Bocuse Memories with Chef Simon Hulstone

Simon Hulstone, competitor for the Bocuse d’Or Team UK shares some of his memories…

‘I knew nothing about the Bocuse d’Or apart from that it was a very big competition. One day, out on a scooter ride, I got a call from John Williams (Executive Chef at The Ritz, London) asking me if I fancied doing it. I was up for anything and said yes!

From then it was full on.  The year I competed (2008) was the first year of the European qualifiers so no one really knew what to expect from that event.  The fish given was salmon and the meat platter was saddle of lamb and the aim was to cook 20 plates of food. I have to admit that at the time it sounded easy but when I arrived in Stavangar, Norway, I realised I was really out of place in light of other competitors.  There I was with a commis and a thermo mix in my back pack!

I was totally overawed by the whole experience – the noise was unbelievable, the ceremony and pomp was incredible. I cooked on the first day of the 2-day qualifiers and thought I did really well.  René Redzepi (Founder of Noma, Denmark) was amongst the judges and mentioned to me afterwards that he could tell I hadn’t practised!

On the second day I went to watch the other countries competing and realised the gravity of the competition – the Norwegians and Swedish were cooking and it dawned on me how massive it was. At the awards ceremony I was the only one in the team to walk out to a stadium where no-one was cheering for team GB! The results came up and I scraped in for the final and thought ‘that’s never going to happen again’.

Preparing for the final was a different task. I realised I needed to find a commis who was committed and ready to do it.  Adam Smith was given 2 weeks off the Ritz to come to Torquay.  We met and clicked instantly and practised for 2 weeks solidly for Lyon in January, 2009.

I’d never cooked like that before and never done a competition like that – until we’d done it once there was no way of working out what the other countries do. What chef cooks food that is walked around a room, takes it to photographer and serves it to judges cold? No one does that! I was flabbergasted that I was serving cold food to some of the best chefs in the world. I didn’t want to do that.  The fish was cod and the meat platter was beef, out of 22 countries in the world we finished 10th Rene Redzepi came back and said “You’ve been practising, haven’t you?’

I wasn’t convinced I would compete again, but then a few things fell into place and we entered for the European Qualifiers in Geneva, 2010. This time round we were a lot more geared up for it.  I had Jordan Bailey as my commis since Adam Smith was too old.  Jordan was in the kitchen on a daily basis.  Both of us cooked alongside each other so we knew we worked together well.

I felt I needed a ‘cold’ platter to come alive and become a hot platter; I needed to turn picture-food into edible food and Nick Vadis was the perfect choice as mentor.

In Geneva the fish dish was halibut and meat platter was veal.  We wanted to get the hot element into something – so we served a pie on both the fish and the platter. With a pie we could make sure it was served roasting hot as well as look stunning.  The judges loved it.  At last they ate something hot! Amazingly we came 4th – a few points away from a podium place and gave people something to watch out for. This set us in motion for Lyon with loads of support and people got behind UK and went for it.

Lyon, 2011 and the fish was monkfish and langoustine, with the meat platter lamb. This time we were much more accomplished competitors, we had practised and were being watched and had a lot more respect from other competitors and judges. People came round the kitchen and asked us questions and wanted to find out what we were cooking.

But all did not run smoothly.  The kitchen set up the night before, the only thing we didn’t do was put water in the water-baths and someone came in and turned on the equipment and burned out all the elements in the water baths. We arrived the next day and the kitchen was a mess – they tested all the kitchen and used all our pots and pans.  We turned on the water-baths and there was an electrical smell and realised that all the baths were broken.

This completely threw us and put us out of synch – we couldn’t serve what we wanted to, the fish wasn’t cooked, meat undercooked.  We served inferior food to what we were ready for. It felt like we were blaming our tools and it felt hugely disappointing not to be able to deliver the food we were ready for. It was such a shame as we were ready for it and it went out not quite right. But the experience was amazing for both Jordan and myself; Jordan went on to become head chef at a three Michelin starred restaurant in Norway. It boosted me massively, the PR and recognition was amazing.  I don’t think UK chefs really appreciated the scale of this competition until I’d done it.

The Bocuse d’Or is an internationally recognised award and to be in a room to be with so many other tops chefs is just incredible.’

Simon Hulstone, chef proprietor at The Elephant, is an award winning chef with a talent for using local, seasonal produce to create memorable flavours. The Elephant restaurant has held three AA rosettes since 2005 and in 2006, Simon and his team won Torquay its first Michelin star, which it maintains today.