Last month, I was invited to help the ETM Group judge their annual chefs competition, in which they invite all the chefs working in any of their restaurants to submit their best dish using wild Scottish salmon from Cruden Bay. Owners Tom and Ed Martin had already narrowed down the entries to 6, to be cooked by their creators for us to judge and choose a winner.
My fellow judges were Tom Martin, Andre Compton (ETM’s biggest regular), Bridget Croft (Group Operations Manager), Jessica Dahlin (Group Events & Marketing Manager) and Stuart Singer (ETM PR).
We gathered in the spacious cellar room under The Jugged Hare and, whilst we waited for the first dish to be presented, agreed our judging criteria. Each of us awarded a mark out of 10 for presentation, originality of idea and, of course, taste. Our total scores out of 30 for each dish were then added together to rank the 6 dishes.
Here are the 6 dishes in the order they were served:
Mark Fines, Head Chef at The Gun served “pan fried fillet of wild salmon glazed Jersey royals and baby turnips, semi dried cherry tomatoes, wild garlic and Vermouth velouté”, and there was also an olive and anchovy tapenade on the plate.
I thought this looked attractive on the plate. The salmon was nicely cooked. The potatoes didn’t taste of much, regardless of their glaze. The tomatoes had a lovely balance of sweet sharp. To my surprise, the tapenade didn’t overwhelm the flavour of the salmon. The velouté gave a nice flavour too, though I’d not have been able to identify it if asked. Again, it didn’t overwhelm the salmon, nor clash with the other elements.
My score 22/ 30
Paul Roman, Group Relief Chef entered a dish of “pan fried fillet of wild Scottish salmon, baby fennel, spring peas, asparagus and radish salad, horseradish chantilly”. A small pot of double chicken stock was poured into the dish at the table. As Paul wasn’t able to attend on the day, his dish was cooked for him by Mark Fines.
I really liked the classic combination of salmon and horseradish. The fresh crunchy vegetables underneath worked nicely, like a warm summer salad. Again, the fish itself was cooked perfectly with nice crisp skin. The intense chicken stock was delicious, but I’m not sure it was the ideal choice to pair with the fish.
My score 18/ 30
Nick Butler, Sous Chef at Chiswell Street Dining Rooms served “pan fried fillet of wild Scottish salmon, foie gras, English samphire and apple salad, apple and vanilla purée” and also mentioned a vanilla and lemon oil.
It’s fair to say this dish was the most controversial, with four of us not convinced by the combination of salmon and foie gras, one undecided and one very keen indeed!
As previously, the salmon was beautifully cooked, with crispy skin. The samphire added a very nice crunchy salty note. But whilst I liked the foie gras, apple and vanilla they simply didn’t work at all with the salmon for me. In fact, this felt to me like two separate dishes on the same plate. I’d be delighted to have the foie gras, apple and vanilla as a starter and the salmon and samphire as a fish course. The rich, meaty, fatty foie gras totally disguised the flavour of the salmon and this dish could just have well been made with a bland white fish, to similar but less expensive effect.
My score 16/ 30
Faruk Shalaku, Head Chef at The Well served “pan fried fillet of Scottish salmon, spring vegetable, pea shoot salad, chive butter sauce”.
This dish really did look beautiful on the plate, with the vibrant green of peas, beans and shoots against the pink of the fish. Fish was beautifully cooked again. The sauce was weak on flavour though the vegetables made up for that to an extent. I gave this one good marks for presentation, and fair marks for taste, but marked it down for originality. Nothing wrong with a classic, and that’s what we agreed this dish is, but it didn’t feel like a particularly exciting or original idea to enter into a competition.
My score 19/ 30
Richard O’Connell, Head Chef at Chiswell Street Dining Rooms and The Jugged Hare served “confit of wild salmon, tarragon and Alexander crust, foraged sea beet, Herefordshire rhubarb, lemon crème fraiche, langoustine mousse”.
I loved the appearance of this dish, with the lovely colours from the pink fish and langoustine, the vibrant red rhubarb, the green of the herb crust and the darker green sea beet. It was a really unusual and original combination and yet every single element worked beautifully together on the palate. Not a single element was superfluous. And I was doubly impressed that Richard had been able to present rhubarb, a vegetable I’m not very keen on, in a way that I enjoyed so much.
My score 27/ 30
Philip Kane, Senior Sous Chef at Chiswell Street Dining Rooms stepped in at the last minute when one of the original finalists was unable to attend. He came up with his idea for a dish very much at the last minute and according to what ingredients he found available!
He presented “butter poached wild salmon, langoustine, rainbow chard and smoked haddock cream”.
The salmon was super soft, and the butter made it even richer. The flavours here were big, with a subtle but pleasant hint of star anise in the fishy cream. The langoustine added a hint of sweetness, the chard a pleasant crunch and mineral flavour and the artichoke pieces (if we identified them correctly) gave a nice texture and taste too.
My score 26/ 30
Our aggregated scores revealed Richard O’Connell as the winner and Philip Kane in second place.
As their scores were so close, and Philip had pulled it out of the bag at late notice, Tom decided that both would be awarded the prize of a paid visit to Cruden Bay in Scotland, where the wild salmon is caught.
Congratulations to both and well done to all the chefs; I enjoyed tasting all of your dishes very much.
Kavey Eats was a guest of The ETM Group.