How we reached the top of the culinary ladder

Tom Kitchin, Theo Randall, and Michele Roux Jnr. Picture: Contributed
Tom Kitchin, Theo Randall, and Michele Roux Jnr. Picture: Contributed
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IT’S a cooking competition, but not as you know it. Susan Griffin speaks to three of the UK’s most renowned chefs about new TV series The Chef’s Protege - and asks who helped them to the top of the culinary ladder.

ALL chefs need to prove their salt, and that can be tough when you’re starting out as an unknown, one of so many who are looking to make a living, and maybe then a career, in their chosen field. Competition is fierce, and many an ambition is shattered early on in the journey. That’s why so many of the world’s top chefs credit a mentor for guiding them through the early days.

A new 20-part BBC 2 series called The Chef’s Protege will examine the day-to-day reality of the cooking industry by focusing on this relationship between apprentice and master.

Three award-winning starred chefs, Tom Kitchin, Theo Randall and Michel Roux Jr, take up the challenge and set off to catering colleges in search of a protege of their own.

The series culminates when the three chefs and their proteges cook one final meal that will be judged by each chef’s very own grand mentors. If it sounds a bit like a variation on Masterchef, that’s maybe no surprise, because the long-running BBC cooking contest has a winning formula.

Here, Kitchin, Randall and Roux Jr talk about their own experiences, and the guiding hands who helped them on their way.

Michel Roux Jr

OF THE three chefs taking part, Michel Roux Jr is probably the most recognisable nationally given his involvement in MasterChef: The Professionals, but he says this show is more intimate. “Yes it is, intimate and personal,” he says. “And it’s almost not about the students, it’s more about the mentors in a way because we want to make sure the students are inspired by us and do well.”

Although he’s the son and nephew of the legendary chefs Michel and Albert, he proudly worked his way up from the bottom. “My very first summer job was at the age of 13 cleaning pots and pans in one of our restaurants and I worked enough to buy myself my first racing bike,” he says.

Then at the age of 16, he went to Paris and began an apprenticeship. “The first six months was washing up, cleaning and peeling – very mundane jobs,” he recalls, which is why he’s wary of kids who have a glamorised notion of the industry. “Media is great because it brings in a lot of youngsters, which is good. But, a lot of them come in for the wrong reasons. They want to be the next Jamie Oliver and what they don’t realise is he worked his backside off to get where he is today. Likewise myself. There’s no shortcut.”

In search of his protege, Roux Jr visited Birmingham College, the venue where cook-offs are often held for the Roux Scholarship. “The Roux ethos is very much about mentoring. My father and uncle are known for that and I think I am too,” he says.

It’s no surprise that the students were awe-struck at meeting one of their idols. “I’ve had those moments myself as a young chef. And I still do,” says Roux Jr. “Two years ago I went to have dinner at Paul Bocuse, the great man, who’s sadly getting old and tired. But every time I’m in the presence of that man, I’m star-struck.”

And Roux Jr’s just pleased his students realised the importance of the opportunity. “They all applied themselves, but some were just better than others, and that’s life. That’s a learning curve, realising that other people are better than you.” He modestly adds: “I’m not the best chef in the world.” But the idea of not cooking is unimaginable to him. “It runs through the veins and it’s all-consuming. Pardon the pun.”

Tom Kitchin

AT THE age of 29, Edinburgh-born Tom Kitchin became the youngest recipient of a Michelin star for his restaurant The Kitchin. He began his gastronomic journey at Perth College, and he returns there to try to uncover his protege.

“It hasn’t changed at all. The same pots and pans, it was really surreal,” says Kitchin, who prides himself on being in the kitchen every day so, it has to be something special to tear him away.

But he feels there’s a responsibility to mentor up-and-coming chefs as he himself was mentored, by Pierre Koffmann, inset. At the age of 17, Kitchin worked for him in his three-starred restaurant, an experience he describes as “brutal”.

“I thought I was some kind of wee hotshot but I quickly learnt I wasn’t,” he laughs.

But harsh as it was, the skills he learned proved invaluable. “The journey from there to where I am today is really monumental, to reach that stage where you have a youngster and it’s your turn to mentor,” he says.

Kitchin wasn’t only looking for natural ability in his young chefs, but a thirst for information.

“If I’ve worked all these years to obtain this knowledge, I’m not just going to give it to someone who’s not putting the effort in, and not engaging,” he says.

Discipline was key, as was their ability to taste. “Could I find their palate? Could I find their excitement for cooking? Because you can’t teach that,” he says.

Looking back on the experience, he admits it was more enjoyable than he thought it would be “because you build a rapport, and go on a journey with the kids”, he explains.

And even he succumbed to nerves. “Aye, massively because there’s a sense of responsibility,” he says.

“Naturally as chefs we’re competitive, but you’re also soul-searching for your own mentoring skills.”

Theo Randall

ALTHOUGH he now specialises in Italian cuisine at his restaurant at London’s InterContinental Hotel and earned a Michelin star at the city’s River Cafe, Theo Randall began his culinary career washing dishes in a local pub. “I was desperate to get into the kitchen because I really liked the way it worked,” he remembers. And to this day he continues to live and breathe food. “You never get bored of it,” he says.

Randall’s career began at Chez Max in Dublin, where he focused on classical cooking under the tutelage of the formidable Max Makarian. Then he moved to River Cafe and was taught “more about ingredients and keeping things simple” by Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray.

Now Randall enjoys sharing the knowledge he’s accumulated over the years with burgeoning chefs. “If you’ve got a good team, they’ll stay with you, but you’ve got to keep developing them. Then it gets to the point where you can’t teach them any more, so they go off and work somewhere else,” he says.

Like Kitchin, he returned to his old catering college in search of a protege who “was really keen and really wanted to learn”. “It’s not necessarily the most skilled person; it’s usually the person with the best attitude,” he says.

And even over the relatively short amount of time he spent with the youngsters, he could see a vast improvement. “I got them to understand the quality of the ingredients, and they were actually touching and looking and feeling.” He adds: “I think it’s actually good to think about people in your kitchen as your family. You’ve got to keep them happy and content but you’ve also got to give them drive.”

And chefs need to learn quickly if they’re going to survive in a kitchen. “It’s a very stressed environment. If you’ve got someone who’s making mistakes, it’s like dominoes, it collapses.”

• The Chef’s Protege begins on BBC2 on Monday