How many X-Factor winners can you name? With few exceptions, most are now gone from collective memory. The promise of fame and fortune in the music industry seemed to be good to be true and it was.
Some couldn’t handle the fame, others made bad choices and most discovered one good record doesn’t make a career. Some of the harshest critics of pop reality shows were the performers who had made it traditional way. They had studied at music school and learned the basics before taking their fledgling skills on the road to bars and clubs around the country. It wasn’t glamorous but it did provide the foundations for a career built upon understanding music and audiences.
So it is with food. On Monday night, I was in London for the annual award of the Roux Scholarships. The cooking competition seeks to find new talent and catapults one lucky young chef into the culinary stratosphere. As well as being mentored by one of the great food dynasties, the winner gets to work for three months in a three Michelin-starred restaurant anywhere in the world. After that, they are made for life. The first Roux scholar was Scot Andrew Fairlie who died earlier this year and there was an emotional tribute to him at the ceremony. Michel Roux said “he will always be one of our sons”.
After that it was decision time for this year’s six young hopefuls. Earlier in the day they had been tasked with cooking a traditional classic dish. This year it was monkfish blanquette and Michel Roux Jr and his brother Alain took to the stage to show how it should be done.
Translated as monkfish stew, it sounds deceptively straightforward, but making the dish properly took the combined experience of two of the best chefs in the world. First there is the filleting of the monster fish with its sinews and skin, then the crafting of an asparagus subric, then the preparation of the monkfish liver and finally the creation of a champagne sauce thickened with egg and cream.
There lies the sting in the tail. Done well, it is an amazing example of classic French cuisine. Done badly it is a hotch potch with a sauce that splits and scrambles at the end. On the big day, it didn’t but that was where the X-Factor approach of confidence beyond ability could be found out.
Presenting this year’s award to 2019 Roux Scholar Spencer Metzger, a former winner and now three Michelin-starred chef Clare Smyth explained why the competition is so important. “These skills are the building blocks on which everything else can be built,” she said. “Without solid foundations, you have nothing.” She’s right. The food world is awash with self-taught chefs with tattoos and big followings on Instagram. In contrast, the classic cookery and technique exemplified by the Roux Scholarships seems old-fashioned, but which will last longest?
Just as a great carpenter has to do a proper apprenticeship or a sculptor has to study Rodin or Michaelangelo, there are no shortcuts or cheats on the journey to doing things properly. Reality TV and social media may offer a platform for aspiring chefs but they are no substitute for hard work, skill and dedication.