Milton Keynes Food Awards

by Jo Kenny

Do you remember original 90s Masterchef? The one with Lloyd Grossman in the black studio with the neon blue, red and yellow kitchens? I loved that show as a kid. And whilst I think most viewers would be cast off into imagining how wonderful it would be to compete and win a show like that, I was contemplating what a cool job it would be to judge. I suppose that’s where the beginning of my love for reviewing food came from. How very lucky I feel now that I’m all grown up, that I get to have a go at being a food judge right here in my hometown.

I’ve been a judge for the Milton Keynes Food Awards since 2015. Local chefs from the city’s restaurants take part in a day of competitive cooking with the hope of being crowned Chef of The Year. The amount of chefs entering has grown and grown; this year a total of nine attended from local pubs, Italians, smokehouses and fine dining backgrounds. We even had one student entry from the local college.

The Line Up:

For the chefs this day is very serious and as the years have passed it seems to have gained more and more prestige. I arrived this year to find some chefs pacing up and down, some getting last minute pep talks from mentors, and one chef even turned up 3 hours early!

The starter, as always, is a mystery box round. Chefs take their pick from a surprise selection of ingredients to make something totally unplanned. This part of the competition tests their imagination, quick thinking and ability to work with a wide range of ingredients.

Rather than sit back and patiently wait for the food to arrive at the judges table, we all take to the kitchens to look over the shoulders of the chefs, ask them questions about their processes, point camera lenses at them and generally get in their way as they work against the clock. Hey, we didn’t say this was easy!

Jeff, who won the cook off in 2015 has been a judge for the last 2 years.

In the remaining 5 minutes of the round we retreat back to the judges table and do just a little bit of patient waiting. Soon the starters come creeping out one by one…

Not the prettiest dish but for me Nelson street won this round with a delicious crispy egg that had a thick, crunchy breaded coating and beautiful runny yolk inside. Perfectly paired with smokey lardons and roasted vegetables.

And then came the risottos…

*Sigh* Instant marking down from me. In a cheffing competition I want to see exciting and imaginative dishes and risotto in my opinion is the lazy option. Crispy egg? Great! I’ve never made one of those, how do you make it? Risotto? Meh, made one the other night. So there you go chefs, a note for next year. Skip the risotto in favour of something more adventurous!

Onto the mains and this round is all about showing off what the chefs do best. We’re looking for their signature dish and all the passion that should come along with it.

I can’t imagine there is anything more infuriating for a chef against the clock than me nosing around at all the pots and pans full of delicious things asking, “Ooh what’s that?”

I just love watching the chefs at work though. How they have to switch from zooming around looking after 5 different things at once, to slowing down to focus on something delicate. It takes some nerve!

With the chefs in control this round of what they were making, I was quite blown away by the standard as beautifully presented dishes began to emerge.

Tom Humphries from Binn Smokehouse created a beautiful looking take on the classic duck a l’orange. Dishes are scored on not just taste, but presentation and technique. So rather than eating a forkful and deciding if it does of doesn’t taste nice, we’re also looking at the composition of the plate, the balance of flavours, the use of crockery, the level of skill that has gone into the elements. It’s a lot to think about!

Jacob Wright from MK Brasserie created a lovely spring dish with a gin jus.

That tortellini work paid off. Beautiful right?

Liam Barnes from The Anchor won me over for the best looking main, it looked like a little work of art and I very much enjoyed the delicate sweetbreads.

Jon Adriaenssens from Bell and Bear came to the table with a refreshing change from European flavours with some East Asian influences. Those little crunchy onion rings were amazing!

Nonna’s dishes at the cook off have become easily identifiable for me, with their trios and platters. Nonna’s (who have had different chefs compete each year) seem to dislike showcasing just one dish and this year was lamb three ways*. I can’t say I like this approach as I feel it dilutes the quality.

Dessert is always my favourite round and is a test of technique. In previous years the chefs have all been asked to make the same dessert, but this year they were given a theme which opened the dishes up to a lot more creativity. 1960’s inspired desserts were the brief and seeing everyone’s different interpretations was absolutely my favourite part of the day. Sweet tooth at the ready!

Jacob (MK Brasserie) made a pistachio meringue cake: satisfyingly chewy and nicely paired with a rich dark chocolate ganache. One for those who don’t like their desserts too sickly.

Yes! How much fun is this with the little umbrella? Binn Smokehouse’s Tom took us back to the popular upside down cake with some modern lemon grass flavours alongside the tropical.

Baked alaska was another 60s favourite and is definitely a favourite of mine. In fact, judging this round made me feel that it’s about time baked alaska made a come back on modern menus. My favourite dish of the entire day came from Liam representing The Anchor with his cherry and chocolate version.

It arrived to the table looking a little clumsy and I did worry for Liam as I observed him moving around the kitchen at a million miles an hour, hands shaking as he prepared the dainty contents of the baked Alaska. But my God, did he deliver on taste! Discs of chocolate sponge and cherry liquor, sandwiching chocolate ice cream and covered in a thick layer of marshmallowy meringue, with the odd sour cherry dotted around the plate. The flavours were just incredible and other judges chuckled at me as I returned again and again to try a bit more!

Representing the Black Horse in Woburn, Neil’s enthusiasm for his cooking is nothing short of infectious. He moves about the kitchen like a kid in a sweetshop and goes into great detail when explaining his food. In this case Neil had interpreted the brief with a story about the rise of instant coffee in the 1960s, presenting for us a beautiful arrangement of coffee sponge, coffee jelly, coffee cream and a little something in a milk bottle… which you’re safe to assume was also coffee flavoured. Both the story and the flavours were just lovely, save for the little something in the bottle actually being panna cotta which we couldn’t reach with our spoons, whoops!

Damien interpreted the brief with the psychedelic 60’s, and looking at the plate it was certainly that. It is undeniable that this dish took some guts to serve and is anything but a safe option. But once again too many separate elements are served at once to be a coherent, well executed dish.

I’ve gotta say, with nine chefs entering this year and marking them all on taste, technique and presentation, whilst taking photos and live updates on Instagram I felt quite exhausted by the end of it all! I’m sure that tasting a whopping 27 dishes contributed to that. The day is always filled with surprises and dark horses, this year I was incredibly impressed with Jacob from MK Brasserie who really held his own against more experienced chefs. For a student to blend in so well with working chefs I think speaks volumes about his potential.

As always, the end of the day is finished with a lively debate between judges on the result of the winning chef, which will be revealed 7th May 2017. Watch this space!

*Edited 11.04.17 – I had incorrectly described the dish.

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