Chef's Pass - inploi meets David Mulcahy, Vice President of The Craft Guild of Chefs inploi Team | 17.11.2016
Last week, inploi met with David Mulcahy, the Vice President of The Craft Guild of Chefs. The Craft Guild of Chefs is the UK’s leading chef association, established in 1965. Originally known as the Guild of the Food and Cookery Association (CFA), the Guild still holds a royal patronage which dates back to the organisation’s original founding in the late 1800s. Although it boasts one of the world’s most highly respected membership lists, the organisation manages to maintain a unique accessibility, offering membership from students and trainees, through to top-tier management and Michelin-starred chefs.
David’s first experience with the Guild began when he was asked to join the Craft Guild’s competitive team. Competing internationally, the team won first place in Luxembourg, and upon returning to the UK were invited to visit the Guild’s patron at the time, the Queen Mother at St James’ Palace. The Craft Guild of Chefs is proud of their lineage, but continues to change and develop year-on-year, providing a network of worldwide chefs of all ages and culinary backgrounds. Although there is a fee to join, the Guild’s activities are largely supported by its members, who generously offer their time, knowledge and skills to the network. “Chefs, for some reason work long, often anti-social hours but we still feel we need to give something back - some sort of mentorship. I don’t know why. So we all tend to be involved with colleges or schools, and that’s what the Guild really allows to happen.”
Like other London-based chefs and restaurateurs that we have interviewed, David’s choice to work in the hospitality industry seemed more unconscious than one might expect. Having discovered his love of food and cooking during his A-levels working part-time in various local hotels and restaurants in Galway, Ireland, he decided to pursue a career as a chef, in spite of the lack of career advice given for the industry at the time. David commented, “I just loved the buzz and the feel of that industry. I decided that I wanted to go to college and take up being a chef.” Working in some of the best local restaurants, where the chefs were “passionate about fresh food and cooking from scratch”, he learnt the ropes of working in a professional kitchen before moving to the UK to pursue his career aspirations further.
As Vice President of the Guild, David also manages several of The Craft Guild’s annual competitions, including The Craft Guild of Chef Awards, National Chef of the Year (NCOTY) and Young National Chef of the Year Awards (YNCOTY), for those aged 18-23 years old. Founded in 1972, the NCOTY Awards has become a well-established and respected competition, attracting competitors from across the UK. 16 years ago, when David first began to organise it, the competition was run as a bi-annual event. However, with its rising popularity, the competition finals are now hosted annually at Olympia in London during The Restaurant Show. Over the years, David has worked hard to transform the competition to increase its accessibility and inclusivity; targeting both previous competitors and those who expressed an interest, but perhaps deferred their entry for another year. “I felt that we needed to be kept relevant to the market. Typically those that entered were male, 25-30, classically-trained chefs. And I thought the market is Asian, Indian, multi-cultural. So it changed - for a few years I had various categories in there. Today, people come from various nationalities and various work environments. So now I’m on the campaign for female entries.”
But the ambition for the competition doesn’t end there. David seeks for it to be the most sought-after competition in the UK, attracting teams of competitors from the industry’s top restaurants. So how does the National Chef of the Year Awards work?
Step 1 - Open Entry
Chefs submit an entry form online which is edited to remove all information as to where the chef may train/work. Eleven elite judges are invited to judge the entrants over a 2-3 week period. They then meet to collate marks and select the top 40 chefs.
Step 2 - The Top 40
The top 40 finalists are put through to the semi-finals, with heats held in Sheffield and London. At this stage, they are judged by a different round of judges bar a few who are kept to maintain consistency across the competition and both semi-finals. “Is the second best in Sheffield the second best in London? We need to have a synergy and understanding of what that looks like. We want the top ten to be genuinely the strongest and the best.” (The only continuum are the VP of the Craft Guild of Chefs, the Chair of Judges (in 2016 this was held by Clare Smyth), and two other judges).
Step 3 - The Top 10
The top 10 entrants are then hosted at a mentor day in London. This is to make sure that the competitors fully understand the competition - what is involved and what will be happening in the background in terms of marketing and social media. A mystery basket of ingredients is then unveiled to the competitors. “Then they’re on a clock - they get 7 days - till 5 o’clock the following Friday. They have to have submitted a menu with their ingredients, and then we do all the ordering for them. They bring nothing because they’re marked on the use they make of the basket of ingredients, and any wastage. That’s also part of the marking. It’s changed very much over the years, and it continues to change, and that’s the beauty of it.”
In previous years the competitors were given a basket of goods the morning of the competition, however, as the profile of the competition has grown, so too has the expectations of the public who attend The Restaurant Show to watch the finals. The judges soon realised that asking a chef to produce their best food from a basket of unseen ingredients on the day would inevitably leave some pitfalls in their cooking and presentation. “Often, chefs aren’t good pastry chefs, but they’re good at other things. Now they have a week in order to get their menu done. But once they’ve done that, they’ve got time to practice.”
The day of the competition is busy, with the competitors from the senior and junior competition being judged by 31 judges (a lot of whom hold Michelin stars). Ten years ago, the judges were required to judge across courses, leaping from fish to ice cream and then back to savoury dishes. Now they judge one course, for the exception of three judges who look at the overall balance of each menu. The first half of the day is judged on a different criteria to the second and next year the cooks will also have a new ‘behind the scenes’ judge who will mark them based on their work practices alone. The chefs are held to high standards across the board, being judged on preparation, practice, taste and presentation.
The Young National Chef of the Year (YNCOTY) competition is run on a slightly different basis. Having been introduced five years ago, its prominence in the industry precedes its age. David implemented the competition as a way to expand the competition offerings without needing to introduce an entirely new award scheme, which would be costly for the Guild to establish. David commented, “If you start something from nothing, you have to create the whole thing. But also the way we do it, we invite people by invitation only. We keep an eye on young people in the industry who are doing particularly good things.” The entry process is simplified, with up to four of the ten finalists each year being put forward automatically from other prestigious competitions where the guidelines are closely aligned to those of the Young National Chef of the Year Awards. These include The Academy of Culinary Arts, The Craft Guild Graduate Awards and The British Culinary Federation’s Young Chef of the Year. However, as awareness of the competition has grown, the number of applications increased and heats were introduced (held back-to-back with those for the senior competition) as a means of selecting finalists.
David remarked, “The quality of at least half of those ten is phenomenal. The reaction from the judges is always, ‘The juniors are better than the seniors’. But it’s only because they have a different set of guidelines. And because of their level at work, they have chefs who guide them.” For the finalists and winners of these competitions, their success can be career-changing. Last year’s YNCOTY winner, Danny Hoang was able to complete a stage at world-class restaurant Momofoku in New York City, where he now continues to work, and this year’s NCOTY champion, James Devine will be assisted to write his own cookbook over the course of this year.
For those who don’t make it into the top three, the competition still works to raise their profile, expand their experience and seemingly serves to increase their hunger to compete another year. This year’s YNCOTY champion, Ruth Hansom had previously entered the competition three times before being announced winner. Unknown to many outside the cheffing world, competitions are very important in the industry as a tool for learning and development, as well as a means for chefs to explore the breadth of the industry beyond the four walls of their own kitchen. “Often competition is about the recognition and developing yourselves, as opposed to the medal at the end. It’s kind of the journey more so than the end result. For the most part if there’s an event going on, and someone says, ‘Can I be part of it?’, people would say, ‘Yes of course, come along’.”
For the competition’s 2017 title-holders, the year ahead will play host to a busy and exciting array of events and activities, including interaction with sponsors, PR and press, as well as conversation with potential future employers at the world’s top restaurants. (We’ll be keeping a particularly keen eye out for the forthcoming pop-up lunch and dinner event, hosted by this year’s champions, Ruth and James). It is this ongoing, fast-paced interaction with the industry’s young stars that inspires and motivates David to continue working in hospitality, and last year, his service to the industry was recognised as he was awarded The Craft Guild of Chef’s Order of Merit. David spoke modestly on the matter saying, “It was very nice to be acknowledged. I suppose I spend a lot of time giving out awards. Every now and again, it’s nice to get something. I still feel as enthusiastic and passionate as I was back then because I do a lot with young people. A lot of mentoring. And helping put things together so that chefs can get further.”
Food and cooking have become central to our everyday lives - infiltrating our life through TV, rhetoric on diets, trends, multi-cultural cooking, events and festivals. Even though this is serving to spark young people’s interests, it seems that there is still not enough activity, particularly in schools to promote careers in hospitality - something that David is keen to change: “Where I’d like to see more movement is getting to the point where a career in this hospitality industry is first choice. It’s something that careers teachers at schools promote rather than it being somewhere down a chain of choices. I feel quite strongly about that, because it’s a great industry. The industry has to be clearer about what that career path looks like, but equally [the hospitality industry] deserves intelligent, forward-thinking people to be a part of it.”
This interview has been edited for publishing purposes.
About the author: Victoria Bushnell is Head of Marketing/PR at inploi.