It’s official, I’m a finalist in the Norfolk Home Chef of the Year award!
The award is part of the Norfolk Food & Drink Awards and a few weeks ago I took part in a cook-off as part of the competition.
Seven eager home cooks pitched up at The Assembly House at 9am on a Sunday morning ready to cook a main and a dessert in two and a half hours.
We’d all applied earlier in the year with a paper application, pitching our courses with an emphasis on using ingredients from our glorious county.
It was a challenge to whittle it down to two dishes. I’m a huge advocate of Norfolk and am convinced that the county offers the best larder in the country. At home I am more often than not in the garden and love cooking with seasonal ingredients whenever I can – either grown myself or sourced from local producers. My enjoyment of cooking is simple, it comes from an enjoyment of food.
Being a Cromer girl at heart I had to choose crab or lobster for my main course.
I went for lobster – for one reason only. Last year I also entered the competition and had chosen to make crab ravioli.
After the wonderful experience of last year’s cook-off and competition (I made it through to the final four) I hadn’t ever thought I would enter again. But when the applications were launched the lure of challenging myself to cook under pressure again was too much to resist.
I love cooking and having a cooking challenge laid out in front of me seems to suit my personality – even though it also gets the nerves going In the end I thought what’s to lose.
Back to my menu…
My main dish was built on a base of Cromer lobster. Naturally I wanted to get some of our own beef in there too. The dish went like this – fillet steak with lobster ravioli, lobster bisque, king prawns, tomato chutney and asparagus – served with a crisp glass of Bacchus wine from Norfolk’s Humbleyard winery.
For dessert I was ambitious – strawberry tart with strawberry sorbet and a pistachio cocktail. Ambitious because a year ago I’d never have attempted it. But last year I challenged myself to make all the technical challenges from the Great British Bake Off – a challenge that has seen my baking skills increase – as well as my confidence.
The tart included a pistachio cream (a spongy layer in individual sweet pastry cases), crème patisserie, fresh strawberries and pistachios.
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 crustaceans caught there are sweet and flavoursome and are iconic to the town. With my main course I really wanted to showcase the lobster in a take on surf and turf. The dish itself was inspired by a meal I had at Ascot a few years ago. It was tasty and done very well but I knew with a few changes and the addition of Cromer lobster and hand-reared beef it could be so much better. Since that trip to Ascot I’ve made it a few times but with this attempt I made my bisque with homemade beef and brown chicken stock – gosh the flavour was intense!
For dessert I wanted to make a dish that really cut through the richness of the main but was fresh and carried its own natural sweetness through the use of Norfolk strawberries.
My menu included a range of homegrown ingredients – basil, beef, eggs, onions and celery – and a range sourced from within Norfolk – Cromer lobster from Jonas Seafood, butter from Old Hall Farm Woodton, carrots and strawberries from The Tacons and flour from Letheringsett Mill.
A week or so after I submitted my written application I received an email to say I was through to the next stage – the cook-off! As well as being in total shock I was utterly delighted.
Knowing I’d have 2.5 hours to make the dishes from scratch I went through my dish – and elements of it – numerous times.
It’s probably at this point I should thank my long-suffering other half for having to put up with copious amounts of lobster and fillet steak – all in the name of research!
I was pretty confident with everything apart from fillet steak. Getting it right takes nerves of steel under pressure!
Luckily the rules stated that ice creams and stocks could be made in advance – a huge relief for me as my lobster stock takes more than 24 hours to make in elapsed time! (homemade beef stock, homemade brown chicken stock, cooling, splitting, homemade lobster bisque, cooling).
Although I’d cooked in the Richard Hughes Cookery School before (where the cook off would take place) it’s still very different from cooking in your own kitchen surround by familiar equipment.
Then there was the challenge of presenting the dishes to waiting judges – the competition was judged by Gary Hunter – Norfolk chef and deputy principal at Westminster Kingsway College, Steve Thorpe – chef tutor and trainer, Nichola Hunter – head of facilities management at the James Paget University Hospital and last year’s winner Mark Fitch.
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.
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 were there.
We were quickly put at ease by all the judges and Assembly House staff. As soon as I’d started my dishes I cracked on with the nerves dissipating and it soon became a fabulous experience. As the competition progressed we were all chatting to each other (and ourselves), lending equipment and ingredients and generally having a good time.
Even though I’d timed myself in a practice run, when I looked up to check the time I had only 30 minutes left – time had flown by! The kitchen was hot – seven people rushing (safely!) around, 14 hobs on the go and seven ovens churning away.
Throughout the completion the judges were in the kitchen chatting to us about our processes, our menus and watching how we worked. There was also a photographer and a videographer about so there was a constant buzz of activity – and pressure! When our dishes were plated we took two of each course through to an adjacent room to be judged.
The standard was sky high – there was lamb shoulder, crab and samphire risotto, Norfolk paella, venison and wild mushroom suet puddings, chicken stroganoff, fillet of beef with twice baked soufflé, lemon tart, strawberry meringues, crème brulee, raspberry roulade, honey and lavender cake and ginger cheesecake.
Some served early but most of us went up to the wire! I think as soon as service was complete for us all we collectively breathed a sigh of relief and endulged in some beautifully cool white wine!
In truth everyone deserves to be a finalist, I was astonished at the perfect dishes that were produced throughout the kitchen.
The day after the competition I received an email to say I’d made it through to the final four. The competition was so unbelievably strong I was both surprised and delighted to have made it though to the next stage. There’s no more cooking just an awards ceremony – phew!
I’m excited for the Norfolk Food & Drink awards, delighted that any of us could win our category. It just wonderful to be part of an event that celebrates Norfolk’s food and drink offering, the industry it supports and the wonderous people who keep our county’s impressive larder stocked.