Well, what an experience that was…
A few months ago I decided to put myself forward for the Norfolk Home Chef of the Year award which is part of the Norfolk Food & Drink Awards.
Looking back, it was a rather brave move for me, but I did it out of a love of cooking. I will quite happily spend an afternoon in the kitchen experimenting with new recipes, trying both the simple and the challenging.
I suppose I thought, why not. What’s to lose.
I submitted a written application which asked for a two-course menu featuring a main dish and a dessert. It asked for a resume and information about why I’d chosen my menu.
Choosing the main dish was easy – it is one that has evolved over the years – Cromer crab ravioli with a spring onion dressing. For dessert I went with strawberry and buttermilk ice cream served with shortbread and a strawberry daiquiri.
I’m a Norfolk girl through and through and have a passion for everything the county has to offer. For those of us who live in Norfolk we are lucky enough to have access to a larder that is second to none. So, for that reason, I also based my menu on seasonal, local ingredients.
At home I am always gardening and cooking and I aim to cook with seasonal ingredients whenever I can – either grown myself or sourced from local producers. My parents and family have always used homegrown produce to bake and cook with so I guess I’m following in that tradition.
My enjoyment of cooking is simple, it comes from an enjoyment of food.
Why this menu?
I was born and raised in Cromer and, for a few years, regularly went out to sea from Cromer with a friend to fish for crab and lobster. The Cromer crab is such an iconic food and I always hotly anticipate the start of the crab season so I can begin cooking different dishes with the sweet and flavoursome meat. With my main course I really wanted to showcase the crab in a dish that was perfect for spring and summer.
For dessert I wanted to make a dish that really cut through the richness of the crab meat, continued the freshness of flavour and carried its own, natural sweetness. The recipe uses Norfolk strawberries and raw milk buttermilk from our local dairy.
My menu included a range of homegrown ingredients – cucumber, granny smith apples, chives and spring onions – and a range sourced from within Norfolk – eggs and buttermilk from Old Hall Farm Woodton, Cromer crab from Jonas Seafood, apple juice from Groveland Farms, Rapeseed Oil from Mr Hughes, Norfolk Strawberries from The Tacons and Berries Direct (Hempnall) and Bacchus wine from Flint Vineyard.
A week or so after I submitted my written application I received an email to say I was through to the next stage – a cook-off! I was aghast, I couldn’t believe I’d made it through, but as well as being in total shock I was delighted.
At the cook-off I’d have 2.5 hours to make the dishes from scratch and serve them to four waiting judges.
So, for the next three weeks I refined every element on my menu, practicing each one numerous times.
I was confident with my crab ravioli as it’s a firm favourite in our house and we regularly have homemade pasta – it’s a great ingredient to make with friends and family.
What I wasn’t as confident with was being able to make the ice cream in time. I had recently started making ice cream by hand – using ingredients from the garden to flavour them – but I knew this wouldn’t by possible in 2.5 hours. I borrowed an ice cream machine from a friend and managed to make the strawberry and buttermilk ice cream within time. I enjoyed it so much I began making more and more flavours – it was then that I realised I had to take the plunge and get my own machine, and I haven’t looked back since. So far I’ve made lavender, gooseberry, blackberry & apple, honey, coffee, cucumber and watermelon ice cream (and if you think cucumber ice cream doesn’t work think again!).
The other challenge I faced was making uniform shortbread pieces – my rolling pin skills aren’t very hot. To overcome this my partner made me two 1cm deep wooden batons that I used to roll the mixture between – making perfectly regular shortbreads every time!
I did one full run through of the menu before the cook-off and was pleased that I managed it within the 2.5 hours time frame. However, that was in my own kitchen and it’s a very different challenge in unfamiliar surroundings.
Prior to the cook off I’d visited the Richard Hughes Cookery School to see the space I’d be working in. It was small, that is smaller than my own kitchen work surface, so when I did my run through I tried to restrict myself to a similar amount of space – I get very nervous before big challenges so I like to have everything planned and prepped!
The Norfolk Home Chef of the Year award was sponsored by The Richard Hughes Cookery School which is based at The Assembly House in Norwich – where the cook-off would take place. It was to be judged by Richard Hughes, Gary Hunter – vice-principal for culinary arts and hospitality at Westminster Kingsway College in London, the country’s most prestigious culinary college – cookery writer Mary Kemp and Nichola Hicks, head of support services at the James Paget Hospital in Gorleston.
The day before the competition I packed up all the ingredients and utensils I would need to make the next morning as stress free as possible.
I slept badly the night before the competition and woke up thinking I couldn’t go through with it. I was nervous because I cared but also because it was out of my comfort zone. But then I figured if you never do anything out of your comfort zone you’ll never learn new skills or progress in life.
I arrived and saw the other six contestants arriving with only a couple of small bags each – whereas I seemed to have everything but the kitchen sink.
Once we’d all arrived and settled into our spaces we got together for a much-needed coffee and soon realised we were all in a similar situation – we were apprehensive and wondering why we’d nominated ourselves (apart from ome woman who had been nominated by her family).
Although we were quickly put at ease by all the judges and Assembly House staff I began cooking with trembling hands. But, as soon as I’d started my dishes I calmed down and it became a wonderfully enjoyable experience. As the competition progressed we were all chatting to each other, lending equipment and ingredients and generally having a good time.
Under the pressures of a professional kitchen and a time limit however, I did wonder if I would get two courses plated in time. The ovens were digital and unfamiliar, my ice cream machine decided to turn itself off mid-churn, it was a hot day and with seven cookers and 14 hobs on the go the conditions were very different to my own kitchen.
Throughout the competition two of the judges were in the kitchen and two were in an adjacent room. When our dishes were ready we were to take four plates of each course through to be judged. Luckily we didn’t have to present both dishes at the same time otherwise I would have struggled.
Together with the judges there was also a reporter and photographer from the EDP in the kitchen. So if it wasn’t nerve racking enough we were also being photographed!
I managed to get the elements of each dish prepared in time and then just had to cook the ravioli (which only takes minutes) and plate each course. As there was so much prep in my dishes some people had served their main dish before I’d even started cooking, but that is part of the joy of all creating completely different dishes.
There was lobster thermidor, a roast dinner in a pie, a duet of Norfolk turkeys, a chicken dish, a rhubarb Bakewell tart, gooseberry crumble, a raspberry crème brulee, ginger cheesecake, a lemon & elderflower courgette cake and a panettone bread & butter pudding.
As soon as service was complete for us all we collectively breathed a sigh of relief and endulged in an early afternoon glass of gorgeously cool white wine! I think we all realised that we’d achieved something we hadn’t done before and we vowed to meet again soon.
About a week later I received an email to say I’d made it through to the final four. The competition was so strong I was both surprised and delighted to have made it though to the next stage. There would be no more cooking just an awards ceremony – what to wear was now my biggest worry!
I was excited about the Norfolk Food & Drink awards, delighted that any of us would win our category. Prior to the event we were interviewed for a film that would be screened on the night about our love of cooking and our love of Norfolk produce – which is easy for me to talk about!
On the awards night itself I felt very proud to be part of such a wonderful celebration of Norfolk’s food and drink industry and the wonderous people who keep our county’s impressive larder stocked. Mark, who won the Norfolk Home Chef of the Year award, thoroughly deserved to with his menu of duo of lobster (thermidor and fishcake) with asparagus and foaming hollandaise and drunken raspberry crème brulee.
It was also great to see Flint Vineyard pick up the Best Newcomer award – I had served my main course with their delightfully crisp, fresh Bacchus.
Looking back, the journey through the competition has been beautiful, not only has it made me realise how much I enjoy cooking, but it has made me believe in myself that little bit more. I am now more determined then ever to continue my cooking adventures keeping Norfolk firmly at the heart of what I do.