15 Questions with National Chef of the Year Judge Russell Bateman

Oh So London - the city life

He’s mates with Tom Kerridge and has worked alongside chefs like Gordon Ramsey and Marcus Wareing. To say I felt privileged to be interviewing Russell Bateman is an understatement.

If you don’t already know, Russell is the resident chef at Colette’s – the restaurant at the beautiful Grove Hotel in Hertfordshire where I dined on a delicious Sonnet menu earlier this year.

As today was the judging day for the brand new National Chef of the Year competition, it seemed only right to share this interview with you. Because one person who knows what it’s like to walk away with the highly prestigious NCOY title from The Craft Guild of Chefs is Russell himself. He was crowned the winner last year.

Russell Bateman

© Caterer

Russell’s winning menu for the National Chef of the Year 2014 was oysters, scallops, veal sweetbreads and a three way chocolate dessert. The finalists for this year were Lawrence McCarthy, Martin Carabott, Mark Kempson, Lahiru Jayasekara, Luciano Lucioli, Adam Handling and Andrew Ditchfield.

Here, Russell shares what it’s like to enter competitions like the NCOY, what he thinks about the term ‘celebrity chef’ and what goes into the creation of his inventive food.

1.Are you quite a competitive person Russell?

No, not at all. I’m a QPR fan so it helps to not be competitive! When I was younger I used to play a lot of sport and I always enjoyed being involved but I was never a bad loser or anything like that. The winning wasn’t everything to me. It carries on in life, I just like being involved, but it was nice to win, don’t get me wrong.

2. So, did it mean a lot to you winning the National Chef of The Year last year?

Yeah, definitely, it was massive, because it was my second time in the final (I was in the final the year before) and it was as much to prove to myself what I could do and what I was capable of, as winning the title itself and to impress the judges. We had some really top chefs judging it including Marcus Wareing, Tom Kerridge, Philip Howard, Clare Smith, Jason Atherton… the list goes on. So obviously the competition was massive, but it was as much to show my peers – who I’ve learned so much from – what I’m capable of and have learnt over the years. So it was awesome.

3. Is it a ‘must’ to enter competitions such as NCOY in your industry?

No I don’t think it is but from my point of view, I’ve worked in places that have constantly been in the media and people have constantly been talking about them and they’ve had that spotlight on them. But now I’m at the Grove I’m not London-based so it’s good to do something to raise your profile and keep people interested. So it was my way of reaching out to people.

Colette's bar

Collete’s Restaurant and bar at The Grove © Paul Winch-Furness

4. Can you describe the dishes you created for last year’s competition? 

For the starter, I made a scallop and apple tartare with an oyster pana cotta, celeriac consommé and some coastal herbs. The main was roasted veal sweetbreads with garam masala, black garlic, cream girolles and sherry vinegar. And I did a turnip garnish but based it on a Sag Aloo, so I substituted the potatoes with turnips. I cooked some shallots down really slowly with garam masala and added lots of butter and used really finely sliced turnip, stirring through spinach, so it was a really delicious turnip garnish.

And for dessert…?

The dessert was a take on a rocky road because when I go out for a coffee in Costa or Starbucks – or wherever it might be – if there’s a rocky road there, I’ll always go for that, every time. So I wanted to do something that was fun…

With all my dishes I show a different aspect of what I think food’s about. So there was a lot of refinement in the starter – it was really fresh and clean and all about the ingredients. Then in the main course, it was about robust flavours and deliciousness. And then the dessert was about having a bit of fun. Desserts should be a bit fun and a bit naughty, shouldn’t they?

National Chef of the Year

5. Do you have a sweet tooth?

I do, yeah. I eat a lot of sweet stuff in the kitchen to keep me going…

6. Who has been your biggest influence, professionally, in your career?

I’ve worked with Marcus (Wareing) for the longest but I also think that I’m influenced by other chefs I’ve worked with, including Nico (Ladenis) and Daniel Clifford. And as you get older, you become less influenced by people and you kind of find your own way and forget who you were influences by in the first place. But working with Marcus for so long has been a hugely influential on where I am today.

7. Is he as scary as he seems to be?

Where’s the pause button? (reaches for the recorder). Nah Marcus is alright. He’s got really high standards and if you achieve those standards and you’re doing your job then he’s happy with you. When you’re running a restaurant like that, you have to maintain standards because that’s the expectation of the guest. If all of a sudden, the restaurant’s empty, there’s only one person they’re going to blame, and it’s not Russell Bateman cooking the meat and fish. So that’s the reality of it.

Colette's at The Grove Hotel

© Paul Winch-Furness

8. Do you ever suffer with nerves if you know you’re cooking for a special guest?

I suffer with nerves every night. I never go in the restaurant…

9. Some chefs like taking centre stage and they like being in the spotlight…

Not me, no. I like to talk to people about food but would rather do it on a one-on-one basis than walk into a room full of people eating my food. I couldn’t bare that to be honest.

10. Some people would say that chefs of your standard are big exhibitionists and want to have this celebrity status and be admired… is that not you?

No. And if you think like that, then there’s a good chance you’re not going to continue to improve and you’re going to rest on your laurels. [If you don’t get complacent] you are going to try and change things and make things better. I’ve been to [very high end] restaurants where the chef overcooked the fois gras so badly I had to leave and refused to pay for it. I couldn’t believe it.

Some chefs [need to] go and sit in their own restaurant [and learn] more about what it’s like to be on that side of the door.

11. How do you do that? How do you stay in touch with the diners’ experience?

I have regulars who I speak to in the bar, and I eat out as much as I can. Before we do the dishes that go out on the menu we taste them, and we share it around the kitchen to see what everyone else thinks. That’s the best way to do it because if you’ve got 10 people and it’s an open forum, for everyone to contribute – and they feel that they can, honestly – then that’s the only way you’re going to grow.

12. What are your favourite restaurants?

I have restaurants I would absolutely love to eat in (more) and adore – including Kitchen Table and Bubble Dogs. I went to Gymkhana recently and thought that was amazing. There’s also Hedone in Chiswick (fantastic meal), Midsummer House (Daniel Clifford), The Hand and Flowers (Tom Kerridge), obviously, Paul Ainsworth at Number 6 Restaurant in Padstow… but these are all places that everyone knows.

13. Tom Kerridge is a mate of yours. Do you talk ‘shop’ when you’re around each other?

Yeah we talk about food and the job, but we don’t talk about where do you get your fish from – he’s well beyond that now – but we will go to a gig together and we will probably talk more about what the bass player’s wearing than… you know what I mean? (Laughs).

Tom Kerridge

14. When you put your menu together, do you take any inspiration from particular cuisines?

Not a particular cuisine. But I’m a Londoner and being from West London (I grew up in Hayes, in Middlesex) we used to go to Southall a lot and eat Indian food, so I do enjoy spices and aroma. But London is the most cosmopolitan city in the world, there’s nowhere like it, and it’s an absolute melting pot for everything. So you’re just influenced constantly every day by something different.

15. How would you describe your food. Would you say it’s quite adventurous?

It might sound strange to you but I really struggle [to describe myself], you know. Someone said to me the other day ‘You’re a classically trained chef Russell,’ and I said yeah, I absolutely am. There’s nothing I’m doing that’s completely out of the ordinary or odd, but maybe that’s just me…

Yes, I think that’s just you Russell…

Thank you to the incredibly talented (and extremely modest) Russell Bateman for sparing the time to talk to Oh So London. Watch out NCOY you have a tough one to beat!

Russell Bateman

© Caterer

Until next time x

For more details about The National Chef of the Year, visit craftguildofchefs.org, follow them on twitter @craft_guild and find them on Facebook.