Leading Lights- Nick Smith

While the lure of the Mod lifestyle ultimately meant his father’s career in the kitchen was fairly short-lived, Nick volunteered to join him as a teenager after his dad had decided to enrol on a cookery course to re-engage with one of his first loves. Nick soon became hooked himself and though his dad’s cooking remained at home, Nick enrolled at Southend College and began his own kitchen journey. Thirty years passed and after working in restaurants such as Le Pont de la Tour, The Arts Club in Dover St and Chinon, Nick is now Head Chef at Vacherin working at Ashurst and has just achieved another career goal by becoming National Chef of the Year on his fifth attempt.

So, fifth time lucky, how was the experience and how does it feel to win the prestigious National Chef of the Year crown?

The whole experience has been unbelievable and it’s still not really sunk in yet, especially with the three-week break before the announcement. It was probably the longest three weeks of my life and I’m sure I have been driving my wife up the wall as you can’t help but look back, dissect and doubt your performance and dishes. To be crowned champion though is the ultimate reward and I am so thankful to my brigade at Ashurst, and of course my family, who have been amazingly supportive throughout.

Can you put your finger on anything different that you did this year that may have given you an extra edge?

My previous experiences of being there and making the top three
certainly helped but nothing can really prepare you for the intense atmosphere at the final and the nerves that come with it. In one way, the strange circumstances this year may have helped to give me that extra impetus as with lockdown happening it meant I really explored the surrounding area where I live for ingredients, produce and special suppliers. Along with my trusted suppliers who have supported me for years, I was able to visit and source some local delicacies that added provenance and something extra special. In fact, I would recommend that everyone does it as you will be amazed by the quality produce we all have on our doorstep.

It must have been a weird experience this year with the pandemic?

Definitely but in one way it gave me even more motivation. You only need
to look around the UK and the world to see people going the extra mile and showing real resilience in the face of the pandemic so I was passionate that it wouldn’t stop me competing this year. In fact, the NCOTY competition was even more important this year to showcase the best of an industry that has given us so much and has been hit so hard recently. I think all the competitors did the industry proud.

How did it you approach it differently and what were the challenges?

While finishing third last year was an amazing achievement, I was left with
a small sense of disappointment as a lot of work goes into the preparation.
I was doubting whether I would do it again but as soon as saw the brief, my excitement levels rose and I knew I had to give it another bash. The preparation was very different this year with much of the practising and testing taking place at home, which is always a bit strange as it’s great to bounce ideas off my brigade. However, James Coe my sous chef was immense and I owe him a hell of a lot.

Tell us about your philosophy in the kitchen and how you set about creating your menu?

I’m not the greatest when talking about myself so when I was asked this previously, I asked my Exec Chef to my style. He said considered, classical and refined. I think this is a good description but I would embellish it by saying my passion is for simple, classical dishes with a modern edge that really showcase and celebrate humble ingredients. Less is often so much more.

What would you say to young chefs out there, considering a career in the industry and thinking about chef competitions?

If you love food and drink, it really is the most incredible sector to work in
and I consider myself lucky every day to be doing what I am doing. There is no doubt competitions are tough but the personal development you gain from them really can’t be quantified. If I look back at my five previous
NCOTYs, I can visibly trace my improvements and learnings. Dealing with the pressure and working to a brief to create dishes will only improve your all-round skills and give you further confidence.

Who has been your biggest influence and inspiration outside and inside of the kitchen?

Outside the kitchen, my wife, sons and dad have always inspired me. My son Sammy is 14 years old now and loves to cook so it fills me with
immense pride that he may follow me into the kitchen, as I did my own dad.
In terms of inspiration from inside the kitchen, as a young chef I loved Marco Pierre White, Raymond Blanc and Pierre Koffman but my biggest heroes are my brigade at Ashurst. Their energy, passion and positivity
each and every day inspires me so much and makes me so thankful to be working alongside them and in this amazing industry. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I would not have won this NCOTY crown without them.

What is your favourite meal of the day and why?

Very tough to answer but a quality breakfast takes some beating. My wife makes a fantastic bacon and egg butty and it really is the pinnacle.

What are your next goals?

I’m going to have a bit of a breather for a few weeks as the whole NCOTY process does dominate your thoughts but in terms of my next goals, I have
always wanted to try the Great British Menu. Over the years it has been great to watch unknown chefs achieve great things on the show so it’s definitely on my radar. I love the varied work we do at Vacherin but as most chefs will tell you, one day I would love to have my own place too.

And now for three questions that we ask all of our Leading Lights…

What are your three kitchen secrets?

  1. Remove your meat or fish from the fridge and bring to room temperature before cooking. Never cook straight from the fridge.
  2. Using vinegars as a seasoning to dishes is a great way to elevate flavours just like salt.
  3. Freeze and filter your stocks through muslin cloth to remove all impurities & obtain a beautiful clear consommé.

What is your favourite ingredient and why?

I love vinegars as they are fantastic for adding acidity to dishes but also
seasoning. The Belazu range is brilliant and I love to experiment with them in both savoury and sweet dishes.

Please could you share your favourite recipe, along with your reasons for choosing it?

I think I will have to go with my dessert from the final – the Sweet Eve strawberry split, clotted cream, lemon and mint. I will also remember it as my winning dessert and the clotted cream custard is something I played with last year but feel I perfected for this year’s final.