East London chef who’s cooked around the world since the age of 16 competes for top award won by Gordon Ramsay

“I’m feeling as ready as I can be,” Ross Brown, 28, says with a nervous smile as we discuss the upcoming finals of the National Chef of the Year competition.

The finals, which take place next week, will see 12 of Britain’s most talented young chefs go head-to-head in preparing a three-course meal which tells their story of the pandemic through food.

Previous winners of the award include Gordon Ramsay, so Ross is in great company, and he can’t wait to put all that he’s learned in his 12-year career to the test.

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Ross has more than 12 years’ experience under his belt, from cooking in French ski chalets and on the Sydney Harbour to a short stint at the world’s best restaurant in Copenhagen

Ross’s story

Stoke Newington-based Ross, now chef de partie for BaxterStorey, has been cooking professionally since around the age of 16, though his love for food extends back into his childhood.

Born in Glasgow but raised between Greece, Budapest and Buckinghamshire, he has recently settled in London after travelling around Australia, France and South East Asia.

He has cooked around the world, starting off at luxury hotel Hartwell House as a teenager after leaving school at 16.

“I wasn’t the most academic person,” he said. “I didn’t enjoy school, but I’ve always wanted to be a chef since I was a little kid.

“My school let me do an NVQ level one during my GCSEs, so I could get started in my career already. I was lucky enough to know the head chef at Chequers, for the Prime Minister – he was my brother’s football coach – and he gave me an amazing start to my career cooking for some pretty important people after school and on the weekends.”

A few years later, Ross set off to Australia on a Working Holiday Visa, landing chef jobs in gorgeous Sydney Harbour restaurants and corporate catering.

One of Ross's recent dishes: Chicken, sweetcorn, pommes anna and girolles

One of Ross’s recent dishes: Chicken, sweetcorn, pommes anna and girolles

After some time off to explore South East Asia and a ski season cooking in a chalet in France – which he describes as “the best six months of my life” as he created bespoke meals for customers from menus he’d designed – Ross was back to the grind in the UK working as a sous chef at his old stomping ground, Hartwell House.

Little did he know, returning to the site of his college training, that he was about to cater for the 2013 G7 summit, feeding world leaders and heads of state.

“It was really cool,” Ross said. “Seeing the meeting rooms set up for the press conferences, the security was through the roof, secret service guys all over the place – such a cool experience.”

The year before his high-profile G7 gig came another of Ross’s career highlights – an internship, or ‘stage’, at then-world-number-one restaurant Noma in Copenhagen.

He worked there, unpaid, for a fortnight to learn from the best of the best.

Ross explained: “The sous chef from Hartwell went to work there a few years down the track, and I got in touch just to say ‘look, I’d love the opportunity to be able to come out’ – and that’s very, very hard to do. At the time it was the number one restaurant in the world, so as you can imagine everyone wanted to work there.

“I was so lucky that he managed to get me in for a two week stint there – I’m so lucky, just being able to go into a three [Michelin] star kitchen and, at the time, the best restaurant in the world – that was insane.”

Squid ink cracker, puffed rice, tuna, wasabi and whipped avocado

Squid ink cracker, puffed rice, tuna, wasabi and whipped avocado

‘The produce you get in London is second-to-none’

Now working in London as a chef de partie for a global financial services company, Ross loves how the quality of food and restaurants in the city breeds excellence.

“There’s so much competition – if you think about it, there aren’t that many average places to eat, because they don’t survive,” he said.

“The competition is so tough here and that’s such a great thing, because the standard is raised by everyone. The standard of cooking here is great, everyone’s pushing each other forward.”

Ross is championing local London suppliers for his career-defining entry to the National Chef of the Year Awards 2021 – which he says are “some of the best in the world”.

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After what Ross describes as a “messed up year for the industry”, the brief for this year’s competition encourages chefs to tell their story of the pandemic through food, so he’s chosen to showcase the highlights of some of the small East London food producers he discovered during lockdown.

For his final course, the ‘lockdown dessert’, Ross is creating a childhood favourite with a North East London twist.

“My lockdown baking was sticky toffee pudding, that was our thing,” he said.

“In my household it was always a massive dessert, it was always sticky toffee pudding, so I tried to make my spin-off on that by using the foundations of it but doing it in a way that you might not have had before.

“I found this honey that’s made in Stoke Newington, it’s made in a housing estate, and it’s absolutely amazing.

“I discovered it during lockdown, because my girlfriend has really bad hayfever and she’d read that you should eat local honey to help with hayfever. She bought this honey from a corner shop, I tasted it and it was unreal – it’s probably the best honey I’ve ever eaten. It’s called N16 Honey.

“So I’ve based my whole dessert around this honey, it’s unreal, the flavour’s amazing, and I really wanted to champion what those guys were doing – it’s a small community project, they only sell it at a corner shop in Stoke Newington.

“That’s London to a tee – they’ve got beehives on top of a block of flats!”

The bees for N16 Honey feast on nectar from wildflowers on the Hackney Marshes

The bees for N16 Honey feast on nectar from wildflowers on the Hackney Marshes

Ross explained that he wanted to do away with the heavy toffee flavour in the pudding and replace it with the lighter honey flavour for the ‘sticky’ element, adding a twist to a classic and also give a taste (quite literally) of the London he loves.

After he competes against his eleven competitors at CORD by Le Cordon Bleu next week – a list whittled down from 33 shortlisted chefs – the winner will be revealed at a VIP red-carpet premiere at the Everyman Broadgate cinema on October 21.

“The best food will win, it doesn’t matter about your accolades, your Michelin stars – it’s you, your stove and your ingredients,” Ross said.

“I feel like I’ve practiced enough, I know my dishes, I’m confident in them. I just need to perform on the day.”

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