“It’s not about the Grouse”

ImageCurious, isn’t it? The title of my blog. Well you could say it’s more of a statement – a throw away one at that – but even now, as I type my first post, it’s a boil that needs lancing never the less. Will writing this give me the closure that I need?

1.30pm, 9th October, National Chef of The Year final 2012, Restaurant Show, Earls Court… Let me take you on that journey.

Anyone who has competed in a live arena will know that feeling of butterflies; pure excitement, nervousness a sense of real expectation. This was the second time of reaching the final eight.

Back in 2011, I surprised not just myself but also my peers by winning my semi-final, and although it was not my best food, I took a place on the podium as third to winner Freddie Forster and runner up Alyn Williams. This sparked off a real desire to come back again fighting.

The unveiling of the basket was two weeks previous. A Friday. I remember it well because it was the morning after the night before. As you may have already gathered, I love a challenge and to push myself. This particular one was three rounds of a hospitality Charity Boxing match in aid of Galvin’s Chance. I will have to fill you in on that excitement in a later blog post.

The grand unveil was at Unilever’s HQ in Leatherhead. There was a myriad of fish, vegetables and dry stores and then to the meat. Rose veal fillet, venison short saddle and my now nemesis the Grouse.

With sore ribs, pen took to paper and ideas began to flow.

Initially it was a venison main course all the way, but following conversations with chefs on the circuit the idea of the grouse was slowly beginning to ferment. We had to submit our menu and a list of ingredients the following Friday. Any change from this would incur a penalty.Image

Flame-grilled mackerel, Beetroot, apple, fennel and horseradish was the opener. Classic flavours? Yes. Safe? Maybe. But I felt that, as per my mantra, “flavour never goes out of fashion” and it was a tidy plate of food.

To follow: grouse, roasted Jerusalem artichoke, salsify, spinach and bacon, blackberries and fresh cobnuts with some baby waffle game chips.

A chocolate Marquise, warm cake, mango sorbet, mango, chilli, lime and passion fruit salad was to finish.

With the menu written, it was now to time practice. Four covers, two hours. The rules of engagement are such that ingredients are weighed only, so everything is done from scratch. You are allowed a commis – a wingman of sorts – but they can do no cooking. Just holding, fetching and carrying.

This person is essential. They know your dish; they keep you on your toes and they own the time plan! I picked the best. Phillip Skinazi, my Pastry chef.

We had four practices – timed pressure runs in between service – and invited chefs and colleagues to critique. With each rehearsal, I put another layer of pressure and expectation on myself. Every time we would finesse. To use Sky cycling’s phrase, it was all about marginal gains.

The small 1% in every task that would add up. I didn’t just want it, I needed it. Every moment that I wasn’t practicing or in service I was thinking about it. National Chef of the Year 2012 was taking over. it was dominating my thoughts!

Phill keeps a beady eye on me

Monday 8th October: Phill and I begged, stole and borrowed trays, pots and pans from another site, because on top of the competition practices, the Friday before had been our last service at our client site. Every chef in the hospitality brigade of 10 came out Ramsay style.

I wanted to go to the show that afternoon to visualise station eight. To know the location of the the stove, the sink and the plugs for electrical equipment. I wanted to visualise it as if I was Sebastian Vettel in a Formula One car.

That night was a restless affair. While the top 100 restaurants were announced and celebrated, I lay awake thinking. I wanted to be in that hall of fame. The roll call of honour that included the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Simon Hulstone and David Everitt-Matthias.

When Phill and I arrived at the show, we nervously went through the formalities of lots of strong coffee and water, followed by the several trips to the washroom, because having consumed too much coffee and water…

The time was now. Group picture with HRH the Countess of Wessex, then an hour to weigh the ingredients that were put on our numbered tables behind the stage. We were waiting for the grouse as it was late.

Set up the station, one last run for the toilet, and the grouse was there. It was smaller than we were used to. One of my efficiencies was to practice with the same purveyor that was supplying the final but these birds were oven ready tied and wrapped in bacon.

Too late now. I took the string off and removed the bacon, but I could read Justin’s face on station seven. He was the only other chef, apart from me, brave (read: stupid) enough to pick grouse. There was a similar look of dissatisfaction.

“It is what it is…” I tried to joke, as we both shook hands and wished good luck.

1.28pm. Some last deep breaths, a few words from Phill and a swig of water. I nervously adjust knife 2cm to the left for no reason whatsoever and look up to catch a glance of my supporters. Tracie, my parents and some of the guys I work with past and present…


Freddie, 2011’s winner, wishes me good luck. “Go for it,” he says then sits next to Tracie in my corner. Is he a lucky mascot? Is it extra pressure? Too late. David Mulcahy from the Craft Guild of chefs announces it’s time to start.

Those first 10 minutes flew by, as they always do. Everything I’d practiced seems twice as hard as my nervous fingers forget what they are there for.

A couple of hundred people were watching. Nigel Barden is on the mic and the judges include Phil Howard as chair as well as other industry heavyweights like Daniel Clifford, Tom Kerridge, Angela Hartnett and another former winner Mark Sargent, to name but a few. This coupled with the alien environment all added to the pressure.

We’re 30 minutes in and Phill tells me we’re on schedule. The crowd, judges and noise is blocked out as pure concentration takes over. 70 minutes down and the mackerel starter is as we had practiced: simple flavours that go together. Love it or hate it, but it was me. Service station eight and it was gone.

One down, two to go: 90 minutes into the main course, I start to finish the garnishes. It’s like someone has lobbed in a grenade as the energy in all of the kitchens goes up a notch. You can feel it.


I tried to ‘de-risk’ the grouse. I removed the legs and pressure cooked them, adding the liquor to a roasted chicken sauce. Some of the flaked meat was mixed with bacon lardons and then added to wilted spinach and the seasoned grouse crown had a quarter of a potato in the cavity to help keep its shape (Tom and Daniel were particularly interested in this).

The crown was cooked sous vide and then finished in foaming butter with thyme and garlic. The remaining garnishes were ready: light and crispy Gauffre potato chips; artichoke crush and puree; warm blackberries; cobnuts, a beautiful mahogany colour; salsify glazed and tender; sauce passed and hot; spinach and bacon…

We were ready with 20 minutes to go and I start to plate. The grouse was filleted off the crown. Although I had gloves on, it felt more resistant, hotter nearer the bone even. I removed the fillets, seasoned the inside… and it was over.

The beautiful medium rare that I had achieved every single time that we had practiced, using the same technique, timings and temperatures, was far from what was on my board. It was my ability to cook and season a piece of meat in the semi-final three months earlier that had made the difference in my heat. This had got me into the final eight.

I finished plating. I served some extra sauce on the side for the judges at “service station eight” and turned my focus to dessert. Marquise, warm cake, mango salad and sorbet… all plated efficiently. Claps that were heard in the theatre as Nigel announced the stations had finished. One minute to go and we were complete.Image

Relief! Nigel calls out my name and reads the menu. When he got to the main course, the word “grouse” seemed to resonate really slowly and clearly. Already it was in the fore front of my mind but a hug from Phill broke the trance. Justin came over from station seven and we did the same, awash with relief that it was over for another year. I swear the earth spins quicker on its axis that day because it certainly doesn’t feel like two hours.Image

As is customary, spectators and supporters offer their praise, but it falls on deaf ears. I take a quick look at the display table to check out the competition. Visually, my dishes don’t look out of place, Freddie appears at my right shoulder. “Nice work, chef,” he says. But we both know the cuissance on the grouse is over. “It’s gonna cost you,” he says. I nod in agreement.

I want the ground to swallow me up. But no. We have to go to the presentation at 5.30pm, where our fate will be announced in front of a gathering crowd. Last year, this very spot was one of the proudest moments in my career. This year, all was still to be revealed.

One by one we are announced and go on stage to shake Phil Howard;s hand and collect our finalists plate. The stench of nervousness is sickening. Before the top three, crockery sponsor Churchill awards a special prize, including a £500, for the overall best presentation.

“And the winner is Hayden Groves…”

I took the framed certificate gratefully, but already in my mind I knew this was a consolation prize, I looked down at the floor, wishing I was somewhere else. In third place…, in second place… and the winner of National Chef of the Year 2012 is… Alyn Williams!

It’s done. It’s over. But one more group photo. My best fake smile and I can go, get off this stage and disappear.

As I go to leave Phill Howard pulls me to one side says some nice words. It was very tight. The difference between second and my placing, which I find Is 4th, was only two points. But I am gutted. No one to blame but myself.

After the melee subsides I go over and congratulate Alyn. I shared a podium with him last year and had got to know Alyn quite well. Apart from being a very deserving winner and talented chef, he is a top bloke to match.

That night was the polar opposite to 2011. The year before had seen an evening of celebrating with the top three, the judges and the sponsors at Mosimann’s. This year was a painful journey across the city to drop off the equipment that we had borrowed, then home.Image

The following morning was spent soul searching. Although I had wanted to win more than ever, I knew the feedback from Phil Howard was as per the brief conversation with Freddie. The cuissance on the grouse cost me a place in the top three for sure.

But why had it overcooked? A combination of the small things. Smaller grouse and the thicker high quality bags that we used in the final (that kept the heat in) were all I could put it down to. With all that practice and so called ‘marginal gains’ and I didn’t even think to take the bags with which I was familiar.

So in closing, it’s not about the grouse. Yet 2012, to me, will be all about the grouse. Well, until next time…

~ by theboxterboy on December 22, 2012.

7 Responses to ““It’s not about the Grouse””

  1. Cathartic I guess. Well written.

  2. It was well written, Hayden. If ever you want to give up playing with microwaves, writing could be your forte.

    Best of luck with National Chef 2013.

  3. […] Read about NCOY final in – ‘its not about the grouse’ […]

  4. […] 2012 wasn’t just Olympic year it was a chance to try and improve on my 3rd place.  I made the final however this year there was no confidence boost from a semi final win.  Alyn was the run away favourite in my eyes, and duly won the title he so deserved.  For myself no top 3, however a prize of the best presented dish from one of the sponsors, and a 2000 word spill of frustration  https://itsnotaboutthegrouse.wordpress.com/2012/12/22/its-not-about-the-grouse/ […]

  5. […] 18th September 2006, now there’s a date, no not the birth of keira our eldest, we had celebrated her 1st birthday the week before. It was traditional for me to visit the Restaurant show and stand from afar and watch in awe as the chefs competed for the title of National chef of the year, although aged 32 at that time I still didn’t have the confidence to throw my hat in the ring, that was 4 years later… and we know the story there, it even sparked my first blog ! […]

  6. […] time I had ever started typing something out, and I wrote a 2,500 word spill of frustration called ‘It’s not about the grouse’, a nod to ‘It’s not about the bike’, Armstrong’s book, and obviously factoring in something […]

  7. […] So you’ve got your grouse what do you do with it, I guess I can appraise you as well as anyone, the Bird was the catalyst for this very blog back in December 2012, […]

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