A man for the Quat' Saisons : FOOD & DRINK

A house-husband from Newcastle was the winner of a frenzied cook-off between amateur chefs. His prize? A year's hard toil at Raymond Blanc's restaurant. Michael Bateman reports
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The Independent Culture
AT THE age of 27, Andrew Brown has won a glittering prize - 12 months' hard labour in one of the most strenuous restaurant kitchens in Great Britain, working for the small salary of the most junior chef. He was winner of the first Raymond Blanc Sc holarship, which was open to anyone contemplating trading in their present career for one in the restaurant business.

Andrew was one of 500 people who applied. Some of them are earning pots of money in their current jobs. Others have made the break already to pursue a course at catering college. All were intent on exchanging unfulfilling lives in banks and businesses, in consultancy and computing, to satisfy a dream: to run their own a little restaurant in the country somewhere - with roses trailing over the porch, probably.

So it was that eight contenders turned up for a hectic cook-off in the kitchens of Raymond Blanc's elegant hotel and restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, at Great Milton, near Oxford. Raymond Blanc never has any difficulty getting staff for his kitchens. There's always a long waiting list of young lads (it's mainly lads) who hope to perfect their CVs and follow in the steps of other Blanc trainees who have gone on to open restaurants of their own. So what is going on in Monsieur Blanc's mind?

He himself is self-taught, he explains. After training as a graphic designer, he felt he was stumbling along the wrong career path. Then, at 27, the same age as Andrew Brown, during a spell as a waiter he stepped into the breach when the chef fell ill. He found his true vocation and now, he says, would like others to have a chance to enjoy similar self-fulfilment.

Self-fulfilment, or a year on the treadmill? Writer Matthew Fort once worked for a week unpaid in this kitchen - what the French call a stage. "The work is killing," he says. "You're on your feet all day. It's all quiet until 12 o'clock, then a buzz comes into the kitchen. The first order comes and there's a fantastic rush of adrenaline which carries you along till half-past two. In the evening you do it all again. When you finally stop, you realise you are hooked on the adrenaline. You might be killed by overwork, but never by lack of interest. As an old man among all these youngsters, I really felt my age." (Matthew is not that old.)

As they gather for the competiton, the would-be chefs insist they have no illusions about life in a kitchen, even if this one ibears as much relation to their four-ring hob at home as a scooter to an Alfa Romeo. An umbrella of stainless steel ventilationducts syphons off steam and smoke, but fierce heat from the flat cast-iron cooking surface makes you recoil. When the oven doors open, it's like the blast of a furnace. If you can't stand the heat ... Whew.

The contestants are duly posted to their stations, no more than a metre apart. The scholarship winner is going to be locked into such a space for a year. And they say putting calves into crates is cruel. They now have three hours to cook a dish of duck in front of the master, the recipe for which they have already submitted. This is the line-up.

Jenny Palmer, 40, is the oldest. She is considering dropping her career as a designer and illustrator, and has sped back from New Zealand for the contest. As a passionate cook, much influenced by television, she says that at her age she might not be prepared to work the long hours anywhere else. "But it would be an honour to work at the Manoir," she says.

Steve Bentley, from Bristol, is 39. Bearded, bespectacled and pleasantly round, he looks the gourmandly part. He is a geologist by training, and an investigator for civil engineering accident claims. "My mother always said I'd be a chef. I sometimes buy a cookery book for a single recipe." He dreams of running his own restaurant. "My wife is 110 per cent behind me," he adds.

Paul Adair, from Pulborough, Sussex, is 36. With his neat moustache he resembles the leader of the Spanish right-wing political party, PP, rather than a cook. In fact, he has a high-powered job designing industrial computer systems although his real loveis cooking. "My mother and grandmother were good cooks," he says. "My ambition is to open a country restaurant." He's dead keen; two years ago he paid £500 to attend a cookery course here.

Mark Dixon, from Warwickshire, is 34, tall, grey-haired, serious. He has already left his job in management to go to catering college. This was his first sight of the Manoir; it was beyond his pocket when he dreamt of coming here on his honeymoon.

Philip Ashby-Rudd, 30, is a headhunter in the financial world, based in Docklands and commuting weekly from his home in Dorset. He is an ebullient extrovert who wines and dines his clients at Le Gavroche, Quaglino's and Le Pont de la Tour - though it is with reluctance that he eats sushi, which he abhors, with Japanese customers. His mother runs a family hotel with 32 rooms in Lulworth Cove, and plan B is to retire and take it over from his mother. The Blanc scholarship would have propelled him into this life sooner rather than later. His wife is a former assistant manager with Hilton Hotels.

Yvette Le Brasse, 29, is a diminutive, dynam-ic South African (her French parents from Mauritius settled there). She has just chucked in a job with a top Japanese bank, in spite of tempting salary offers, in order to sign on at Thames Valley University to study catering.

Gill Jakob, 28, with a degree in chemistry, has packed in a top job. As a sales and marketing executive handling laundry care products, she had plenty of experience eating at the best restaurants; now she wants to run her own. She is on a catering courseat Basingstoke College of Technology.

Andrew Brown, from Newcastle, is, at 27, the baby of the contestants - though he stands some 6ft 5in tall, resembling a ginger-bearded Viking warrior. He was installations manager with a Newcastle furniture firm until he was made redundant. His wife, Deborah, went back to work as a part-time nurse, and Andrew became a house-husband caring for their 19-month-old son, Angus. Andrew started to cook for the first time in his life - and to pick up some tips from television. "It was Top of the Pops or Keith Floyd. Floyd had to be better."

So how is Raymond Blanc going to choose between them? He will make the decision in consultation with his head chef, Clive Fretwell, who will have day-to-day responsibility for the scholar's training. Clive is an outspoken Yorkshire-man (what Yorkshiremanisn't?) and has already, in a good-humoured way, mentally written off the prospect of a year in the company of candidates X and Y.

But, anyway, Raymond is the boss. How will he decide? By the perfume of the sauce? By the colour of the breast of duck? By the inventiveness of the garnish?

Raymond considers the question. "I choose staff by instinct," he says. "I'm looking for a person who is perhaps very selfish, driven, committed. I will look into their eyes. I shall judge by the way they stand."

In that case, is there any need for them to cook at all? Why not put them over an assault course instead? Or make them audition for a TV series? Ah, now you mention it, there does happen to be a BBC TV camera crew on hand. Suddenly the contenders realisethat they have been set up as film fodder for the Food and Drink programme.

Soon they are Paxo in the hands of director Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, who may have missed his vocation (he makes Lenny Henry seem like a shy introvert). The E-J style of filming is not so much a fly-on-wall documentary as fly-in-the-soup, camera up your nose, sound-boom in your backside.

Wilfred E-J is thrilled to find that several of the candidates are not only selfish, driven and committed, but possibly slightly mad. "If you look into their eyes there's a sort of intensity, a look that chefs like Marco Pierre White have."

Clive Fretwell is fretting. He doesn't want a mad cook in his kitchen for a whole year. The first sign of madness and they are out. The qualities Clive Fretwell has in mind are organisation and planning. He beams at Gill Jakob, who generates calm around her. "People would be comfortable working with her," he muses.

The cooking is well under way now, as the contenders begin to cook their duck dishes. Some of them are finding it difficult to settle their nerves. Duck carcasses wriggle out of control on slippery plastic cutting boards. Water from shakily-handled pans splashes on the stove and explodes in puffs of steam.

Steve Bentley admits he's been so anxious he hasn't been able to enjoy the mother-of-all buffets which Raymond's chefs have prepared for their lunch: platters of air-dried beef, parma ham, smoked salmon, rocket salad. He had to turn down the tempting tarte tatin with thick cream. "I used to feel like this just before a football match," he groans queasily.

Andrew Brown's enormous height could prove inconvenient. Several times, swaying like a giraffe, he clangs his head on the ventilation ducts. Yvette is a good 17in shorter, but many feel her force as she drives past them searching for a pan, like a scrum-half going for the line.

How committed are they? Eyebrows are raised when headhunter Philip declares, half-way through, that he's got nothing to do and pops out for a fag. By contrast, Mark has set himself a series of technical challenges that take up every second of the three-hour test.

The announcement that only five minutes remain imposes unendurable pressure. Yvette is panicking and looks as if she has left it too late. Then, astoundingly, she crosses the line in time with a glorious flourish (including a last-minute souffle baked ina hollowed-out braised onion).

And so to the tension of the judging - though it is conducted in private, away from the anxious contestants. What Raymond Blanc says and what he does are two different things. A man with one of the finest palates in Britain, he arms himself with a littleteaspoon. He gazes down the line of eight ducks, mentally dividing them into those that are underdone, overdone, well cooked or badly cooked.

He makes a swift judgement on the garnishes, and on the seasonings. He tastes the sauces with the spoon. All meet with approval, but Raymond feels the fatal flaw in Philip's and Steve's dishes is excess of alcohol. Yvette hadn't perhaps left herself enough time after all; Gill may have tried to embrace too many flavours; Jenny has fatally overcooked her duck.

Suddenly Raymond draws three of the eight plates towards him. "Absolutely stunning," he declares of each of them. If only the contenders could hear him now. Raymond swaps notes with Clive Fretwell.

Mark's: "The duck breast is perfectly cooked. It's very difficult to get potato galette so dry. It looks wonderful; the technicalities are perfect."

Paul's: "His wild duck with roast chicory and intense sauce are concentrated in flavour. Not a single mistake. The garnish, a circle of sultanas poached in Earl Grey Tea, is good."

Andrew's: "Very creative. He did his own butchery. He made his own sausages of duck leg wrapped in pig's caul. Served with a good sauce. Beautiful flavours. I like this very, very much."

Raymond and Clive Fretwell go into a huddle with their head of personnel. Any of the three chefs on the shortlist could win the scholarship. The judges would now discuss commitment, attitude - and potential.

So, Andrew Brown it is. He hears the announcement with disbelief; his wife, Deborah, is over the moon. "Being made redundant was the best thing that happened to him," she cries. Two years of sacrifice suddenly seem worth it. Another year of it beckons.

"Two years ago I didn't know what it meant to deglaze a pan," grins Andrew. " `Deglaze the pan with vinegar', a recipe would say. But what were you meant to do after you'd deglazed it? Throw it in the bin?" (Deglaze: take up the juices in a pan to make agravy, or a sauce.) "Luckily the stepfather of a friend of mine is a cook, and I could ring him up."

Andrew's persistence in cooking paid off, and soon he was knocking at the kitchen door of one of Newcastle's better eateries, Courtney's. They hired him as a washer-up for two days a week. He watched what was going on and soon had a chance at the stove. Finally Deborah agreed that he should sign up for a course at Newcastle College of Catering. Now, thanks to Raymond, that won't be necessary.

So, if you too are hankering after a career change via the medium of the Manoir, this is the benchmark you should be aiming for. Here is Andrew Brown's scholarship-winning entry.

ANDREW BROWN'S ROAST DUCKLING The winner served his roast breast of Gressing-ham duckling on a celeriac rosti and garnished with sausage of duckling leg and turnip puree.

Serves 6

3 oven-ready Gressingham ducklings 12 small pieces of pig's caul (the fatty skin sheath of the kidneys, to wrap the duck sausages)

2 large celeriac 6 medium turnips 1 carrot 1 stick of celery 1 small onion 3oz/70g shallots 1 Earl Grey tea bag 1lb/500g unsalted butter, clarified (do this by heating it in a pan, straining through muslin when cool)

generous pinch of thyme a few leaves of chervil 1 bouquet garni 1 egg 1 small tub of double cream salt and pepper to taste a little arrowroot Remove the legs, breast bone, winglets and parson's nose from the ducklings, leaving only the fronts of the birds. Refrigerate the duckling breasts until required.

To make a duck stock. Remove the bone from the legs of the birds and reserve the meat. Roughly chop a carrot, an onion and a stick of celery and brown them, along with the duck bones, in a pan on top of the stove. Cover with three pints of water; bring the liquid to the boil, skimming off the scum as it rises to the surface. Add the bouquet garni and some of the peppercorns, then leave to simmer.

To make the sausages. Remove the skins and any tendons from the duck-leg meat. Pass the meat through a fine mincer into a bowl. Fry the finely-chopped shallots in a little butter until soft, drain off the fat and add to the minced duck meat. Add the chopped thyme, season with salt and pepper and bind with an egg yolk. Divide the mixture into 12 and roll into little finger-sized sausages. Wrap each sausage in pig's caul and refrigerate until required.

To make the turnip puree. Peel and dice the turnips. Cook in lightly salted water until tender. Remove from the pan into a colander and allow to drain. Pass the drained turnip through a fine sieve into a clean pan and return to the stove. Cook over a high heat, stirring all the time to prevent sticking and burning. When the mixture has stiffened, remove from the heat, add a splash of cream, a knob of butter and season with salt and pepper. Cover with buttered paper and keep warm until required.

To make the rosti. With the clarified butter, brush six 4in non-stick flan tins. Peel and coarsely grate the celeriac. Season well with salt and pepper and divide between the flan tins. Press the mixture in well and pour over some clarified butter. Placethe tins on a baking tray.

Remove the ducklings from the fridge and season the breasts with salt and pepper. Fry them in hot fat quickly to colour. Arrange the browned breasts in a roasting dish, laying them on one side and allowing enough space between them for the hot air to circulate. Cook in a hot oven, allowing approximately 10 minutes on each side and 10 minutes breast up. During the cooking, drain off any excess fat and reserve.

Place the baking tray containing the flan tins on top of the stove and allow it to get very hot. When the rosti begins to dry in the tins, remove the whole lot on the tray to the oven.

Fry the sausages in some of the reserved duck fat until cooked. Drain on paper; keep warm.

Remove the duck stock from the stove. Strain through a fine sieve into a clean pan. Skim off any fat and return to the stove. Reduce rapidly until there is about half a pint left. Add the Earl Grey tea bag to infuse very briefly. Remove. Add a little arrowroot to thicken.

Serve the breasts of duck with the celeriac rosti, carefully-shaped spoonfuls of pureed turnip, the duck sausages, and the sauce poured around. Garnish with chervil.