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Interview: Nick Smith, NCOTY winner

Nick Smith, head chef for Vacherin, tells us about his incredible recent win in what has been described as being the toughest NCOTY in the competition’s 48-year history...                    

Congratulations on winning! I’m sure not just your colleagues but the whole of the contract catering industry is proud of you…
Thanks, I remember when I was getting praise from Gary Jones thinking to myself, ‘Here I am, this boy from contact catering’. To get feedback like that – but this is what we do every single day at work.

Before we get onto National Chef of the Year [NCOTY], what’s your background?
I trained at Southend College, I did my City and Guilds there and I fell in love with chefing massively. Then I worked around restaurants in London back in the 90s.

I had a friend who worked in contract catering. My hours, I was working eight or nine shifts a week, it was crazy, so he told me about contract catering and that’s how my journey started. I managed to get a job at Credit Suisse for Aramark doing beautiful fine dining. I got promoted to senior sous chef and that was my big step up. I was a bit worried about the extra responsibility at first, but I loved it. I always wanted to try and add something extra. I think with your personal development, it’s up to you to develop yourself.

When the tender came up I decided to take a break from London and go and do a season in The Three Valleys in France. I went over as a sous chef, but when I got there the head chef wasn’t really working out so they offered me that role instead.

I had a fantastic time out there, it’s a beautiful place. I worked with some good people and it was a great learning curve for me, although the season only lasted six months.

How did you start competing?
When I got back, I started working for the creative agency Imagination for Directors Table [Sodexo’s old fine dining arm] as a head chef. I made a lot of my mistakes there, which is how you learn, and I got really into sugar craft and competing at things like Hotelympia – that’s where I got the bug.

Then the tender came up in the early 2000s and Vacherin took over; it was actually our first contract. I loved it straight away and the client was great. I started entering more competitions and I was learning all the time.

How did you come to enter NCOTY?
The development chef for Vacherin entered one year and got to the semi-final. He said to me, ‘You should enter, it’ll be great for you and you’ll do well’. I was undecided but I entered in 2016. I couldn’t believe it when I got in the semi-final, I was thinking, ‘I’ve actually made it’.

By then I had the bug and I wanted to give it another go. I was working at Ashurst LLP for Harbour & Jones by this time and I got in the semi-final again; I couldn’t believe it. I’ve done it five times now and made it to the semi-final each time, but the third time I made it to the final. I was thrilled beyond words. Then last year I got into the final again and came third.

What’s it like to take part?
It’s such a long competition, it takes a lot of energy because it starts so early in the year. Even when you’ve entered everything it’s constantly on your mind all the time. I’m such a fussy person when it comes to what I do and I try my hardest with it.

When the brief came out I got all my ideas down, this was before Covid came in, and then as we shut down Ashurst I was just finishing my main. I was sent home on furlough and I was gutted because I was so pleased with the ideas I had. Then when I found out they were continuing, I was delighted. When I was at home it gave me something to focus on – even though I was catching up with the DIY, helping the kids with their homework and all the stuff like that. I had a lot of time to go over it, though the problem was because I wasn’t at work I couldn’t bounce ideas off my colleagues, although I was chatting to them on the phone.

How was it competing this year?
It’s great how they managed to continue by streaming it all live. This year has just been tough on everyone. I’ve put five years into this because I know it’s a brilliant competition. I loved doing it, I don’t just enter because I want to be the winner. I’ve learned loads from it and it’s been reflected in my work and the people I work with. I was meeting great people like Clare Smyth, Sat Bains – these people you normally only see on social media and they’re talking to me about my dishes! For someone like me, these are the people you look up to and admire.

Did you go into it the year expecting to win or was it a shock?
I’m not the most confident person, to be honest, it drives my wife mad, because I’m so fussy and particular. I’ve never gone into it thinking. ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to win it’. Never. I just think, ‘As long as I’m happy with what I’ve done’. Over the years I’ve learned about not overdoing it and I’ve always got as much feedback from the judges as I can. So I took all that and it all went towards this one. And I was so determined. I just wanted to show them how passionate I am, how much it means to me and the love that I have for the industry.

I couldn’t believe it when I got in again. What they did this year was really nice; they delivered a jacket to your door if you had got into the semi-finals. So I was like a dog looking out the window waiting for this van to show up.

My family were all with me, because when they were doing the live feed to announce the finalists on Twitter, I couldn’t watch. When my wife saw my name come up, she went crazy and then I screamed the house down. It was really funny because my neighbour next door texted my wife, ‘Is everything alright, have you won the lottery or something?’ The whole road must have heard me, it meant so much to me.

How did feel to win then? I imagine your neighbours were calling the police by that point!
I struggle to find the words to describe what it meant to me to win. It was a hard one this year, because I didn’t have the people around me from work to bounce ideas off. My sous chef James, though, he was fantastic. He was on furlough, but every time I practiced, he’d come all the way up from home to help me and give me feedback. And this year we weren’t allowed a commis, but he was vital. When Paul Ainsworth walked through the door and told me I’d won, I was an emotional wreck. It was incredible, absolutely incredible. It’s going to stay with me forever. It’s a dream for me. I’ll never, ever forget it.

The winning dishes

Starter: Gilthead ‘gazpacho’ heirloom tomato and cucumber
Main course: Romney Marsh lamb, roe ravigote, fennel, samphire and aster
Dessert: Sweet eve strawberry split, clotted cream, lemon and mint