we had something like four or five bins in the kitchen this time, and everything had to be separated and segmented, and they are checked. 40% of the overall marks is about hygiene, sustainability, waste and working practices now. You can lose marks just by going into the kitchen and putting stuff on the floor rather than raising it. So many teams walk in and put everything down, then start to decant it into fridges; you lose marks for that. Equipment obviously changes as well. Every four years you’ll see new innovation in equipment and new innovations in sustainable technology.
In terms of the preparation and planning, how often did you get together as a team before you travelled out to Germany?
You would like to get everyone together regularly, but the trouble is like any team from the industry they all come from different areas of the industry. So getting a group of 10 people together regularly is hard. WhatsApp played a massive part in it, though. It enabled the team to talk constantly amongst themselves and post pictures, and I think that was a massive plus. I wasn’t on that communication platform before but I am sold on it now!
And how often did you get to cook the dishes?
We probably got together about five or six times before we went. We did a charity dinner for 22 people at Cambridge University, which was handy, although you have to remember that these dinners probably cost in excess of £3,000 in ingredients. So you need to find that money every time you do it and you need to have enough people to feed. We then took part in the Battle of the Dragon competition, which we won, and we also did a sponsor’s dinner at a Restaurant Associates site, which Michel Roux attended with his wife. That one was the final run-through and then the next time we did the dishes was in Germany.
Did the dishes change during the preparation stage?
They evolved between each dinner. Any dish evolves. If you look at the one at the first dinner to the finished dinner in Germany, they weren’t poles apart but they were different.
If you test the dishes at different events, presumably you are cooking on different equipment each time. How much of a challenge is that?
It can be a challenge. At the first dinner in Cambridge we were cooking on gas and for the Battle of the Dragon we were working on what I would call a mobile kitchen, a bit like Les Parade des Chefs. The third time we cooked on electric and gas, and then when we went into the competition we cooked on induction!
WhatsApp enabled the team to talk constantly amongst themselves and post pictures, and I think that was a massive plus”
You coached the team. What did that involve?
Coaching the team is all about making things happen, so I am the guy who will advise the team on the dishes, criticise, over-analyse, challenge them, and also I am the guy that will find sponsorship and organise the itinerary. I made sure they got the planes and trains! I wanted the 10 guys just to cook and not to have worry about anything else. During the cooking the coaches are only allowed to spectate so I had to step back and stand there like a father who is waiting for his kids to pass an exam! It is the worst thing in the world!
Did you feel like the team stood a good chance of victory before you went out there?
I knew we had three good dishes and I knew we stood a chance, but it is whether it all comes together on the day. At the end of the day, it is a cookery competition, and they always say that you are only as good as your last meal. We had a couple of little wobbles and there were a couple of little things that didn’t work out quite right. We were smoking the eels for the starter in a smoker but we had only ever smoked a couple. What we didn’t take into account was that if you put 12 in it tasks longer! So we had planned on two hours for smoking eels and it worked out nearly three-and-a-half hours, which can throw your times out. But the guys still got it out.
How did the team overcome that?
You have got a mental plan in your head, you start doing other jobs. The key thing about the chefs in the national team is that they are at the top of their game, they work as a team and they can think on their feet. You don’t get in the English team by any other reason other than you have been selected because you are good at what you do. It is the best guys and you pick the right people to do the job that is required. There are quite a few disciplines and you have to have a specialist in each of those areas to deliver.
Finalists are tasked with cooking dishes from their own country. How did that play out?
It is generally good to play on Britishness, and seasonality has been a very strong theme. But it is very hard sometimes when you bring 32 nations together — everything is in season somewhere! The scallops we used were hand-dived in Scotland and they were by provided by Jimmy Buchan, who was on the BBC programme Trawlermen. He supplies our Restaurant Associates business in Scotland and ESS, and he drove the scallops over personally from Scotland, giving us updates every day. He sent us pictures of the scallops being collected from the bed and the lochs they came from, so I was able to keep the boys updated until the day he arrived in a temperature-controlled van to deliver them. To me that is a really strong story because it is all great ingredients and having support like that is invaluable, so Jimmy played a big part in ensuring the starter as right. We also sent a chef to an eel company to learn how to smoke the eels — it is not something we do every day in Compass or most other places for that matter. The meat came over from Aubrey Allen and was couriered over the day before so everything was as fresh as we could get it. That makes a massive difference.
The starter, main and dessert that won gold for Team England:
You mentioned you had to cook on induction in the final. Did you know in advance what sort of kitchen set-up you were walking into?
Yeah, we were given a lay-out of the kitchen and a digitally-created plan, so we knew what we are going into. So we knew what space we had and what kit was in there. I am all induction here, so we took a lot of pans from here and I bought a few extra ones which have now gone back into the kitchen. Chefs work on various different things and most know of induction and how it operates, so they don’t generally have a problem with it nowadays.
What were the most important items of equipment in the kitchen?
Refrigeration was important, but you only get one fridge. We used Scanboxes and they were a massive plus for us. We use them in our business, especially offshore, and Scanbox UK has been really supportive. We wheeled three of them into the kitchen: one that was all cold, one that was hot and then we had one that was split hot and cold. The great thing is they are single plug; there is no three-phase or anything like that.
Was it stressful?
Of course it is stressful — massively stressful. It is emotional, it is stressful, it is tiring, but all those emotions come out when you are tired, don’t they. The camaraderie was fantastic.