Top Mark

Mar 23, 2006

Queenstown chef Mark Sycamore returned from London yesterday (Wednesday) with a prestigious feather in his culinary cap. Writes Cath Gimour.

The Blanket Bay Lodge chef last week came a creditable third in Europe's top competition for chefs under 25 - the Gordon Ramsay Scholar Award grand final.

Most finalists had already worked in Michelin one and two star restaurants, the cream of European eateries. Sycamore and nine other contestants were given an ingredient list and 30 minutes to design three courses - a mackerel entree, chicken main and crême caramel dessert - before being given the ingredients and three hours to prepare and serve.

Pressure was intense, Sycamore says, because he had no watch and there was no clock visible – so he borrowed a judge's cell phone to time his most delicate creations.

Two TV cameras, two still photographers and two judges then stood half a metre from his face while he plated up, which was also nerve-wracking.

Sycamore won the opportunity to become the first ever non-UK chef in the final by winning the inaugural NZ Chef Search competition in May, also learning the chance to experience working in two of Ramsay's top London restaurants.

He saw the famous tantrum-throwing maestro only fleetingly during his two weeks at the Savoy Grill and Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road but says the celeb chef's media image is hyped beyond kitchen reality.

This top kitchen reality is “really, really hard," Sycamore says, with 14 chefs working 7am-1am shifts with only one half-hour break to serve 40 for lunch and 60 for dinner.

Roles are incredibly regimented, he says, compared to the ‘jack of all trades' approach in Kiwi restaurant kitchens.

UK-born Sycamore, who's just turned 25, is disappointed he's now too old to have a crack at winning the award next sear.

For now, the Kiwi citizen says he's happy to return to Blanket Bay - "Recognised as one of the best places in the world for our market" - and concentrate on his sous-chef role, while enjoying summer in the Wakatipu.

The Blanket Bay crew is overjoyed at their young colleague's success. "We are really pleased on behalf of Mark,' says general manager Philip Jenkins, "he certainly deserves it, he's outstanding.

"Everything he seems to go in for, he cleans up - he's really very, very highly thought of. "Sycamore's immediate superior, Blanket Bay executive chef Jason Dell, is also generous in his praise. Even getting to London was a coup - the young chef was among 200 entries in the NZ preliminary leg of the contest, later whittled down to 30 contestants.