Chris Niven is one of two Scottish chefs to reach this stage of the competition, which will see the chefs cook a dish on the spot from a mysterious box of ingredients.
Following his appearance on MasterChef: The Professionals in 2017, chef Chris Niven has gone on to work in some of Fife’s best kitchens, including the Fairmont in St Andrews 2019 and, most recently, The Adamson in the town, too.
But these past few weeks, Chris has been working away on new food and drink hub Tasting Spoon‘s inaugural Chef of the Year competition, for which he has managed to reach the final.
Having been whittled down from 380 applicants to a shortlist of 12, then a quarter-final of only four, Chris is one of two Scottish chefs to reach this stage of the competition.
Speaking to The Courier about being one of two Scots to reach the final, Chris said it was good to be representing the nation after he applied to take part while on furlough.
He said: “It feels good. The fact that it’s the whole of Britain as well that’s competing makes it even better. To get down to the final four for the Chef of the Year is really quite exciting. It’s good to also be representing Scotland in that way, especially when you’re competing against a lot of talented people who also entered the competition.
“I was on furlough at the time I applied and was sort of looking around at what was happening. I did the National Chef of the Year competition last year through the Craft Guild of Chefs. I got to the semi-finals in that and that was during the very first lockdown. It was just to keep myself creative and busy at home so I wasn’t just sitting doing nothing.
“I was then looking for something similar to do this year, so this one came up and I’d found it by chance online. It sounded interesting and the fact that it’s the competition’s first year as well seems like a good time to get involved in it.”
For the first stage of the competition, entrants had to submit a three-course menu using ingredients local to them, along with pictures. For Chris’ entry, which got him through to the next round, he made the most of Scotland’s natural larder.
He continued: “For the application, we also had to submit a three-course seasonal menu. My starter was confit salmon, which was blow-torched, then I served that with an oyster, prosecco and dill split cream, then that was garnished with roasted cucumber, pickled apple and some more dill to garnish.
“For the main course, I did a ribeye of beef, with wild garlic emulsion, potato rosti, king oyster mushroom, a beef oxtail sauce to go with that, and the rosti potato actually had some of the oxtail through it. That was then topped with some creme fraiche and pickled onion.
“Then dessert was chocolate and rhubarb delice, so it had a crispy chocolate crunch base with almonds, chocolate creme in the centre and raspberry jelly. Then, along with that I had some poached rhubarb, a rhubarb ripple ice cream and some candied almonds.”
Following on from their mouth-watering menu submissions in the first stage, the lucky chefs who made it through to the second round, including Chris, were interviewed on Tasting Spoon’s Instagram page about their thoughts on the future of the hospitality industry.
Chris said: “Stage two of the competition was essentially an interview where you had to come up with your signature dish which, if you get to the final, that’s the dish you have to cook. But you didn’t have to cook it there and then, and they didn’t ask for any pictures. We had to describe it and where we planned to source the products from.
“Then they asked a little bit about my background, how we see the hospitality trade going forward, following both the pandemic and Brexit. I guess it was information to see that you’re keeping an eye on things and what you think is going to happen.”
Chris and his fellow competitors are only a few weeks away from competing in an on-the-spot cook-off for their next challenge, which he reveals will involve being sent a mystery box with all the ingredients he needs to cook up a potentially winning dish.
He added: “I haven’t been told when stage three is going to happen, all I know is that it’s going to be around the middle of April.
“For that, we will get sent a mystery box of ingredients, which Tasting Spoon will send to our house and I have to film it start to finish – from receiving the box, to opening it. We need to start filming as soon as we open the box and cook straight away.
“We have to come up with a dish there and then, cook it and then present it. There isn’t to be any editing or anything like that. We’re only able to use the products that are in the box as well.”
Jes James, who is one of the founders of Midlands-based Tasting Spoon and organisers of the competition, said the idea came on the back of their successful “Takeaway Awards” last year, though making it UK-wide hadn’t always been the plan.
Jes said: “The competition was and wasn’t always in the plan for us. Last year we did a very local three counties – Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire – Takeaway Awards. It was for all the different restaurants that have either converted or are doing takeaways and people could vote for their favourite.
“So the Chef of the Year Awards was meant to be an extension of the Takeaway Awards. Then we had all these world-class chefs, like Chris Niven, entering so we thought we may as well make it as big as the chefs are that are entering, if not bigger.
“We had 380 entries for the very first stage, and we had to narrow that down to 12. But being able to celebrate that sort of talent during an unfortunate time when they can’t be working in the kitchen is great.”
Road to the final
On the next stage of the competition, Jes mentioned that the quarter-finalists are in for a treat.
He added: “For the quarter-finals, we will be sending out a box that is a complete mystery to the chefs as to what the ingredients will be.
“It’s going to be a mixture of produce and different proteins, which we will start sending out from April 19. What they’ll have to do is video themselves creating the dish from start to finish and then the best will win from that stage and get through.
“Then, fingers crossed there are no more lockdowns or anything, we’ll actually get to meet the chefs in the semi-final where they’ll be going on to do a pantry competition. For this they’ll literally be cooking on the spot whatever they want from what we have in our pantry.
“Everything we are doing, from this stage onwards will be put straight onto our Instagram or YouTube. YouTube content is going to be bigger for the semi-final and final, as those two stages will be fed live through the platform.”