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Sous Chef Mark Sycamore wins Gordon Ramsay Scholarship

Aug 17, 2004

Creating a delicate mousse of goat’s cheese under the close scrutiny of English chef Gordon Ramsay was the “least stressful” stage of a two-day competition, Blanket Bay chef Mark Sycamore, who won the competition in Wellington last week, said.

Mr Ramsay, not known for his gentle nature, was one of six judges at the inaugural Chef Search — the Gordon Ramsay Scholarship Competition.

The scholarship was established in England in 2001 but New Zealand is the first country outside Britain to run the competition.

The winning New Zealand chef gets the opportunity to work for two weeks in one of Mr Ramsay’s restaurants, and enters the British competition in September.
About 100 entrants were whittled down to 12 semi-finalists, who last week clashed knives in a cook-off to determine the winner.

After receiving a “mystery box” of ingredients, entrants had a couple of hours to devise a menu, cook and present their meal to the judging panel. Six finalists repeated the exercise on Day 2 of the competition. Mr Sycamore (24) said cooking the meal was the least of his worries. In a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, there had been six hovering judges, who had allocated points for the cooking process as well as the final result, and a camera crew documenting the competition.

“More stressful was having two television cameras and one still photographer, as well as a couple of judges, all in your face,” he said. “They always seemed to come up when you were doing a particularly delicate job.”

Mr Sycamore’s winning menu included chicken liver parfait with beetroot jam, followed by venison filled with smoked shitake mushrooms, a kumara fondant and a goat’s cheese mousse line.

Mr Ramsay’s potentially ominous presence — his fiery temper gained notoriety after he was caught on camera throwing tantrums during his television series — was water off a duck’s back. “I think a lot of that is hyped up,” Mr Sycamore said, with a smile.

Mr Sycamore has worked at Blanket Bay for just five weeks, but said the style of cooking there, under head chef Jason Dell, was exactly the food that tantalised his taste buds. He calls it EuroPacific — Pacific flavours but cooked in a classical way, using European techniques. “There’s some Asian spices with the best New Zealand product you can find.” Using local, seasonal products was the key, as was developing a relationship with local producers.

As for the recipe for a good chef, it came down to passion and commitment. Two weeks of 18-hour days at one of Mr Ram-say’s Michelin-star restaurants, perhaps working under the man himself, was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.